Translated by Andrew Bromfield
Reviewed by Karen Langley
We all believe in the transformative power of literature; however, what would happen if books really did change us in dramatic ways, bringing strength to old people and wisdom to fools? That’s the premise behind Ukrainian author Mikhail Elizarov’s extraordinary new novel from Pushkin Press.
The story begins with Gromov, a forgotten author from the era of Soviet realism (all tales of tractors, engineers and the service of the Motherland). His works have slipped into obscurity and the Soviet Union has collapsed, leaving behind it the chaos of the latter part of the 20th century. However, a number of his few works have survived and it becomes clear to some that if the books are read in a particular way (all in one sitting, without interruption) they can grant the reader a particular power. A cult grows up around these volumes (which are given names such as The Book of Strength or The Book of Joy) and each of the little groups which have a book are given a name, and have a Librarian who has custody of the book. Larger groups form; there are rivalries for control and ownership of the books; and secret (and quite visceral) fighting takes place for them. One particular group, that of a collection of old women in a hospital, gain terrifying strength when read the book and are fierce in battle.
This is the background to what follows: our narrator, who’s given us the history of the books, is Alexei, a drifting young man living in modern Ukraine. His schooling, career and marriage are all indifferent and failures. However, his life changes when his uncle passes away, leaving a flat in Russia which Alexei travels off to dispose of. Things are not quite that straightforward, though, as it turns out that his uncle was in fact a Librarian. One of Gromov’s books is in the flat and Alexei tumbles suddenly from his mundane existence into a violent and frightening world. For he’s expected to take over as Librarian from his uncle, even though he struggles to find the Gromov effect, and all he really wants to do is run off home.
As the conflicts between the various groups escalate, Alexei has hard choices to make. Can he make the transition from zero to hero? Will he discover what it is that makes the Gromov books so special? When figures from the history of the books reappear, it seems that fate may have a special role carved out for Alexei…
Ukrainian authors such as Bulgakov and Gogol have a history of fantastic literature, drawing on the conventions of fantasy and myth; it’s a long tradition in the culture of Russia and Elizarov is obviously a remarkable and talented addition to the canon. The post-Soviet world portrayed here is a fragmented one, full of people searching for meaning – the Books give them that, and a sense of belonging that they’ve lost.
Elizarov was born in 1973, and so the Soviet era is for the most part history for him. However, The Librarian reflects a strong need for structure, unity and purpose which is missing in the modern world. But on top of that it’s an utterly absorbing and utterly fascinating story, even if you don’t look at the subtext, and Elizarov is clearly a born storyteller.
Full of wonderfully drawn and lovable characters, The Librarian draws you into its world of heretics and believers, the broken-down surroundings of the collapsed Soviet Union and the lives of the people involved in fighting for the truth of the books. No doubt the story could be read as an analogy of the longing many Russians seem to have nowadays for the return of Stalin or the Soviet regime, which is in itself a deep-seated need in humans for a stable way of life. It’s also a paean to the power of books, as literature has always had a particular strength in Russian culture.
Above all, though, this book is a brilliantly inventive, completely all-consuming story – one that you can’t put down and one where you can’t foresee the incredibly moving ending. It’s clear that both Elizarov and his creation Alexei very much love their Motherland – tellingly (particularly bearing in mind current world events), Alexei says of the lost Soviet Union and his Ukrainian homeland:
When I grew up a bit I loved the Union, not for what it was, but for what it could have become if things had turned out differently. And is a potentially good man really so very much to blame if the difficulties in his life prevent his splendid qualities from blossoming? … The Union knew how to make Ukraine a Motherland. But without the Union, Ukraine has not managed to remain one…
The Librarian won the Russian Booker Prize and it’s not hard to see why – its plea for unity obviously chimed strongly with the feelings of the Russian people. It’s a powerful, provocative and engrossing book and hopefully its publication in English will bring it, deservingly, to a much wider audience.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and believes in the power of books.
Mikhail Elizarov, The Librarian (Pushkin Press: London, 2015). 9781782270270, 410pp, paperback.