The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
Introduced by David Sanger
I’m always interested in signs. Although, I must admit I often take this too far. I remember once, living in southeast London, seeing a school textbook on a wall outside the flat I shared with my girlfriend. We’d been talking about moving overseas and seeing the word Japan on the cover launched me into a speech on how we should move to Tokyo. Suffice to say, I often place more importance in the periphery and the strange goings-on of my life than the bigger, clearer things.
These two things – happenstance and Japan – coincide in one of my favourite author’s books: those of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps known best for the phenomenon Norwegian Wood, Murakami is a sixty-something Japanese author who has a hugely loyal following among his readers. He writes of the otherworldly but far from being fantasy or science fiction, his worlds are rooted in our own. An author once said to me that Murakami opens a small gap into our world through which pour bizarre, confusing things. Yet paradoxically, it’s these things that make us find more of ourselves; which make us understand what’s happening around us and move us forwards.
Working for a publisher, I visited the Hay Festival in May 2015 and stayed at Pottery Cottage in Clyro. It’s a beautiful cottage and every little item there seems to have come from somewhere far away, trailing an interesting story behind it. I spent my first half hour in the cottage taking in the surroundings and realising very quickly that it was a lovely home. The room in which I was staying was furnished with books – as is much of the house – and there, in among them, was Murakami’s The Strange Library.
Even for Murakami, The Strange Library is a strange book. Not even 100 pages, the story is printed among striking photos and illustrations, bringing out the oddness of Murakami’s world. We meet our narrator as he enters a local library, intent on finding out how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire. What follows involves a labyrinthine prison, a sheep-man, donuts and a beautiful woman. Yet somehow, it makes sense. Murakami’s genius is striking semblance in the surreal; in showing you how the strangest of signs can be, well, signs.
I read the book again during my stay and it perfectly complemented the world of Hay. I met no sheep-man and I ate no donuts but I still entered a world that loves and celebrates books. From my room to the town, I felt completely at home. It wasn’t that everyone was talking about their favourite reads or that authors were rife, it was that books are loved there. I finished the Murakami and returned to my job in London but, it turns out, I had missed a glaring sign. Having written a book myself and looking to start my second in December, I’m now moving to Hay-on-Wye temporarily and staying in the same cottage whilst the owners are away. It’s something born out of happenstance, fortune, red wine and Murakami. And it’s testament to the area that having spent only several days there, I feel as though my writing and I will be following the right sign.
David Sanger’s debut novel, All Their Minds in Tandem, will be published by Quercus in April 2016.