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Book review: Mikhail Elizarov, ‘The Librarian’

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Mikhail Elizarov has written a highly imaginative satire on the dichotomy in the post-Soviet Russian psyche, populated by the detritus of modern Russia.

 

David Gillespie
19 May 2015

The Librarian is Mikhail Elizarov’s fourth novel, written in 2007 and awarded the Russian Booker Prize the following year. It is based on an ingenious premise: the continuing power of books in Russia. The books in question are the fruits of Dmitry Alexandrovich Gromov, a Soviet writer of socialist realist novels who died in 1980 in obscurity. His books, however, have retained an almost mystical power among those who read them now in post-Soviet Russia, as they recreate the world of heroic labour and ideological certainty of determined, patriotic and dynamic collective farm directors, factory workers, Komsomol members and young Pioneers, or soldiers returning from the Great Patriotic War. 

Gromov’s world depicts a lost Soviet paradise, a reflection and celebration of the socialist realist ‘master plot’, but for their readers his books assume a different meaning, with narratives that can transform individual consciousness. Thus, the 1951 production novel The Proletarian Way becomes the Book of Strength; The Quiet Grass (1977), about agricultural production on collective farms, becomes the Book of Memory; Fly on, Happiness (1954), set during the virgin lands campaign of the 1950s, becomes the Book of Power; By  Labour’s Roads (1968), about a working-class dynasty, is the Book of Fury; The Silver Channel (1972), about the harmonious relationship of a man and his son in the bosom of nature, is the Book of Endurance; and the heroic war story Narva (1965), set in 1943, becomes the Book of Joy. The construction novel A Meditation on Stalin Chinaware (1956) becomes the highly treasured Book of Meaning, though all the books have ‘meanings’ easily recognisable in the Soviet context, as they form the key building-blocks of Soviet civilisation.

The Librarian is set in 2000. The readers of Gromov’s books become part of a Reading Room, the books themselves are protected by a Librarian, and hundreds of Reading Rooms sprout up all over the country, with their readers waging cruel battles with each other in order to obtain a copy of a Book. These readers are the detritus of modern Russia: the old and decrepit, abandoned by their families in rundown care homes, the lowlifes in prison camps, manual workers, pensioners, mechanics, low paid public sector workers such as teachers and doctors, the occasional student, and electrical salesman.

These readers are the detritus of modern Russia.

The Librarian of the novel’s title is Alexey Vyazintsev, an engineering student living with his parents who travels to Russia from Ukraine to receive an inheritance, the apartment of his uncle who has been murdered. It is here, in the fictional town of Shironin, that his life is turned upside down and changed forever. It is here where he encounters the Shironin Reading Room and becomes its Librarian, before, in the novel’s phantasmagorical climax, assuming immortal status as the ‘curator of the Motherland’, its invincible defender against its Enemies.

Imaginative satire

Elizarov has written a highly imaginative satire on the dichotomy in the post-Soviet Russian psyche. On the one hand, individuals struggle to survive in a cut-throat commercial environment, on the other, they yearn for the apparent certainties of a past age. The narrative is littered with references to cultural and political realities of the 1970s and 1980s, such as novels by the historical writer Valentin Pikul, the children’s films Girl from the Future (1984) and Adventures of Electronic (1979), mention of the Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, who died in 1984, and sports stars from this period, such as Oleg Blokhin, Irina Rodnina, and Vladislav Tretyak. Furthermore, the Reading Room members also address each other as ‘Comrade’, they are not concerned for material wealth or even comfort, and live according to a collectivist, mutually supportive ethic: the purported aim of Soviet communism.

This is the Soviet Union of Elizarov’s childhood.

This is the Soviet Union of Elizarov’s childhood (he was born in 1973) recalled as myth and paradise by modern generations in today’s Russia, a myth that dictates how no-one was rich but all were cared for, everyone worked together, and mutual respect was paramount. The ‘Motherland’ is not Russia today, but the USSR of the ‘stagnation’ period, ‘a phantom of brilliant radiance, a mythical, non-existent memory’ (p. 14), as the author, not the narrator, notes.  Those representatives of the modern, capitalist Russia, such as Chechen bandits, are given short shrift by the Readers when threatened by them. It is also ironic that the weapons and protective clothing used in the frequent and graphically depicted battle scenes are homespun and technically primitive, such as knitting needles, ice-hockey helmets, hammers and knives. Perhaps fittingly, the climactic battle between the Reading Rooms is played out to a background of gramophone music by the lyricist Nikolay Dobronravov and his wife the composer Alexandra Pakhmutova, a phenomenally successful team in the 1970s and 1980s.

Necessary illusion

The Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s may be recalled through a mist of hallucinatory nostalgia, but both the author and his hero are aware that it is a necessary illusion, as Alexey muses after hearing Soviet music from the 1970s: ‘And so the infantile arsenal of false memory was reinforced with an acoustic equivalent of the Soviet eternity, which repeatedly brought me succour in difficult moments’ (p. 203). Elizarov, however, leaves us in no doubt that the entire edifice created by ‘false memory’ is buttressed by violence, torture, and killings. 

Elizarov's novel does have its drawbacks: characters are introduced who have no back story, the Shironin Reading Room members are little differentiated, and other would-be major players, such as Shulga and Lagudov, are mentioned in the early stages of the narrative but do not reappear. Nevertheless, Elizarov has a gift for the arresting metaphor and simile: ‘I said nothing and stared drearily out of the window, watching the white scar that a plane had scraped across the sky, as if with a fingernail’ (p. 169); ‘The wind flung handfuls of the first drops of rain into my face’ (p. 200); ‘Terror stirred my hair like regiments of fleas’ (p. 339). 

A few words should be reserved for Andrew Bromfield’s translation. Overall it reads very nicely and only loses its fluency when difficult linguistic registers enter the narrative, such as mechanics and technical processes. There are some issues with copy editing, with a fair collection of typos and missing words. I also wonder at the wisdom of remaining true to the Russian style of referring to individuals through their full name, then name-patronymic, then diminutive first name: it must be confusing for the reader who knows no Russian, and I’d have suggested giving each character just one name and sticking with it throughout the book.

Mikhail Elizarov has written a thoroughly engaging, if at times deeply troubling, trawl through Russia’s lower depths. He has constructed an alternative reality that offers an escape from the ‘real’ Russia of today, all the while subverting the very pillars on which this ‘reality’ is based. 

Mikhail Elizarov's 'The Librarian', translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, is published by Pushkin Press.

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