“I’m going to slice you up nice and fine and feed you to the centipedes.” Another off-kilter yarn from master storyteller Murakami: allegorical, shadowy and not at all nice.
Murakami (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, 2014, etc.) loves two things among many: Franz Kafka (think Kafka on the Shore) and secret places (think 1Q84). This latest, brief and terse, combines those two passions in the frightening vision of a hapless young man who, returning two books—How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd—to the library, is sent to Room 107, deep in a basement he didn’t know existed. Confronted by an apparently friendly but nevertheless no-nonsense old man, the youngster allows that he’s interested in “how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire.” And who wouldn’t be? Well, that’s enough to send our young fellow into a nightmare world featuring a blandly mysterious young woman, a sheep man, the ever present threat of danger and the nagging worry that his mom is going to be upset when he doesn’t show up for supper. Even so, our young man has the presence of mind to ask the right questions: How, given strapped municipal budgets and library cuts, could “our city library have such an enormous labyrinth in its basement?” And why is he being imprisoned—for the answer comes back positive to his question of the Sheep Man, “Is this by any chance a jail cell?” It would take a Terry Gilliam, or perhaps a Kurosawa, to film Murakami’s nightmare properly, and if the reader may well be puzzled over what the story, published in Japan in 2005, means at heart, then the prospect of the young man’s being freed only if he passes rigorous questioning over, yes, taxation in the Ottoman Empire will ignite the fear-of-a-long-ago-final-exam syndrome in all of us.
At once beguiling and disquieting—in short, trademark Murakami—a fast read that sticks in the mind.