The premise of Haruki Murakami’s illustrated novella The Strange Library is half Kafka, half History Finalist’s anxious dream. The unnamed protagonist finds himself locked in the labyrinthine dungeon of his local library and forced to memorise three books on the subject of tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Unsurprisingly for Murakami, it only gets stranger from there. Kafka has become an almost obligatory reference in reviews of Murakami, but it’s an influence he does little to conceal. From 2002’s Kafka on the Shore to 2013’s ‘Samsa in Love’, the German writer feels less like an influence on Murakami’s work than a character within it.
Translated by Ted Goossen, The Strange Library is Murakami’s first fully illustrated work of fiction. The hardcover edition, designed by Suzanne Dean, cobbles together advertisements, illustrations and ephemera all taken from various books in the London Library. Text and image meld together in lines magnified and stretched over pages; the beautifully marbled end pages mix with brightly coloured drawings of donuts and parakeets, monochrome moons and anatomical diagrams.
Murakami’s style has always been highly image-driven and the rich collage design suits his prose so well that you begin to wonder why he hasn’t done it before.
With a style as recognisable as Murakami’s, there’s a danger of repeating old tricks. The Strange Library hits several traditional Murakami notes: an underground realm, a maniac with a soft-spot for bureaucracy, an anthropomorphic sheep, a mysterious girl with an ambiguous identity. Yet Murakami is adept at using these tropes to sketch his own mythology, and The Strange Library’s fairytale simplicity fits well into his world.
This is not to say that Murakami’s prose doesn’t possess some of the clunkiness that always gets blamed on his translators; the simile “like a blind dolphin”, comes to mind. Murakami has always suggested that originality of imagery trumps lyricism and he is convincing enough to make you agree, if only for the 70-odd pages of the novella.
Fans of Murakami tend to have a favourite translator of his work. I would put J. Philip Gabriel top, who won the PEN Translation Prize in 2006 for Kafka on the Shore. Ted Goossen, who has translated some of Murakami’s short fiction for The New Yorker, is an accomplished though less common name on Murakami spines. Goossen has an ear for the unsettling calm of Murakami’s work.
In The Strange Library, Murakami has created a dark and memorable fairytale about the lingering influence of childhood fears and the isolation of adulthood.