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I checked out ふしぎな図書館 (The Strange Library) from my local library without even opening it. Murakami’s name on the spine was good enough for me. I brought it with me on my first attempt to go to China, and ended up reading the whole thing on the train on the way to and from the airport.

The book hasn’t been translated into English so I don’t feel bad divulging portions of the plot since few of you will likely be reading it. A boy goes into a library, is sent down to the basement to ask an old librarian for help, is tricked by the librarian, and ends up spending a great deal of time locked up in a cell of sorts deep beneath the library.

Some of Murakami’s common themes show up here, even though this book is somewhat different than normal for him. Like his other works, the symbolism makes the reader think. Beyond those aspects, I found Fushigi Na Toshokan rather entertaining just because the setting is so much like the library at Waseda University. Perhaps that is where Murakami got the idea (as he was a student at Waseda many years ago).

At the Waseda University library you enter on the second floor. When you go down a floor you are forced to remove all of your belongings and put them in a locker (which wouldn’t be so strange were it not for the fact that you don’t have to do that on other floors where there are plenty of books one could possibly steal as well). You then show your ID to obtain a pass to go into the basement. The basement includes a huge collection of books. Below the basement is yet another basement with another huge collection of books. This basement below the basement is where I normally go as some of the books are in English. The ordering is rather bizarre for the non-Japanese books. They aren’t grouped by language, so on a single shelf you will find a book in English next to a book written in Russian next to a book written in Spanish, etc. Nor do they use anything like the Dewey Decimal System, although they are numbered. For instance, I found Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World on a shelf and proceeded to explore the books around it, hoping there would be other guidebooks or books about Japan. Instead, there were marketing textbooks and other books with the word “market” in the title.

Anyway, under the second basement of the Waseda University library is yet another basement. This third basement is roped off. I suppose this third, unreachable basement could have been fodder for Murakami’s imagination, resulting in this book.

One other strange thing about the Waseda University library is that many books must be “ordered” online while you are in the library. The ordered books mysteriously appear at the first floor desk 10 minutes later. I always want to look on the shelves around the ordered book I know I want to see what else may be of interest. This is especially true of works in English since there are so few English titles available at other libraries. I’d like to browse the shelves where these books came from, but that isn’t allowed. This is similar to what happens in ふしぎな図書館 as the boy can’t look for his own books. Instead, the librarian retrieves them for him.

I like how Murakami shows how quickly us humans can turn the craziest of situations into “normal” in a short period of time. It doesn’t take long for the boy in the story to get settled in to a life of bondage on the one hand and having a cook who is half boy and half sheep on the other. The initial shock wears off quickly, and it doesn’t seem so strange that someone can be part boy and part sheep. I ponder this, by the way, as I sit in a Japanese restaurant next to Waseda University on a cushion on a tatami floor, slurping soba, while Frank Sinatra plays in the background. Someone who has never been to Japan before would find this scene extremely odd, perhaps even Twilight Zoneish. I now find it “normal.”

ふしぎな図書館 by 村上春樹 is actually a picture book (絵本) of sorts as every few pages is a picture. I’m not sure who ふしぎな図書館 is aimed at, as it is pretty creepy to be a little kids’ book, but there are furigana next to many kanji, even some that aren’t that difficult. Murakami is fairly easy to read in Japanese to begin with. This book, with the pictures and furigana, is an excellent choice if you are looking to improve your Japanese and can read a few hundred kanji.

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