Elizarov’s Librarian is one of the most fun(ny), sad, suspenseful, and peculiar books I’ve read in a long time. His librarian, Aleksei, narrates, describing how he goes from a lousy start on an entertainment career in Ukraine to inheriting his Siberian uncle’s apartment and, unexpectedly, leadership of an odd book group.
Rival groups fight each other – often to the death using sharp and blunt objects – for possession of books by a hack writer named Gromov, a World War 2 veteran whose Soviet-era novels never became popular.
Gromov’s books later win readers not through plot but with mystical powers that, like mind-altering drugs, grant gifts. Нарва (Narva), known as Книга Радости (The Book of Joy), has a euphoric effect, and Книга Ярости (The Book of Rage) was “discovered” by a prisoner. Another book is called Книга Силы (The Book of Strength) – it keeps a group of elderly women lucid, alive, and more than kicking. These nursing home women become a fierce clan, and one uses a crane hook as a weapon. Aleksei’s library possesses Книга Памяти (The Book of Memory), which creates the “mirage” of happy memories.
Yes, the premise of The Librarian sounds absolutely implausible. But Aleksei’s unassuming, self-deprecating voice makes it feel absolutely plausible, even if I don’t always believe what the book groups believe. His calm, first-person narrative describes lonely people looking for meaning, companionship, and illusion in an unstable country. (The lack of relatives and social order make it easy for groups to pass deaths off as accidents.) Readers look for meaning in literal ways, too: the biggest prize of the Gromov world is the lost Книга Смысла (Book of Meaning), in which Gromov praised Stalin at the wrong time, a case of myth-making gone awry. That seventh book turns up and leads us to Aleksei’s fate.
I enjoyed The Librarian because it compelled me to keep reading and left me with questions. I can’t help but love a novel about a parallel world inhabited by books and their effects on the people who read them… still, I know The Librarian won’t appeal to everyone. The crusade-like battles weren’t my favorite aspect of the book: I think their sadness and frequency bothered me more than the violence, though I found humor in new uses for hockey equipment, pelts, and Soviet coins.
The Librarian was a controversial 2008 Booker Prize winner, as Vladimir Kozlov reports here in The Moscow News. Some critics of the award called the book “’fascist trash,’ probably referring to elements of nostalgia for Soviet times that were latent in the novel,” writes Kozlov. Beyond the fact that Elizarov scoffs about such criticism, saying he didn’t romanticize the Soviet era, I think he’s correct to say, “The Soviet Union isn’t concretely in the text, there are just human relationships that are tied to the ideals that Soviet cultural aesthetics promoted.” (My translation of a sentence from this interview.)
The Librarian grabbed me because of Elizarov’s inventiveness in creating a trippy parallel world: he blends magical reactions to books with what we know as reality, incorporating historical, religious, and cultural references. I have to think it isn’t a coincidence that Gromov wrote seven books and there are seven seals in the Book of Revelation. Given all that, I even thought the cryptic and messianic ending – which effectively freezes time for Aleksei at Pokrov, the Feast of the Protection, in October 1999 – seemed logical, despite its ambiguity.
I won’t write specifically about the crypticness or ambiguity because I don’t want to ruin the ending for those who may read the book, either now in Russian or later, in translation. (Serbian and French rights have been sold.) But I will say this: I think the ambiguity is tied to the book’s references to illusions and the past.
Maybe I’m a materialist, but I find a cautionary tale rather than glorification of the Soviet past in The Librarian. I didn’t find much worth romanticizing in the world of the libraries beyond, perhaps, the relationships Elizarov mentioned in his interview. Those friendships, though, are underpinned by violence and all sorts of illusions, meaning I think the characters choose paths that, to expand on a Russian saying, take the sweet lies of myth and mysticism over the bitter truth of reality.