Read To Win

Seven reasons you must read Haruki Murakami’s new book

'The Strange Library' is a small but absorbing package of text and visuals, a microcosm of Murakami’s strange and sublime world.

In Haruki Murakami we trust. His fiction balances itself with perfect poise on that tightrope between immense depth and alarming accessibility. You never quite know what to make of his work: is it profound in its insistence on fusing alternate realities and open-ended problems with no solutions, or is it just easy-to-read surrealism that only conveys the impression of literary quality? Is the speed with which you can read a Murakami novel a deterrent to his winning the Nobel?

Now, his latest adventure in the book trade leaves a similar trail of confusion. Is The Strange Library, a lavishly, quirkily and self-consciously illustrated combination of image and text a representation of where fiction can go in the digital age, or is it a gimmick to sell a story of less than thousand words at an overpriced £12.99 (about Rs 1,300) just before Christmas?

Translated into English only now, but not a recent book, The Strange Library was published in Japan back in 2008. It tells of a young boy whose mother is expecting him home for dinner, but who blunders into a library where he himself might become the librarian’s dinner. Considering the lack of length, revealing any more of the lot would give the entire game away.

Most Murakami tropes are in attendance in this fable or extended nightmare. There’s food, there’s a mysterious girl, there’s no cat but there’s a bird. And, most of all, there’s the consistent logic of a dream in the storyline. For anyone who’s unwilling to try a full-length novel by the Japanese rock star of contemporary literature, here’s a shortcut to his writing.

The real value of this volume, however, lies in the interplay of visuals and text, with the latter often flowing into the former. It is, in a word, beautiful, and the whimsical images enhance the unpredictability of what is, nevertheless, a tightly controlled narrative. Ted Goossen’s translation runs just as effortlessly as Murakami’s unencumbered and luminous storytelling.

But what to make of this strange tale? The identity of the writer forces attention to what might have been passed off as a smart story had someone else written it. The metaphor of eating brains crammed with knowledge is too delicious to ignore, as is the narrator’s Kafkaesque predicament of being imprisoned without any obvious reason.

Are books and knowledge meant to be a jail, then, breaking out of which can only mean deep personal loss? As usual, Murakami provokes a search of one’s own soul, forcing us to weigh the price we have to pay to get what we seek. This is a story which takes far less time to read than to ponder over.

Here, then, are the seven reasons to read The Strange Library.

7. How often do you get to read TWO new Murakamis in one year? Don’t forget that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage were released earlier in 2014.

6. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, book. In fact, the UK and US editions have different designs, and both are worth buying and preserving.

5. There are no cats. Welcome relief.

4. It’s the quickest way to find out what Murakami writes about. Definitely better than reading Wikipedia pages.

3. It’s, as the cliché goes, unputdownable. You have to read till the end to find out what happened. Does the boy escape?

2. For passages such as this: ‘“I get it,” I said. “Our worlds are all jumbled together – your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t. That’s what you mean, right?”’

1. And the number one reason is: This book is about loneliness. And who isn’t lonely?

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.