Books

The ShortRead: Haruki Murakami

ShortRead of 17th December

The Strange Library

Authors: Haruki Murakami

What's the story: Remember the last time you went to the library? Us neither. But we might visit more frequently if they were like the reading halls of Haruik Murakami's latest novel. 

First published in 2008, the Japanese author's latest work to be translated into English is 'strange' in more than its title. On his way home from school, the young narrator finds himself wondering how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire. He pops into the local library to see if it has a book on the subject, where he's led into a special 'reading room' in a maze under the library by an odd old man. Remarkable characters, unexpected dangers and no way out - there's more than just books in this library. 

Release date: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, translated by Ted Goossen, is out now.  Listen to Julian Rhind-Tutt reading from the opening of the book

Extract

The library was even more hushed than usual.

My new leather shoes clacked against the gray linoleum. Their hard, dry sound was unlike my normal footsteps. Every time I get new shoes, it takes me a while to get used to their noise.

A woman I’d never seen before was sitting at the circulation desk, reading a thick book. It was extraordinarily wide. She looked as if she were reading the right-hand page with her right eye, and the left-hand page with her left.

“Excuse me,” I said.

She slammed the book down on her desk and peered up at me.

“I came to return these,” I said, placing the books I was carrying on the counter. One was titled How to Build a Submarine, the other Memoirs of a Shepherd.

The librarian flipped their front covers back to check the due date. They weren’t overdue. I’m always on time, and I never hand things in late. That’s the way my mother taught me. Shepherds are the same. If they don’t stick to their schedule, the sheep go completely bananas.

The librarian stamped “Returned” on the card with a flourish and resumed her reading.

“I’m looking for some books, too,” I said.

“Turn right at the bottom of the stairs,” she replied without looking up. “Go straight down the corridor to Room 107.”

I descended a long flight of stairs, turned right, and walked along a gloomy corridor until, sure enough, I came to a door marked 107. I visited the library a lot, but the fact that it had a basement was news to me.

I knocked. It was just a normal, everyday knock, yet it sounded as if someone had whacked the gates of hell with a baseball bat. It echoed ominously in the corridor. I turned to run, but I didn’t actually take a step, even though I wanted to. That wasn’t the way I was raised. My mother taught me that if you knock on a door, you have to wait there until someone answers.

“Come in,” said a voice from inside. It was low but penetrating.

I opened the door.

A little old man sat behind a little old desk in the middle of the room. Tiny black spots dotted his face like a swarm of flies. The old man was bald and wore glasses with thick lenses. His baldness looked incomplete; he had frizzy white hairs plastered against both sides of his head. It looked like a mountain after a big forest fire.

“Welcome, my boy,” said the old man. “How may I be of assistance?”

“I was looking for some books,” I said timidly. “But I can see that you’re busy. I’ll come back some other time . . .”

“Nonsense, my boy,” the old man replied. “This is my profession—I am never too busy! Tell me the manner of books that you seek and I will strive to locate their whereabouts.”

What a funny way of talking, I thought. And his face was every bit as strange. A few long hairs sprouted from his ears. Skin dangled beneath his chin like a punctured balloon.

“And what exactly might you be seeking, my young friend?”

“I want to learn how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire,” I said.

The old man’s eyes glittered. “Ah, I see,” he said. “Tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. A fascinating subject if there ever was one!”