The Strange Library (1982/2005)

As of this writing [2015], this is the most recent English translation of Murakami.  The story has a slightly complicated history.  It was published, as a short story, in 1982, under the title “Toshokan kitan 図書館奇譚” (Strange tale of a library).  In 2005 he published it as a stand-alone picture book, with illustrations by Sasaki Maki;  at this point he rewrote the story somewhat and changed the title, to “Fushigi na toshokan 不思議な図書館.”  The latter version is what has been translated into English as The Strange Library, and published as a stand-alone picture book;  the illustrations for the English version are by Chip Kidd.  In my last post I linked to a blog by some of Murakami’s European translators that mentions the Euro edition of this work, which has illustrations by Kat Menschik, like Pan’ya o osou;  her version of the library story has also been published in Japanese, and as the blog makes clear, in that edition the earlier title was used.  I don’t know if that means that (a) the German (and non-English Euro) version of this picture book used the older version of the story or the newer, or (b) if the Japanese edition of the Menschik-illustrated volume (which I haven’t seen yet) uses the older or newer version of the story.  But it is clear that the English version, translated by Ted Goossen, uses the 2005 revision of the story, the one made for publication as a picture book.

I suspect that what is happening is that, America always being a little insular, xenophobic, and therefore late to the party, this translation of The Strange Library represents Murakami’s English publishers finally deciding to invest in the Murakami picture-book boom that has been taking place on the continent for several years, but also deciding that Menschik’s illustrations are less saleable in the US than Kidd’s, since Kidd has done Murakami work in the past.  I also suspect that a Japanese edition using Kidd’s illustrations is going to appear.  And won’t that be interesting?

There are two issues I want to briefly talk about in the rest of this post.

First, the differences between the two versions of the story.  I can’t think offhand of a way to render the titles that makes the difference clearer in English, but the original title feels old-fashioned, Sinified, and above all grown-up, while the 2005 version’s title sounds like the title of a child’s picture book.  Kitan 奇譚 doesn’t actually mean horror, but something approaching the effect might be achieved if you imaged the original title as being “The Library Horror” and the the revised title as being “The Scary Library.”

That pretty well indicates the direction of Murakami’s revisions.  The revised version is at least masquerading as a picture book for kids, and so he rewrites the story so that it feels like one.  Not completely – I doubt anybody would read this to kids, and I’m sure he doubts it too, so instead it’s more like a normal Murakami story cosplaying as a kid’s story, for normal Murakami readers who want to cosplay as children.  But still, he simplifies the language slightly, cuts out a few of the more ornate descriptions, and adds a few more references to the child-narrator’s mother in such a way as to make it clear that the narrator is a child.  In the original it’s not quite so clear – he may be an adult still living with his mother.

Interestingly, however, the revised version contains more of a sense of loss at the end than the original – in the original, the narrator’s pet starling is restored to him at the end.  But there’s still a palpable sense of loss at the end of the original version, because (splr alrt) the final paragraph, where the narrator says his mother has just died, is already there.  That is the original ending of the story, not something added in revision.  And, while we’re on the subject, I’m disappointed that the English translation prints this final paragraph in a smaller type size, suggesting (with no basis in the original) that it’s to be taken as by a different voice, or as referring to a different narrative level, than the rest of the story.  I.e., the translation sets this paragraph off in such a way as to imply that it’s by an older version of the narrator, or a different version, or by the author himself (as opposed to the narrator);  this may be the case, but it’s not something indicated in the original.  It’s an artifact of the translation’s book design.

Which brings us to the second point, the illustrations.  I don’t see why they didn’t just use Sasaki Maki’s original illustrations.  Murakami and Sasaki go way back, with Sasaki’s illustrations appearing on the covers of many of his early works.  If you read Murakami in the ’80s, Sasaki’s vaguely Keith Haring-esque illustrations probably influenced your understanding of Murakami’s work.  They help to situate him in the realm of pop art, a la Haring.  Sasaki’s work for the library book is in the same style, cartoony, childlike, fun.  Murakami’s revisions to the story are obviously made to fit just this kind of illustration.

They don’t fit Chip Kidd’s style of illustration.  Now, I like Kidd’s work, as a rule.  His irony-laced appropriative graphic style is great for certain things.  I’ve never thought it very appropriate for Murakami, however;  Kidd favors a kind of triple-lutz Orientalism that puts the East Asian subject in so many quotation marks that you can’t quite parse it (is it ironic? is it ironizing irony? is it ironizing the ironization of irony?).  The problem with this kind of thing is that irony is a fugitive pigment, and can evaporate over time, so that what might have been meant as a daring, meaning-laden appropration of an Orientalist image ends up being just another Orientalist image…  The problem with this kind of thing for a Murakami cover is something different:  it’s that Murakami himself doesn’t engage in this kind of thing.  He famously, obviously has little time for thinking about “Japaneseness.”  The issues that Kidd’s covers think about have nothing to do with what Murakami writes about – all they relate to is an American reader’s cramped inability to forget that this is a Japanese writer, a member of the Other.

And that’s what’s going on here.  There’s nothing in The Strange Library that relates in any way to the found-image arch-ironical Orientalism of the images Kidd provides for the American edition of the story.  On their own, they’re quite attractive images, and Kidd treats them, crops them, manipulates them, and transforms them in beautiful ways, and then juxtaposes them with the text in intelligent ways.  But they strike notes wholly dissonant with the story, unlike Sasaki’s wholly consonant original illustrations.  And fairly frequently the irony just fails – when you read about an old man and turn the page and see a photo of a noh mask, all the careful photoshopping in the world can’t distract from the fundamental equation being made.  Japanese old man = noh mask.  Reductive, essentialist, bad.