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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Strange Library

Murakami Haruki

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Strange Library

Title: The Strange Library
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Story
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 96 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Strange Library - US
The Strange Library - UK
The Strange Library - Canada
The Strange Library - India
Die unheimliche Bibliothek - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: ふしぎな図書館
  • With numerous full-color illustrations (different in US and UK editions)
  • Translated by Ted Goossen
  • Based on a short story Murakami originally published in 1982

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an unusual and affecting little story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 2/12/2014 Peter Lewis
Publishers Weekly . 22/9/2014 .
TLS . 16/1/2015 Matt Sturrock
The Washington Post . 16/12/2014 Joseph Peschel
The Washington Times . 11/12/2014 Claire Hopley
Die Zeit . 13/9/2013 Iris Radisch

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Strange Library is a kidís book, no matter how many allegories, semiotics, characteries, parables, and paradiddles you drape on its shoulders. Ninety-six pages donít make it a kidís book, necessarily, even with the full-page, color artwork. Itís a kidís book that happens to plumb the kind of questions that leave us all wishing for more room to breathe" - Peter Lewis, Christian Science Monitor

  • "This dryly funny, concise fable features all the hallmarks of Murakami's deadpan magic, along with splashes of Lewis Carroll and the brothers Grimm." - Publishers Weekly

  • "What sets this new book apart from Murakamiís past work is the production. Its designer, Suzanne Dean, has filled it with old illustrations of scarab beetles, skeleton keys, phases of the moon, and the like, lending it an antiquarian -- even enchanted -- quality. As an object to hold and own, the book is a small treasure. But as a text to read, The Strange Library is considerably less valuable." - Matt Sturrock, times Literary Supplement

  • "Murakamiís plot might seem a gross-out, but the story is amusing enough for 10-to-13-year-olds and sufficiently resonant to appeal to adults with an affinity for fantasy. (...) Murakami does lapse into bouts of over-playfulness, but whether he is writing for adults or children, he remains a suspenseful and fantastical storyteller." - Joseph Peschel, The Washington Post

  • "In short, this book is disconcerting. Its story is disconcerting too. (...) Those who come to Mr. Murakamiís work for the first time will be elated by the clarity and wit of his style as translated by Ted Goossen, and intrigued by his characters and the situations they face. The Strange Library, a novella rather than a novel, stays in the mind because of its combination of brutality with flippancy, but mostly for its oddness. It is not in any usual sense a fun book, yet surprisingly in its own odd way it is a fun read." - Claire Hopley, The Washington Times

  • "Die Kurzerzählung aus dem Jahr 1982 -- jetzt zum ersten Mal auf Deutsch erschienen und von Kat Menschik mit düsterer Heiterkeit illustriert -- ist so rätselhaft und schön wie die großen Romane des Meisters des kalten Märchens." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Strange Library is not even novella-length, only padded out to near a hundred pages by devoting many pages to illustrations. The illustrations differ in the various editions, as the US, UK, and German publishers all opted for their own versions rather than using the Sasaki Maki illustrations from the Japanese. The differences are striking: Sasaki (who has done the cover illustration for the Japanese editions of many of Murakami's novels) takes a bright cartoonish approach. Kat Menschik's much more somber, realist illustrations for the German edition are dominated by black, with only a careful contrasting use of color. US designer Chip Kidd, using more allusive, stark images, writes that: "To generate all the imagery, I borrowed from my own strange library of vintage Japanese graphics." The UK design also uses found pictures and imagery, but it is more varied and elaborate (see examples and some discussion here).

Sasaki Maki illustration - The Strange Library     Kat Menschik illustration - The Strange Library
Japanese edition (Sasaki Maki)   German edition (Kat Menschik)

       No doubt, the illustrations that are used color how the text is seen; the English-language versions, which have not been text-specifically drawn, seem preferable to the illustrated Japanese and German ones.
       The story is a fairly simple one: the narrator, a boy, goes to the library and returns some books (he has varied interests: they are: How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd). Despite apparently being a frequent patron of this branch, the woman at the desk isn't someone he knows; despite his familiarity with this branch he also mentions that he's looking for some books and lets himself be directed to a part of the library he never even knew existed, the basement at the bottom of the stairs, and Room 107.
       He finds an old man there, and admits he's looking for some information about Ottoman tax collection -- it had popped into his head on his way home from school:
And ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don't know something, go to the library and look it up.
       The old man is obliging with his request, bringing back three fat, relevant books -- but the narrator gets more than he bargained for. These aren't books he can take home with him, and the old man is rather insistent that he read them there -- never mind that it's near closing time ("They do what I tell them -- if I say it's all right, then it's all right").
       The library has more recesses -- and forking corridors -- than the boy ever could have imagined, and he is led deep into the labyrinth. He gets to read the books, but hardly under conditions he could have anticipated; despite the circumstances (and some rather unpleasant pressure put on him to get the most out of the books) reading, too, becomes an entirely new experience:
I became Ibn Armut Hasir, the author of The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector. I walked the streets of Istanbul during the day, collecting taxes, but when evening came, I returned home to feed my parakeet. A razor-thin crescent of white moon floated in the night sky.
       The strange reality -- the strange (part of the) library -- he finds himself in is equally vivid yet also has elements that seem barely graspable -- such as the ethereal, voiceless girl who brings him elaborate, delicious meals. As she explains:
     The sheep man has his world. I have mine. And you have yours, too. Am I right ?
     "That you are."
     So just because I don't exist in the sheep man's world, it doesn't mean that I don't exist at all.
       The boy is used to the library being a place where he can find the answers to his questions. Here, now, he finds himself swallowed up in something much larger and more terrifying, from books as completely immersive texts (as even something as dreary-sounding as The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector pulls him completely into its reality) to a surreal reality of characters verging on the absurd, from the old man who led him into this maze to, yes, a sheep man.
       The Strange Library has, in its atmosphere and quirky details, the feel of a typical Murakami tale, and is surprisingly eventful for its length. It has a very melancholy edge and a good deal of uncertainty -- as in much of Murakami's work. (Parts are also surprisingly grim and grisly, including the fate that the boy is told he might face if he doesn't do what the old man demands.) It is, in particular, a story of loss (his shoes are the least of it), set in contrast to unanswered -- and sometimes unposed -- questions: yes, the boy learns about Ottoman tax-collection (he lives the part !), but so much else remains unfathomable: life does move in very mysterious ways, and the answers can't be found in library books. The somber closing bit magnifies much of what came before, and also puts it in a new light.
       A fine small work -- whose reading is likely strongly colored depending on which illustrated version the reader has.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 October 2014

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The Strange Library: Reviews: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Japanese literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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