Sunday 15 February 2015

The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov

If Ryu Murakami had written War and Peace

As the introduction to this book will tell you, the books by Gromov, obscure and long forgotten propaganda author of the Soviet era, have such an effect on their readers that they suddenly enjoy supernatural powers. Understandably, their readers need to keep accessing these books at all cost and gather into groups around book-bearers, or, as they're called, librarians. Alexei, until now a loser, comes to collect an uncle's inheritance and unexpectedly becomes a librarian. He tells his extraordinary, unbelievable story. 

Publisher's description

I am not sure what I expected when I opened this book. And as I read the first section I remained unsure. We are given the back-story, which was gently amusing. Gromov, a Soviet author of uninspiring books in which heroic workers overcome adversity, was so disregarded that few of his books remained, gathering dust. However a few people discovered that Gromov's books have a magical quality. If read in one sitting without missing a word, they can temporarily alter the mind of the reader. Different books have different effects - one gives the reader the power to influence others, one instills joy, another rage. These readers gather into gangs or "libraries" around the keeper or "librarian" of one or more book. In the way of all gangs, the libraries battle with each other for control of the books. 

The book really took off for me with the arrival of the narrator, Alexei Vyazintsev, in a small town to sell his late uncle's flat. What Alexei does not realize is that he has not only inherited a flat but a copy of a Gromov book and the post of its librarian.  He is rapidly plunged into the violent alternative world of the libraries. I was hooked and found it hard to put the book down. 

The Librarian works in so many ways. There is clearly an element of political and social comment here. There are obvious parallels with the wild west nature of post-Soviet Russia, with its criminal gangs and their wars. There is also a parody of the false mythology of the Soviet Union and even conventional western literature's use of archetypes: Alexei is a normal guy without friends who turns out to be the chosen one, and then Elizarov twists that archetype. But I am sure I missed a lot of references.

I was of course struck by the way the novel portrays the power of books and ideas to transform our view of the world and how The Librarian shows that human nature will turn something which is so redemptive into a stimulus for violence. The book is read before the battles to give heart to the combatants, it is carried into battle on a pole or on a chain around the librarian's neck. It reminded me of religious wars I had read about where the Bible or the Koran was/is treated in the same way and I was struck by how the most appalling wars have been stimulated by books.

And boy is this book violent at times! The battles between the libraries are portrayed in such graphic detail that it was like being inside a violent video game. The violence shocked me at first, but it didn't stop me reading and after a while I was so engaged in the battle for survival waged by Alexei's Library that I accepted the violence as a necessary part of Elizarov's narrative. 

There is an awful lot to think about in this book. I don't think the characterization was particularly strong, but in a way this book is not about individual psychology but that of the collective, on which it shines a piercing light. 

Yet again we have a fine example of Russian magic realism. Do I recommend reading it? Absolutely. 

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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