book review

‘The Strange Library’ by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami’s novella was first published in Japan in 2005.
Elena Seibert
Haruki Murakami’s novella was first published in Japan in 2005.

Trailing the young protagonist of Haruki Murakami’s “The Strange Library’’ down a long staircase and into the gloomy labyrinth of corridors that snake and fork below the titular institution, it’s hard not to feel a distinctly Murakamian flash of déjà vu.

Has he returned us to the library of “Kafka on the Shore’’? Or are we just mixing up these stairs to nowhere with Toru Okada’s descent into a dark, dry well from “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles’’? Murakami has often led us on these solitary excursions into mundane unknowns, all the while distilling their absurdity into the two more potent tinctures of dread and silliness. He’s made this uplifting sinking feeling his signature.

But in the case of “The Strange Library’’ — an adult-friendly children’s novella first published in Japan in 2005, newly translated by Ted Goossen, and colorfully gussied up with illustrations by frequent Murakami collaborator Chip Kidd — this uncertainty feels more familiar than ever.


Back in 1981, 24 years before he’d publish “The Strange Library,’’ Murakami wrote a short story titled “Dabchick.’’ A man heading to a job interview is confronted by an endless and “authentic corridor that was all corridor and nothing but corridor.” As his steps echo in the darkness (tennis shoes in “Dabchick”; “good leather shoes” in “The Strange Library’’) the passage splits and burrows ever further into the dying light of flickering fluorescents — and in both tales there’s an oppressive air of barely breathing bureaucracy, a pervasive conflation of drab obligation and human searching.

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“Dabchick” wraps up its odd parable of punctuality and passwords in about a half-dozen pages; “The Strange Library’’ feels comparably epic at 96. And while a quarter-century of work separates them, the latter feels less like a retread of the same scene than a return to the same dream, in the midst of a deeper sleep.

The unnamed young narrator’s quest into the underbelly of the library (ostensibly in search of titles on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire) leads him to a craggy old man stationed in a mysterious reading room; and his assistance leads the narrator into a jail cell even deeper in the maze. Guarded by a “Dabchick”-esque assistant clad in sheepskin (perhaps another dream-world crossover from 1982’s “A Wild Sheep Chase’’?), the young man is assured exit if he can memorize the books he’s borrowed, but this is quickly revealed a ruse to obscure the old man’s plans to eat his prisoner’s brains, newly fed with information.

From here, like most dreams, the story seems to fall apart in the telling. There’s a girl who speaks with her hands; she slips in and out of his cell (and reality) with delicious meals and the promise of escape; there’s a starving pet starling, a sinister black dog in a jeweled collar, a much-feared jar of 10,000 caterpillars, and somewhere high above the buried catacombs of the library, the glow and tug of the waning new moon.

Though “The Strange Library’’ is dwarfed by his novels (his 900-plus-page 2009 novel in three volumes, “IQ84,’’ for instance), Murakami’s wry metaphysical play feels no less diffuse in this concentrated form. His usual fascinations — the instability of identity, the uses of knowledge, the oppression of memory — fade in with just enough time to fade out, offering just enough light to coax you forward, deeper into the dream.


And for those children who do get their hands on this fable, “The Strange Library’’ carries a valuable lesson, a push to tilt our cynicism into curiosity, to look beyond what we see and explore what’s hidden from us — it, too, a dream logic carried over from “Dabchick”: “I ran my palm over long stretches of the wall, but it was just a wall, smooth and blank. There must be some mistake, I was sure.”

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at michael.brodeur@