Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

I am not an avid fan of Haruki Murakami (or Murakami Haruki if you are such a pedant or a Japanophile). I’ve never read any of his books before this… that was until I saw this beautiful pink book with the title ‘The Strange Library’ in front of it. I was immediately attracted to the book due to some things, 1) This Murakami book is not that thick, 2) I wanted to read Murakami’s writing, although not the thick-arse books for the beginning, and 3) The book is beautifully illustrated.

First of all, let me say that The Strange Library is a work of pure imagination. I don’t have a novel or story book like this before. It’s a dazzling intermingling of typography, colours, and images, many of which are taken from the old books kept in the British Library. The way the story is illustrated, it is not just to beautify the book, but the graphics and the way the words are arranged and the different sizes of the typeface all give a pleasing effect that complement the whole story. This is to say that reading the story without the illustration would make the experience a bit dull. Imagine certain parts of the story, for example, “The librarian stamped returned on the card…”, the word ‘returned’ is actually a printed version of a real stamped RETURNED with red ink, just like what you normally see. The other one is a page in which the boy narrator says, “but it’s pitch black.”, that short sentence is placed in one black page, effectively bringing the readers’ mind that the room the narrator is supposed to go in is indeed dark.

You will indeed move back and forth between the pages, connecting everything in the page to one another. Your eyes and mind are in a playful interaction as words and pictures come together making the story to come alive. I’m pretty sure that these connections between the texts and the pictures make this novella an interesting read and bring its value up.

Many pages of the book are printed with those brown stains or made to look like old yellow papers. The other charm of The Strange Library is the most bizarre cover art. Purple-pink (fuchsia?) hard cover with a card pocket that you tend to find at the back of the library books and, get this, it’s functional. You will receive a special card that is also a bookmark, and when you’re finished, that card can be saved in the pocket. Ingenious and makes for a pretty fantastic cover if you ask me.

The story is simple enough, as it tells a story about an unnamed boy who wants to know how the Ottomans collect their taxes besides wanting to return the books that he borrows from the library. That simple journey nevertheless turns dangerous as he then finds himself in a difficult situation of being killed by the old man who wants to eat his knowledge-infused brain. The boy narrator is being taken care by the sheep man and a semi-transparent girl who talks with her hand. With less than 80 pages (and to be honest, since the story is wholly fancily illustrated, the short story is obviously shorter than that), it is a fast read. I read The Strange Library in about 30-40 minutes. The whole theme is about loneliness, and then you need to dig a bit to see why that’s the main theme there. The other one thing is how we humans are too scared to act in our lives, just following, never dictating. The boy narrator is like that. If we push aside the odd storyline, the conduct of the boy is what humans tend to do. I will say that some may find the tale a tad too simple, and I know that Murakami writes really complex stories if what I heard from my friends are right, but I like that. The simplicity is enhanced by the colourful minds of the illustrators. Nuances of the pleasurable moments in the writing of Murakami are connected to graphics, not to say that Murakami’s writing is not a delight in its own form, but certainly, as I said before, the cosmetics of the pages round up the experience in reading it.

Coming back into the way the book is made, it is the way the book industry is fighting against the advancement of technology. Nowadays, people equip themselves with gadgets such as tablets, smartphones, or e-readers. People are reading through their screens but somehow lost the touch with physical copies of books. People are writing more by clicking or tapping but lost the touch with pens and papers. The Strange Library is indeed trying to stem the tide. I won’t say that the pleasures of reading through real books that can be smelled or touched are lost, because even if technology advances even further, people will still find themselves grasping hard-bound copies or soft-covers sooner or later in their lives. In this digital age, information is rapidly shared but it can be easily lost too. But papers can exist for so long of a time. Just look at our history, thousands of years of stories passed down to us. As much as the taken-for-granted papers are brittle, technology is even more so. In my own opinion, reading through electronic devices, while convenient and I admit to do it for my academic reading, seems so far removed from the human nature of reading. Will the reading industry die then? I don’t think so. Maybe not all novels that we read will be beautifully crafted as The Strange Library but the fun of reading will live on.

Anyway, to end this review, the peculiarities of the characters, the bizarre story about a horrendous predicament inside a library, and the aesthetically pleasant images and wordings make this novella a handsome book. This book is an art in itself. You’ll find yourself excitement with it.