THE STRANGE LIBRARY, by Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen. Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pp., $18.
In his second book in the past six months, Haruki Murakami, author of the recent "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage," strands a nerdish boy in the basement of a strange library with an old man, a shape-shifting girl and a man clad in sheepskin.
A fun children's novella, released in Japan in 2008 and now cleverly designed and illustrated by Chip Kidd, "The Strange Library" is kin to Salman Rushdie's "Luka and the Fire of Life," although it's considerably shorter with far less mythology. Murakami's plot might seem a gross-out, but the story is amusing enough for 10-to-13-year-olds and sufficiently resonant to appeal to adults with an affinity for fantasy.
Our nameless young hero returns two books to the library: "How to Build a Submarine" and "Memoirs of a Shepherd." Naturally, a reader of such books wants to check out some new ones, and, after all, his mother did tell him, "If you don't know something, go to the library and look it up." Now, he's eager to know how they collected taxes in the Ottoman Empire. (Who isn't?) The librarian directs him down the hall to Room 107.
He makes his way down a long flight of stairs and through the gloomy corridor of a basement he didn't know existed. The door he finally knocks on echoes "as if someone had whacked the gates of hell with a baseball bat." Inside, a scary old man takes him to the sheep man, who has been directed to imprison the boy in the library for a month. He'll be released after he memorizes three thick books: "The Ottoman Tax System," "The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector" and "Tax Revolts and Their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire." If, after a month, he hasn't succeeded, the old man will feast on the boy's brains, plump and juicy with knowledge.
The boy does well at memorizing. Still, he worries that while he's gone, his mother might suffer a breakdown and forget to feed his pet starling. The sheep man adds to the boy's worries when he reveals that the old man probably won't release him no matter what. So, shackled with a ball and chain, he plans his escape with the encouragement of a pretty girl who speaks with her hands and, unseen by others, flits in and out of his cell.
This charming, surreal story, translated by Ted Goossen, reads smoothly and is without the scattered awkwardness of Philip Gabriel's translation of "Colorless Tsukuru." Murakami does lapse into bouts of over-playfulness, but whether he is writing for adults or children, he remains a suspenseful and fantastical storyteller.