The Short Version: A young boy stops by the library on his way home. He ends up down in a strange underground labyrinth, held captive by a man who wants to eat his brains with his only company being a girl who talks with her hands and a sheep man.
The Review: Last year, I tackled Murakami for part of the Ten Year Catch-up – but, for the first time, I’ve gone back to an author after spending the year with them. And what a strange, delightful, tangential little story this was – the perfect reminder of everything that Murakami does so well.
It is also one of the most beautifully constructed literary objects I’ve ever had the pleasure to dive into: a small jacket-pocket-sized hardcover, slim and trim with the empty library card holder on the front. And each page has some sort of illustration on it – whether it’s just an interesting shade to the page or a rubber stamped word or an entire plate of images, this is the first time I think I’ve ever encountered a true illuminated manuscript. I use that term very specifically, for it evokes a sense of wonder that this book absolutely delivers. You flip each page, curious as to what will be next – the story propelling you along but also the melange of imagery delighting and exciting at every turn. My favorite of many examples is this one here:
Note first the sentences at the end of the page. They’ve type-set the thing so perfectly that as they reach the bottom of the staircase, we’re reaching the bottom of the page – and that “glimmer farther in, just a feeble glow” is there on the next page as you start to turn. That’s not a trick of the light; that’s how the book actually looks. I practically clapped with delight.
The story itself is a passing trifle, to be sure, but it almost feels as though Murakami was at his most uninhibited in some ways – more so than he’s been in several books, anyway. Where 1Q84 was unchecked in its sprawl and collection of things Murakamian, this novel (novella? short story? fairy tale?) lacks the things you immediately assume come with Murakami (cats, descriptions of ears, descriptions of pasta, tiny fairy-men-type creatures) but it still feels 100% like a Murakami story. It has the simple smoothness to the prose (translated here by a new Murakami translator [to me, anyway], Ted Goossen) and the idyllic sense of magic in the world. That smoothness and that sense of magic are, I suppose, just as predictably Murakami as any of the particulars – but this book makes you realize just how good he is at those two things and just how potent a writer he really is.
A young boy ends up in a library (by the way, there’s a Leslie Knope joke and/or GIF to be delivered here but I can’t come up with it) where he is sent downstairs to a strange basement room to pick up the books he was looking for. He’s quickly escorted to essentially a jail cell and told to read the books and memorize them and then he’ll be released. The creepy old guy who locks him in turns out to want to eat his brains – the descriptions of that are some of the scariest Murakami has written – and the boy wonders if he’ll get out, if his pet starling is okay, if his mother is worried about him. The expected weirdness occurs, with a man dressed as a sheep and a mute girl who signs (or more accurately speaks with her hands; the difference is, I think, somewhat important in its specificity) keeping him company. And then, at the end of the story, in the last 30 or so words, the whole thing takes a very adult turn and I found myself wondering if the fairy-story quality of this book was in fact intentional: a man writing a fairy story, like one he might’ve heard as a child, in order to deal with the realities of being a grown-up and no longer having your parents around. What had been just a joyful little add-on to his canon suddenly took on that much more weight and I caught my breath, marveling at this tiny object so quickly dispatched and yet so much larger than its tiny size might imply.
Rating: 5 out of 5. How something so tiny can be so potent is one of the most incredible joys of language, of the printed word. Murakami proves himself exceptional, once again, by delivering something powerful when he could easily just have tossed this off as a novelty – and the object, in this case the Harvill Secker UK version, matches the author’s power and transcends the quirkiness of an illustrated book. The fairy tale quality of the whole package is only deepened by the unexpected moral at the end – and while it took me perhaps an hour to read the whole thing, I can see this as one I’ll come back to in the future. Perhaps even to read as a fairy tale to my children.
Note: I haven’t checked out the US version although I may at some point. The Millions did a cool comparison of both versions – may it guide you as it did me into which one you might like more!