The Strange Library is not exactly a book, just as the library in the title is not exactly a library. The young nameless narrator asks frivolously for a volume on taxation in the Ottoman Empire; this mysteriously triggers a nasty ordeal in which he’s lured into a musty basement and imprisoned for three days by a deranged elderly man who openly plans to “eat his brains.”
The Strange Library is of average Murakami weirdness, but unusually bleak. In the standard boy-wanders-into-dark-mansion narrative, the child has usually done something immoral or unwise; one of the most disturbing elements of The Strange Library is that the Boy appears to be guilty of nothing more than a socially upstanding (if casual) desire to read an educational book. The Boy's jailer gleefully uses speech to abuse the core features of culture and civilization: he bullies and guilts (“The real question is, do you value my assistance or not? Why do you think I lugged these three heavy books out here? For my health?”) while taking advantage of shy politeness (the Boy wonders, “Why do I act like this, agreeing when I really disagree, letting people force me to do things I don’t want to do?”). He also lies. The Boy is set to memorize a treatise on Ottoman empire taxation in three days, or else his brains will be eaten; later on, the old man admits that he was going to eat the Boy’s brains in any event. Sustained study and learning will simply make his brains “creamier.”
It is curiously obvious that, even within the construct of a surreally menacing universe, the events in The Strange Library are taking place in a dream. The basement dungeon of the library strikes the Boy as deeply illogical even as he lives in it, particularly as “public libraries like this one were always short of money.” Typical of a dream sequence, during his imprisonment the Boy has a hallucinatory experience of reading a book in an unknown language: “The book was written in classical Turkish; yet, strangely, I found it easy to understand. Not only that, but each page stuck in my memory, word for word.” As he reads, he segues into a secondary dream of actually being a Turkish tax collector named Ibn Armut Hasir, “who walked the streets of Istanbul with a scimitar at his waist, collecting taxes.” Yet when he finally escapes from the library dungeon with the sheep man, there is no cathartic wake-up scene: no questions are asked by his long-suffering mother, and his pet starling is gone. In the epilogue, we find the Boy, perhaps grown up, noting that his mother has just died “from a mysterious illness.” The Strange Library is a nightmare without an end.
The problem with The Strange Library--both qua place and qua book--is that in a Twin Peaks world where the fantastic world of subterranean fear and desire blends effortlessly with mundane everyday life, there’s no room for meaningful language. From a quasi-Lacanian perspective, if the surreal life of the dream-world already exists side by side with reality, speech is either pointless or futile. It’s worth noting that there appears to be no fiction in the strange library; in fact, the books there seem to be nonsensical, if not impossible. Immediately before asking for a book about Ottoman empire tax collections, the Boy was reading “How to Build a Submarine” and “Memoirs of a Shepherd”--books that are barely conceivable, as they relate, respectively, to (1) complex spatial designs and (2) silence. The Strange Library is therefore an explanation of sorts for Murakami’s consistently dreamlike spaces. If we do not dream, we cannot speak. The space that Murakami privileges is the liminal world between the inner and outer worlds. In this narrow band, fragile and elusive as the starling, reside civilization and language.