Last week, a friend gifted me Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library. I hadn’t bought the book at the time it was launched in the Indian market, perhaps, subconsciously, waiting for the buzz around it to subside; the buzz which is typically triggered every time a literary giant’s latest, pre-determined “gem” is placed in bookshops, inspiring people to gush over its immeasurable worthiness.

The Strange Library isn’t a book. It is plain magic. Once I picked it up, it suddenly transmuted into an enchanting, mysterious object. It was much later I understood why.

Its cover in fuchsia is alluring, enhanced manifold by the library card recording dates of issue and return pasted on it. The author’s name is in a point-size several times larger than the title, suggesting he, not the book, is the bait to hook buyers. The book is slim, surprising for the author whose art hinges on taking readers on a roller-coaster ride over 300-plus pages. It is hardbound, feels good to touch and is, astonishingly, sealed in a cellophane wrapping, which buyers need to rip open to flip through the pages.

Shrink-wrapped. Why?

In hindsight, the cellophane wrapping was a giveaway, a warning, a sign of what to expect.

I should have asked the question there and then, as soon as I took off the wrapping: What types of books, or magazines for that matter, are sealed in order to deny the buyer a glimpse of what lies between the covers? Obviously, those featuring smutty or erotic or pornographic pictures; or providing information which once read, and memorised, diminishes their monetary value.

Library is peppered with illustrations, without which Murakami’s story may not have exceeded all of 20 pages, so brief is his storytelling.  Now don’t rush to buy your copy; it isn’t erotic or pornographic – rich, colourful pictures and illustrations of doughnuts, parakeets, caterpillars and insects can’t possibly be a priapic delight for most. (The illustrations are not Murakami’s. Had that been the case, the perspective on the book would have been different.)

Yet the cellophane wrapping is suggestive of the fears of the publishers, of preventing buyers from finding out the meagre offering from Murakami in Library before the decision to purchase it is taken. Aesthetically designed and marketed as an “unusual Christmas gift book”, (it was in December that the book was launched) Library is undoubtedly a marketing gimmick similar, in every way, to the strategy that makers of branded products often devise to push their sales.

A sense of betrayal

Library doesn’t come cheap – it is priced at Rs 550 in India and $12 in the international market. Worse, it exploits the reader’s love of Murakami, the surreal quality of his writing, his ability to fuse alternate realities, his straddling of diverse time and space, and the sheer pace of his narrative – you turn the pages of a Murakami, keep up late in the night, even though not everything he throws at you always makes terrific sense. There’s a veritable transnational Murakami cult whose members devour their guru’s books with the same relish his fictional characters eat cats.

The saddest part of Library is not the loneliness of the boy, as some reviews of the book stress upon, but the sense of betrayal the reader is left with, the one big ride he or she is taken on the gravy train called Haruki Murakami.

For long, the Japanese writer has been an international celebrity writer, selling books in millions. Library has now turned him into an international brand, to be possessed for the social or market value the name embodies than for its quality, much in the same way, say, Reebok or Zara stamp their logos on products not produced by them, yet turning them into objects to be coveted for their perfection.

What’s in there?

Library isn’t refreshingly different from Murakami’s other works. It is more a miniature Murakami, less than 2000 words long, replete with his now familiar tropes. The story is of a boy whose curiosity about the method of collecting taxes in the Ottoman Empire takes him to a public library. He is directed to a room in the basement, where an old man hands him three volumes pertaining to the Ottoman taxation system, tells him these books can’t be taken out of the library but must be read in the Reading Room, and guides him through a labyrinth of corridors and deposits him in a cell.

The boy is the old man’s prisoner. He is to be set free only if at the end of one month he memorises the three books from cover to cover, to the satisfaction of the old man. In case the boy fails the test, the old man would “slough off the top of his head” to eat his brains. Even as he begins to read the first of the three books, the boy plans his escape from the maze, with the assistance of a tormented “sheep man” and a beautiful girl.

Library is metaphorical. But, come to think of it, which book isn’t? It has the ethos which underlies every art installation, its significance dependent on the meaning shared between the artist and the viewer. Likewise, you can read different meanings, as several reviewers have, in the pages of the Library.

But it is difficult to disagree with Peter Lewis. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Lewis wrote, “The Strange Library is a kid’s book, no matter how many allegories, semiotics, characteries, parables, and paradiddles you drape on its shoulders.” Lewis goes on to find virtues in Library, virtues by themselves not extraordinary, but almost always expected of reviews of celebrated writers.

Once I completed reading the Library, the cellophane wrapping acquired yet another meaning. So slim is the book despite the publisher’s deception, so brief its story, you could read it in 40 minutes or thereabout in the book-store you frequent. Obviously, the store-owner would be known to you and he and she would presumably be too polite to interrupt you from browsing through the Library. Yes, the Library can be browsed and consumed, not necessarily read. It is to prevent the sly reading of the Library  that the publishers thought of wrapping it in cellophane.

Book? Or brand?

There is no rule defining what the length of a book should be. Nor should brevity be scoffed at or underpriced. Even a single sentence can be worth Rs 550 (or $12) or more. But it is also true that every third or fourth story of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges could, with a little help from illustrators, be stretched to 80 pages or more, profoundly multi-layered as his work often is.

Therein lies the difference between Borges and Murakami – one is an international brand, the other isn’t.

Once you understand the function of branding, whether in the publishing or shoe industry, the Library and its seemingly innocuous sentences acquire quite another echo and meaning.

So when the boy protests at being deceived, imprisoned in a cell instead of being taken to the Reading Room, the old man shoots back, “That’s right, I pulled the wool over your eyes.” Indeed, Murakami seems to have pulled the wool over the eyes of his curious readers who went to shops seeking his new story.

Perhaps it is his publishers who are to blame. Perhaps they persuaded him to hawk the too-short-a-story as a book, in the same way as the boy in the Library tries to convince the sheep man that he could open a shop to sell doughnuts once they escape to freedom. The boy says, “I’ll sell the doughnuts, and talk to the customers, and handle the money and the advertising. I’ll even do the dishes. All you have to do is to work in the back making doughnuts.”

That’s what Murakami did – he wrote his too-short-a-story in solitude and his publishers turned it into a book. Unlike the sheep man’s delicious doughnuts, from the Library arises the odour of a sell-out to the dictates of the market. Obviously, Murakami is complicit in this – which is sad for a person who must have amassed millions, judging from the sales of his books.