The Strange Library
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2014 by Haruki Murakami * All rights reserved. * Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, a Penguin Random House company. * www.aaknopf.com * Originally published in Japan as Fushigi na toshokan by Kodansha Ltd., Tokyo, in 2005. * Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
ISBN: 978-0-385-35430-1 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-385-35431-8 (eBook)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Brown sheepskin image: © Jeeragone Inrut / Alamy
Animal eye: © Ivan Synieokov / Alamy
Art direction and design by Chip Kidd
The Strange Library
A Note About the Author
Other Books by This Author
The library was even more hushed than usual.
My new leather shoes clacked against the grey 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!”
This made me squirm. To tell the truth, I wasn’t all that eager to learn about Ottoman tax collection—the topic had just popped into my head on my way home from school. As in, I wonder, how did the Ottomans collect taxes? Like that. And ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up.
“Please don’t bother,” I said. “It’s really not that important. It is pretty academic, after all . . .” I just wanted to get out of that creepy room as quickly as possible.
“Don’t trifle with me,” the old man snapped. “We possess a number of volumes that deal with tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Did you come here with the intention of having sport with this library? Was that your aim?”
“No, sir,” I sputtered. “That was not my intention at all. I wasn’t trying to make fun of anyone.”
“Then wait here for me like a good boy.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
The old man lurched from his chair. Back bent, he made his way to a steel door at the rear of the room, opened it, and disappeared. I stood there for ten minutes, waiting for his return. Some tiny black bugs were scratching about on the underside of the lampshade.
At long last the old man returned, carrying three fat books. They were all terribly old—the smell of ancient paper rose in the air.
“Feast your eyes on these,” the old man said, gloating. “We have The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, and Tax Revolts and Their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. An impressive collection, you must admit.”
“Thank you so much,” I said politely. I picked up the books and headed for the door.
“Hold your horses,” the old man called out to my back. “Those three books have to be read here—under no circumstances may they leave these premises.”
Sure enough, each of the books had a red label, “For Internal Use Only,” stuck to its spine.
“To read them you must use the inner room,” the old man said.
I glanced at my watch. It was 5:20. “But the library is about to close, and my mother will be worried if I’m not home in time for dinner.”
The old man’s bushy eyebrows drew together in a single line. “Closing time is not a concern.” He frowned. “They do what I tell them—if I say it’s all right, then it’s all right. The real question is, do you value my assistance or not? Why do you think I lugged these three heavy books out here? For my health?”
“I beg your pardon,” I apologized. “I never intended to be such a bother. I had no idea the books couldn’t be taken out.”
The old man gave a rumbling cough and spat out a gob of something into a tissue. The black speckles on his face were dancing with rage.
“It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t know,” he snarled. “When I was your age I felt fortunate just to have the chance to read. And here you are, whining about the time and being late for dinner. What nerve!”
“All right, I’ll stay and read,” I said. “But just for thirty minutes.” I’m not very good at giving anyone a clear no. “But I really can’t stay any longer than that. When I was very small, I was bitten by a big black dog on my way home from school, and ever since then my mother starts acting strange if I’m even a little bit late.”
The old man’s face relaxed slightly.
“So then you’ll stay
“Yes. But only for thirty minutes.”
“Then please step right this way,” the old man beckoned. Beyond the inner door was a shadowy corridor lit by a single flickering bulb. We stepped into the dying light.
“Just follow me,” said the old man.
We had gone only a short distance when we came to a fork in the corridor. The old man turned right. A little farther on was another fork. This time he bore left. The corridor forked and forked again, branching off repeatedly, and in every case the old man chose our route without a moment’s hesitation, swerving first to the right, then to the left. Sometimes he would open a door and we would enter a completely different corridor.
My mind was in turmoil. It was too weird—how could our city library have such an enormous labyrinth in its basement? I mean, public libraries like this one were always short of money, so building even the tiniest of labyrinths had to be beyond their means. I considered asking the old man about this, but I feared that he’d shout at me again.
Finally, the maze came to an end at a large steel door. Hanging on the door was a sign that read “Reading Room.” The whole area was as quiet as a graveyard in the dead of night.
The old man extracted a jangling ring of keys from his pocket and chose a big old-fashioned one. He inserted it into the keyhole, shot me a brief but meaningful glance, and turned it to the right. There was a loud clunk as the bolt fell into place. The door swung open with a long and nasty screech.
“Well, well. Here we are,” said the old man. “In you go.”
“In there?” I asked.
“That’s the idea.”
“But it’s pitch black,” I protested. Indeed, inside the door was as dark as if a hole had been pierced in the cosmos.
The old man turned to me and drew himself up to his full height. Now, suddenly, he was big. The eyes beneath the bushy eyebrows flashed like a goat’s eyes at twilight.
“Are you the sort of boy who finds fault with every little thing, however trivial?”
“No, sir. I’m not like that at all. But it seems to me that—”
“Enough of your prattle,” the old man said. “I cannot abide people who conjure up a raft of excuses, disparaging the efforts of those who have gone out of their way to help them. Such people are common trash.”
“Please forgive me,” I apologized. “I’ll go in.”
Why do I act like this, agreeing when I really disagree, letting people force me to do things I don’t want to do?
“There’s a stairway right on the other side of this door,” the old man said. “Hold tight to the railing so you don’t take a tumble.”
I went in first, inching my way along. When the old man closed the door behind us, all went completely dark. I could hear the click as he turned the lock.
“Why did you lock the door?”
“Those are the rules. It must stay locked at all times.”
What could I do? I began my descent. It was a very long staircase. Long enough, it seemed, to reach Brazil. The handrail was flaky with rust. Not a ray of light anywhere.
Finally, we reached the bottom of the staircase. I could see a glimmer farther in, just a feeble glow, really, but still strong enough to make my eyes hurt after the long darkness. Someone approached me from the back of the room and took my hand. A small man clad in the skin of a sheep.
“Hey, thanks for coming,” the sheep man said.
“Good afternoon,” I replied.
It was a real sheepskin, and it covered every inch of the sheep man’s body. There was an opening for the face, however, through which peeped a friendly pair of eyes. The costume suited him well. The sheep man looked at me for a moment; then his eyes shifted to the three books in my hand.
“Holy moly, you came here to read, for real?”
“That’s right,” I answered.
“You mean you really and truly came to read those books?”
There was something strange about the sheep man’s way of speaking. I found myself at a loss for words.
“Come on, out with it,” the old man demanded. “You came here to read, is that not a fact? Give him a straight answer.”
“Yes. I came here to read.”
“You heard him,” the old man crowed.
“But, sir,” said the sheep man. “He’s only a kid.”
“Silence!” thundered the old man. He drew a willow switch from his back pocket and whipped the sheep man across his face. “Take him to the Reading Room now!”
The sheep man looked troubled, but he took my hand anyway. The switch had left a red welt next to his lip. “Okay, let’s get going.”
“To the Reading Room. You came to read those books, didn’t you?”
The sheep man led me down a narrow hallway. The old man followed close behind us. There was a short tail attached to the back of the sheep man’s outfit that bounced from side to side with each step, like a pendulum.
“Well, well,” said the sheep man, when we reached the end of the hallway. “Here we are.”
“Just a minute, Mr. Sheep Man,” I said. “Is this by any chance a jail cell?”
“Sure is,” he replied.
“You hit the nail on the head,” said the old man.
“This isn’t what you told me,” I said to the old man. “I came this far only because you told me we were going to a reading room.”
“You got taken,” the sheep man said, and nodded.
“That’s right, I pulled the wool over your eyes,” said the old man.
“How could you . . .”
“Silence, you fool,” the old man snarled, pulling the willow switch from his pocket and brandishing it over my head. I quickly stepped back. No way I wanted my face whipped by that thing.
“In you go—no more arguments. You will memorize those three volumes from cover to cover,” the old man said. “One month from now I will personally examine you. If I conclude that you have mastered their contents completely, then I will set you free.”
“It’s impossible to memorize three books as thick as these,” I said. “And my mother is getting pretty worried about me right about now . . .”
The old man bared his teeth and brought the switch down hard. I jumped out of the way, and the blow struck the sheep man in the face. Enraged, the old man whipped the sheep man again. It was awfully unfair.
“Throw him in the cell. I leave it to you,” the old man ordered, and left.
“Are you hurt?” I asked the sheep man.
“It’s okay. Hey, I’m used to it,” he said. He really did seem to be all right.
“I hate to do this, but I got to lock you up.”
“What if I say no, if I refuse to go in there? What happens then?”
“Then he’ll hit me even harder.”
I felt sorry for the sheep man, so I entered the cell. It had a simple bed, a desk, a sink, and a flush toilet. A toothbrush and a cup sat beside the sink. Neither looked what you could call clean. The toothpaste was strawberry, a flavor I can’t stand. The sheep man was playing with the desk lamp, switching it on and off.
“Hey, look at this,” he said, turning to me with a grin. “Pretty neat, huh?”
“I’ll bring you three meals every day,” said the sheep man. “And at three o’clock I’ll give you doughnuts for your snack. I fry up the doughnuts myself, so they’re crispy and delicious.”
Fresh doughnuts are one of my all-time favorite things.
“Okay, so stick out your tootsies.”
I stuck out my feet.
The sheep man pulled a heavy-looking ball and chain out from under the bed, wrapped the chain around my ankle, and locked it. He dropped the key into his breast pocket.
“It feels awfully cold,” I said.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”
“Mr. Sheep Man, do I really have to stay here a
“Yep, that’s about the size of it.”
“But if I memorize everything in these books, he’ll let me out, right?”
“I don’t think that’ll happen.”
“But then what will become of me?”
The sheep man cocked his head to one side. “Wow, that’s a tough one.”
“Please, tell me. My mother is waiting for me back home.”
“Okay, kid. Then I’ll give it to you straight. The top of your head’ll be sawed off and all your brains’ll get slurped right up.”
I was too shocked for words.
“You mean,” I said, when I had recovered, “you mean that old man’s going to eat my brains?”
“Yep, I’m really sorry, but that’s the way it has to be,” the sheep man said, reluctantly.
I sat down on the bed and buried my head in my hands. Why did something like this have to happen to me? All I did was go to the library to borrow some books.
“Don’t take it so hard,” the sheep man consoled me. “I’ll bring you some food. A nice hot meal will cheer you up.”
“Mr. Sheep Man,” I asked, “why would that old man want to eat my brains?”
“Because brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that’s why. They’re nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time.”
“So that’s why he wants me to spend a month cramming information in there, to suck it up afterward?”
“That’s the idea.”
“Don’t you think that’s awfully cruel?” I asked. “Speaking from the suckee’s point of view, of course.”
“But, hey, this kind of thing’s going on in libraries everywhere, you know. More or less, that is.”
This news staggered me. “In libraries everywhere?” I stammered.
“If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?”