on Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library. Published 2005 but written early in his career; translated into English 2014 by Ted Goosen.

This brief tale reads like an allegory of reading itself, the Library as emblematic of the world. But it feels sharply different the twentieth century’s most famous allegory of reading, Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” Both Borges’ and Murakami’s fables are suffused with an unspeakable melancholy. But Borges’ tale is an expansive parable about infinity—and the hubris of pedantry—told by a wry ancient sage. Murakami’s uses a child’s poiny of view to describe a descent into hell, a story not about books opening doors but about being a labyrinth that narrows and narrows your choices until you’re entrapped in its inmost cell underground, forced to read in a “reading room” presided over by a tyrant, a little old man behind a desk with “black spots dott[ing] his face like a swarm of flies.” And in that room all your worse fears come true. You are a frightened boy who just wants to borrow some books and return home to the comfort of a dinner cooked by your mother. But you have a ball and chain shackled to your ankle and must sit and read in the dark, memorizing books at the old man’s command. Even worse, you learn that afterwards he will devour your brain and all its contents, including absurd information about tax collection that you’ve been forced to study. Is reading really just about mind control and punishment, combining vampirism and surveillance all in one?

Of course, the boy’s situation is not without some wacky and whimsical moments, shafts of light that heighten the darkness. “Don’t you think that’s awfully cruel?” asks the boy, describing his situation. “Speaking from the suckee’s point of view, of course.” Companions also appear, a man in a sheep costume who seems like a jailor but who also wants to run away; then a girl pushing a tea-cart full of treats. She can speak only in sign language and may or may not be the sheep man in yet another disguise, or a being dreamed up by the boy in his desperation. She warns him against hard-and-fast conclusions. “Just because I don’t exist in the sheep man’s world, it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist at all,” she says.

Which leads to the tale’s second allegory of reading: “ ‘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?’” Somehow we have to try to communicate across the gaps. Reading about Ibn Armut Hasir, the author of a book with the scintillating title of The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, the boy becomes the tax collector and even experiences the world through his senses, seeing a crescent moon floating over Istanbul, hearing a distant flute, meeting his three wives. But this is a brief illusory moment of beauty, almost a kind of bait to make the boy forget imprisonment.

The boy eventually plots an escape with the help of his two new friends. But the old man has anticipated their every move, a minotaur waiting murderously at the heart of the labyrinth. Here’s the third allegory of reading: in reading, like dreaming, we confront our deepest fears. “That’s the problem with mazes,” the boy tells himself, to keep his terror at bay. In the boy’s case, it’s of a black dog who bit him in the past and has now apparently killed his favorite pet bird: the dog now stands before him next to the old man, anger in its green eyes.

What happens next I won’t give away. But it presents a fourth possibility for reading—that it gives us “powerful wings” after all, and through it we can discover new powers. But not without a horrible cost: when the boy wakes from his dream, the world seems greatly diminished and he can think of nothing but his losses. He’s plunged back into endless darkness that seems even worse than that of the cell in which he was imprisoned. And more isolated, eternally so: “how it feels to be alone, and the depth of the darkness surrounding me. Darkness as pitch black as the night of the new moon.” The Library has become a nightmarish place of estrangement. The boy vows never to return. His original joy seems now completely gone, replaced by a paranoic convinction that reading is tyrannical and isolating, with the protagonist frightened and alone. That’s a fifth outcome for reading that haunts the tale’s ending.

Or is the true Library now entirely within, its darkness and mysteries not necessarily only negative? The tale’s most haunting sentence comes in its middle, from its depths: “Like a blind dolphin, the night of the new moon silently drew near” (opening of chapter 18).

I’m struck by how different Murakama’s devastating little parable is from another tale about being spirited away, namely Hayao Miyazaki’s famous animated film Spirited Away. That tale also deals with parental estrangement, terror, imprisonment, labyrinthine spaces that constantly change, domineering tyrants, and constant new challenges. Yet though both possess moments of wonder and whimsy, how animated (excuse the pun) and hopeful Miyazaki’s masterpiece is in comparison to The Strange Library. Its protagonist, a young girl named Chihiro, grows up emotionally through her adventures to become a leader unafraid to confront and outwit tyrants. She makes friends easily, even with frightened little lumps of coal, and eventually each of these new friends helps her with their special powers, just like in old fairy tales. Miyazaki and Murakami share a sense of the powerful presence of spirits just under the modernist sheen and pace of contemporary Japanese life: the job of their plots is to usher us into those portals to another vision of the world. But in the end Miyazaki’s is a profoundly more social and optimistic vision, one whose driving force is transformation, not abandonment.

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