I love short stories unutterably, but they often prove the most complex to review.
I don’t want to give the plot away and spoil the fun, so I’ll just say this: a boy goes into his local library to find out more about the way taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire and he finds himself imprisoned (with a sheep man who visits him occasionally) by another old man who loves to eat small boys’ brains. He learns what it’s like to be alone with his thoughts.
It draws you into a magical world peppered with lexical gymnastics and, fittingly, the rules of conventional life fail to apply. There’s an intangible intimacy between the narrator and the reader. The danger of curiosity is patently clear: if the boy hadn’t been so eager to learn, then he would not have gone to read in the library and he would be safe from harm. The story is eerie and chilling. And cheering.
On reflection, I think it raises an interesting question about the short story as a medium. Does the brevity of the short story lend itself to cruelty? There’s a real intensity to a short story, which would be difficult to carry out over an entire novel. The ending of short stories often feel very sudden as there is no space for a gentle denouement and certainly no allowance to digest the ramifications of the ending within the story. It hits you after you snap the book shut.
While I was reading The Strange Library, I was reminded of different thinkers and writers known for their ‘world building’ abilities: Rudyard Kipling, Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Thomas Hobbes and the ‘State of Nature’ philosophy. I think Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is key to this story: you have to adapt to survive, even if it means dressing as a sheep.
The book was first published in Japan in 2008 and it has just been published here for the first time in English. It’s a lovely book to read as you can read it in one sitting, and admire each page illustrated with various drawings, images and photographs taken from a wealth of sources: from a 1950s’ cookery book, a book on popular astronomy from 1894 to a (rather significantly chosen) image from a Victorian book of locks and keys.
Unlock the art of The Strange Library for yourself. You will really enjoy it.
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami was published on December 2nd by Harvill Secker £12.99.
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas.