Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mikhail Elizarov’s Booker-Winning Librarian

Just to be clear: Mikhail Elizarov’s novel Библиотекарь (The Librarian) has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved institutions that offer books and other reading materials to the public. There are no dusty stacks, shushing librarians, or magazine racks. Meaning that, right from the title, the reader gets a big dose of остранение (defamiliarization) – the concepts of “librarian” and, really, “reading” have left the building.

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.


  1. This post got me thinking that I could've missed something about Librarian. So I pulled myself together, got past the bloody massacre at the "Теремок" cafe & finished the book. Thanks for making me do it!

    I'm still firmly in the Librarian haters camp, but at least it's not a visceral, knee-jerk reaction anymore.

  2. I was wondering if you'd comment about The Librarian, Alex, since I remembered from goodreads that you didn't like it. I was interested to hear that you finished it! I read many unfavorable blog entries and reviews on the Runet and am curious to hear why you didn't like the book...

    The Librarian grabbed me right from the start, and I guess it held a strange fascination for me because of the parallel universe aspect, particularly because that involved books. And somehow felt believable. I think it's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, though I can't say I'm wild about the ending.

  3. Well, I guess I don't have anything to say that hasn't been said before, so bear with me...

    I thought Librarian was too grotesque, even cartoonish to be taken seriously and not funny enough to be thought of as a parody. It seemed to straddle the fence in a rather awkward way. I was left with an odd feeling of having read a video game novelization written by a Nobel Prize nominee, a trashy book overburdened with "topical" Meaning.

    "The Librarian" had the best writing I've read from Elizarov, but even in its best moments it felt derivative from V. Sorokin and Elizarov himself (the gory violence was also prominently featured in his previous work "Pasternak")

    None of the characters really came alive for me, except for Polina Vasilyevna Gorn later in the book. Too many of them spoke in the same voice & felt stereotypical and, later, expendable cannon fodder.

  4. It's funny, Alex: I can't really disagree with anything you say about The Librarian, and I think your Nobel/video game comparison is very apt: basically, this is a mixture of low and high. That's generally pretty risky, in terms of readers' taste and intellectual patience. I have always had a strange fascination with the mechanics of genre, including sentimentalism and socialist realism, so that may help explain why the book appealed to me.

    I thought the book was quite funny at times, but also can't quite read it as parody. You're right that it straddles fences, though that didn't bother me.

    As for the characters, you are absolutely right that Gorn is the only one who truly comes to life, as a unique figure. But I don't think that's a negative for this book: I think The Librarian is all about myth and illusion, with socialist realism flitting around, so these stereotypical or archetypical "people" fit the book that Elizarov is writing. They are uneasy, everyday герои of their time, the perestroika and post-perestroika era, looking for companionship and some kind of mystical fix for their lives. I knew some of these people quite well and saw how they changed in the '90s, so Elizarov's shorthand in sketching his people gave me all I needed to recognize them. I think Elizarov's characters were meant to be can(n)on fodder or martyrs.

  5. Thanks for this review. I happen to be a native speaker of Russian who until the recent several years has not taken much interest in reading in my native language, mostly because there was not much to be thrilled about. The whole slant of the Goodreads Russian club on the classics, and while understandable, it is not exactly my focus. But lately, we've had a few books to be intrigued about, and Librarian is definitely one such book. (Every year for the past 3-4 years, when I return from Moscow, I bring a whole huge bag of books and read them through - a new thing for me and a good one). I am liking Elizarov's Librarian - yes it is bizarre and violent, like most of the good Russian lit and movies lately, but it definitely keeps the pace, has a huge "atmospheric" effect and I could not agree more that it has more to do with concepts and ideas and their power on the human mind, especially the "collective" mind, than it does with Russia itself, perestroika and all this other stuff. Just like the writer Gromov's books! Anyone who looks into the history of the Bible, or, without digging that deep, has read "The Name of the Rose" and enjoyed it, would certainly appreciate Librarian and its concepts. I still have about 100 pages to go, and could not wait to share some thoughts :) Thanks again for your blog.

  6. Thank you, Margarita, for your comment -- I'm glad you're enjoying The Librarian! I'd love to hear what you think of the ending... I still have mixed feelings about it myself, though I think it fit the book.

    It sounds like you and I both came back to reading in Russian at about the same time, a good time, I think, because there certainly are a lot of intriguing books to read. I'm going to look you up on Goodreads to see what else might be on your list...

  7. I am glad this book caused such a flurry of comments and a few good friendly connections. I have to say I was really impressed with it overall, and I found the ending to be perfect for this modern fable of faith. Being familiar with the years described and the overall cultural context of the events, you cannot agree more with the appropriatness of the whole metaphore. My review on Goodreads is right here http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/82770764?utm_medium=email&utm_source=comment_instant

  8. Thanks for checking back about The Librarian, Margarita! Yes, the ending really does fit the book, particularly as I look back and think about the religious themes in the book... I'm not quite sure how to put this, but I think when I read the book I was expecting (or maybe hoping for?) something different and more dramatic, so I was a little disappointed initially with what I got.

    In any case, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  9. I've just started reading it and I'm enjoying it a lot!

  10. I'm glad you're enjoying the book, Deisoca -- it must be even more interesting after hearing Elizarov speak last month!