The Librarian, by Mikhail Elizarov

19283005If you ask a reader about the experience of reading, he or she might say that a good book will fill up their mind to the point where they can shut out noise and distraction. They might also say that a well-written book will transport them to another world. This is all metaphor (though a certain kind of philosopher would argue with me). I imagine that something like this phenomena was the inspiration for Mikhail Elizarov’s The Librarian. In this book, reading can convey special powers on readers of a particular author. Readers fight bloody battles for access to rare books and librarians declare war on each other. How could I not pick up this book?

The Librarian is not an easy book to start reading. The first chapters read like a textbook of alternate history of Soviet literature. We learn about Gromov and his terrible, terrible propagandistic novels about Soviet workers triumphing over adversity—in a censor-approved manner, of course. We are introduced to the curious emotional and physical properties bestowed on readers who fulfil two conditions: reading the book in one sitting from beginning to end and reading every single word without skimming. We are also told about the wars that broke out among the first readers to discover Gromov’s books. Once all this backstory is out of the way, we finally meet our narrator, Alexei Vyazintsev.

Alexei enters the world of librarians and readers after the death of his uncle. He travels from the Ukraine to Russia in order to sell his relative’s apartment, but strange things begin to happen as soon as he arrives. He witnesses two men who claimed to be interested in buying the apartment being assaulted in the street. He stands frozen on the spot, for Alexei is not a brave man. Then the attackers, who claim to be his protectors, set up a benign house arrest for Alexei and tell him he’s the new librarian of their reading room.

Only a few days later, Alexei and his reading room are summoned to a meeting to settle a dispute between rooms. The dispute ends with a vicious confrontation. Guns are prohibited in this battles, but every other weapon or makeshift weapon is allowed. Alexei has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. People are killing each other over books by an author he’s never heard of before. Being a librarian is far from a quiet profession in Alexei’s new universe.

As The Librarian speeds along, a conspiracy coalesces around Alexei and his readers. (It’s a Russian novel. Of course there is a conspiracy.) The stakes ratchet up higher and higher as people die all around the new librarian. The ending blindsided me in a way that I’m still not sure I know how I feel about.

I was fascinated by the world Elizarov created in The Librarian, but I wonder at the level of Soviet nostalgia that pervades this book. Alexei learns to psyche himself up for battle by listening to old patriotic hymns. Gromov’s novels all praise an idealized worker’s state. Members of reading rooms all address each other as comrade. The actual horrors and paranoia of the Soviet state are almost completely omitted. Gulags are mentioned, but this doesn’t off-set the pro-Soviet vibe. Of all the puzzling things in this puzzling book, the nostalgia puzzled me the most.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 February 2015.

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