Mikhail Elizarov - Protagonist learns that a number of books by forgotten Soviet writer Gromov possess magical properties, and different groups of readers are in the fierce struggle for them
Mikhail Elizarov, The Librarian, Ad Marginem, 2011.
Protagonist learns that a number of books by forgotten Soviet writer Gromov possess magical properties, and different groups of readers are in the fierce struggle for them. The novel won the Russian Booker Prize-2008 and was praised by critics. As noted in the journal "Znamya", "Mikhail Elizarov prose has evolved from a scandal shocking to intellectually rich fiction."
Mikhail Elizarov’s novel “The Librarian” published in 2007, and awarded the Russian-Booker Prize in 2008 (the most prestigious literary award, based on votes cast by a committee of writers) has been a source of no small controversy.
This is a novel about novels—trashy, socialist realist novels (written in the middle of the 20th century by a third-rate novelist, named Gromov) that were forgotten and overlooked almost as soon as they were published. A few random individuals, however, lost and depressed characters of Perestroika (a single professor, a night-shift nurse, etc.) discover that when read without stopping, these books transfer magical powers to their readers. To those in the know, the books get new names: the Book of Strength, the Book of Patience, the Book of Memory, the Book of Rage, the Book of Power—in accordance with their magical gifts.
Clans of “readers”—secret societies called “Libraries”—begin to form around the few remaining copies of the books. These clans, operating secretly from the most benign post-soviet spaces (a nursing home for orphaned grandmas, a Moscow apartment) led by “Librarians” begin to viciously battle with one another for possession of the books.
By the present day, when the majority of the book set, this world of Gromov-readers has become a veritable alternate universe. Alexey, an aspiring and struggling actor from Ukraine, comes to Moscow to sell his recently deceased uncle’s apartment, only to discover that this estranged relative has been living a secret life as a “Librarian.” Alexey is quickly immersed in the affairs of Gromov-readers, becomes the new “Librarian” and sets off to a series of surreal book-battles, hallucinatory book-reading experiences, kidnappings, murders, and finally, the discovery of a yet-unread Gromov novel “Ballad of Stalinist Porcelain”—the legendary the Book of Meaning.
For your reading pleasure, here are two selections from the latter half of The Librarian. [They are included below]
- Alexey’s discovery and interpretation of the book of meaning.
- Alexey’s moment of enlightenment, which he reaches in the final pages of the novel, after he has been imprisoned in the basement of a nursing home-“Library,” fated to eternal reading and writing.
“Really, my novel The Librarian is, of course, a message for a broad public. It’s so that, if they have questions, I can tell them the answers or at least suggest the answers to them. Obviously, after receiving the Russian Booker my name is going to be more famous, but what makes me happiest is that more people will now have the opportunity to get to know my ideas. If that happens, I will be very pleased” (unpublished interview, see bib.).
Critics of the novel, dubious about its deserval of the Booker prize, have interpreted Elizarov’s “answers” for the broad public as unacceptably nostalgic ones.
This is not completely accurate. As Alexey himself says, “I loved the Union not for the way it was, but for the way it could have been if conditions had been different.” (438) If this is nostalgia, it is an unusual one, for it yearns not to resurrect a deceased time and space (indeed, it despises that former reality) but simply to dream the dreams of childhood again. For children, who believe in magic, the world looks exceedingly more open, full of possibility, and safe. Elizarov, in this novel, tells his reader that, although we’re no longer children, we shouldn’t shun those fantasies.
By explicitly linking the soviet experiment to a youthful magic—to ideas of strength, militarism, eternity, and unity—Elizarov implicitly excuses its ineffectuality (as a kind of charming children’s naiveté) and tries to suggest that art and literature might be more suitable locales for such ideals than real state politics.
But, returning to the critics. If anything, this novel demonstrated to me just how far the country and its cultural imaginary has moved away from not just the soviet decades, but the post-soviet 90s.
In “post-soviet” artistic trends, the dominant mythology was that of “the End of Time.” The fall of the soviet union was interpreted as an end to a certain deeply rooted, and flawed temporality. Negotiating this new space required an adjustment to a new (some said post-modern) set of temporal relationships (to an un-charted future, haunted and foreign present, and unmasked past).
In The Librarian by contrast, the fall of the Soviet Union is presented as the loss of a degenerated body, which, as Alexey suggests, everyone had already realized should never have existed in the first place. The perception, Elizarov argues, that this corporeal loss necessitated a temporal, or existential loss (of ideals) was false. The Librarian is all about showing the ways that soviet ideals can and should persist even after (or perhaps more easily because) the institution has failed.
As many readers have noted, these “ideals” are so abstracted from socialism that they become exclusively about pride, strength, masculinity, heroism—in other words, offensively nationalistic [see Bert’s excellent comments at http://zamerzikar.blogspot.com/2009/10/i-remember-when-dirty-librarian-had.html].
Perhaps, if Elizarov had understood Lenin’s socialism—feminist, international, intellectual—as being the real childhood ideal of the experiment (and not Stalin’s heteronormative paranoid deviation), this argument could have challenged readers instead of merely pacifying or alienating them.
It wasn’t so much a Book of Meaning, as a Book of Scheming. It presented itself as the three-dimensional laquered Russian miniature, a panorama come to life, a personally memorable soviet icon on a brightly laquered lining, depicted with the help of gold, azure, and all the hints of that scarlet color of world labor: factories, draped with trembling silk, turbulent wheat fields and combines. Workers were grasping blacksmith’s hammers in their mighty hands, collective-farm workers in turquoise sarafans were binding golden sheafs, cosmonauts in starry helmets and billowing silver capes were trampling the soil of unknown planets. Into red vortexes, a swift October Lenin thrust his hand upwards, a sailor and a soldier carried a banner, endless and light, as if made of chiffon, on which the battleship Aurora pierced storm clouds with the light of the sun.
The Scheme opened before me the sphere of the black laquered miniature. Murky events of past and approaching catastrophes oozed out like red mercury on buffed coal. There, where the heart of the soviet motherland pulsed like a tiny diode, an attack fell with the cruelest strength. The thin, spidery legs of geological cracks ran out of the extinguished marks. The flickering fuses of the borders crumbled apart, the sutures of the republic divided, and all of a sudden, in the hole-ridden frontiers of the newly-weakened country, the ancient, eternal Enemy appeared. He dispersed acoustic buoys in the seas--to catch every movement of the deeps--and threw a net of total control into the cosmos. His invisible hand dug with a diamond glass-cutter deep into the cracks of the fragile federation. Along those very cracks, an eventual split, grievous and final, was intended. […]
The Enemy perverted everyone he touched. And so the Baltic, smelling like it had drowned, pushed the spying ears of radiolocation stations in on us, ploughed for the Enemy’s barracks, opened ports for his ships. Asia flooded her cotton fields with concrete, turning them into landing strips for bomber-jets, and erected Dutch-style greenhouses—to regale their soy and potatoes upon the American-Dane, Austrian-Italian and Canadian-Turkish soldiers.
At the appointed hour the nuclear storage-boxes will explode, and the enemy submarines will surface in the Pacific Ocean and the North, Baltic, Barents, and Black seas. Through re-born Ukraine, on rumbling armored tanks, gloomy soldier in grandpa’s German camoflauge will set forth. From the Georgian side, Chechen warriors will fly in American helicopters. Along the freezing waters of the Amur river, predatory, webbed Chinese Junks will glide, carrying pirate troops to Russia’s shores. The narrow-eyes peddlers […] will take “Kalashnikovs” of Chinese make out of their checkered bags and conquer ancient Siberia. On Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, and Kamchatka, Japanese troops will begin a landowner’s march.
The enemy will not be stopped. The red button of the rocket-launch was removed long ago with its wires. But even if it was still there, it wouldn’t bring those rockets to life. The bellies of their shafts have been scraped out. Heavy ballistics were cut off long ago on Peace treaty agreement. Airplanes won’t fly, underwater atomic missiles won’t shoot from their docks. Military electronics were long ago blocked by the evil workings of enemy signals. We will not be saved.
But there is a special secret person, in possession of the illustrious Seventh Book. He knows that when the Books are read, one after the other, without stopping, the terrifying Enemy will be rendered powerless. The country will be securely covered with an invisible cupola, a miraculous shield, an impenetrable arch—stronger than everything in the world, for it is held up with unshakeable supports: good Memory, proud Patience, heartfelt Joy, mighty Strength, sacred Power, noble Rage and the great Scheme.
Before my eyes, a train of random events unfolded over countless years. In a small room, where the windows are draped with velvet curtains, a person is sitting at a simple office table. A marble lamp with a green lampshade casts electrification on the open pages. No one enters the room and no one leaves it. We see the reader from behind: his hunched shoulders, and his head, tilted in a trembling diadem of light.
He who reads the Books knows neither fatigue nor sleep, and needs no food. Death has no power over him, for she is less important than his laborious heroism. This reader is the irreplaceable guard of the Motherland. He carries out his watch over the spaces of the universe. Eternal is his labor. Indestructible is our guarded country.
This was the Scheme of the Book.
Everything was fair. Although a bit belatedly, I finally received the inconceivable happiness promised by the Soviet motherland. Even if it was the false, induced one of the Book of Memory. What’s the difference?…After all. in my real childhood, I piously believed that the state sung in books, films and songs really was the reality in which I lived. The earthly USSR was just the crude, incomplete body. In the hearts of romantic old-people and children from well-off urban families, an artificial ideal existed separately: the Heavenly Union. And when these ideal, mental spaces began to disappear, the inanimate geographical body disappeared as well.
Even when hatred for one’s own country and her past was considered in society to be a sign of good taste--I intuitively set aside those de-masking novels, those vociferous seagull voices yelling about all those gulag-children of the Arbat, walking about in all white. I was bothered by literary half-truths and in particular by their frowning authors, who beat against the table the hollow victim skulls of the past epoch. That bony clickity-clack didn’t change my feelings for the Union. Having grown up, I loved the Union not for the way it was, but for the way it could have been, if circumstances had been different. […]
And there was one key moment, the importance and paradox of which I didn’t realize for years. The Union knew how to make a Motherland out of Ukraine. Ukraine without the Union sure couldn’t remain one…
The country in which two of my childhoods were located at the same time—the genuine one and the fictional one—was a real Motherland that I couldn’t refuse. And The Book of Memory lying on the tray was her last will and testament.
If the Motherland is free, her borders are inviolable, that means that the librarian Alexei Vyazintsev is steadfastly carrying out his watch in the underground bunker, endlessly spinning threads for the protective Shield that is stretched over the country. Against enemies visible and invisible.
I will never die. And the green lamp will never go out.
Mikhail Elizarov, Bibliotekar’ (Moscow: Ad Marginem Press, 2009)
K.V. Loginov, Unpublished Interview with Mikhail Elizarov. [http://filologinoff.livejournal.com/657473.html]
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. - lizoksbooks.blogspot.com/
The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov
The title of the book, Библиотекарь ( The Librarian), deceptively conjures up the expectation of perhaps some quiet evening reading. Indeed, The Librarian is a novel about books, about the mystical powers of the written word. In the beginning, one hardly expects the strange turbulence which books such as this can create including the violent refusal of the readers of the books by the obscure writer Gromov to recognize the end of the epoch, and an almost Kafkaesque end to the book. Gromov’s books had the magical powers to change the person who read them and readers started to organize the “libraries” or armies to fight for these books.
Moskva : Ad Marginem, c2010.
The Librarian starts with a quotation from The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov. And in some sense it is the continuance of the ideas of the great and tragic book by Platonov about lives spent in vain.”The worker must fully understand that baskets and engines can be made as necessary, but it’s not possible to simply make a song or a sense of excitement. The song is more valuable than mere things…” Andrey Platonov
Gromov“The writer Dmitry Alexandrovich Gromov (1910-1981) lived his final days in complete obscurity. His books completely disappeared in the debris of Lethe, and when political disasters destroyed the Soviet motherland, it appeared as though there was nobody left to remember Gromov.
Barely anybody read Gromov. Of course the editors who determined the political loyalty of texts and the critics read it. But it was unlikely for somebody to be worried about and interested in titles like “Proletarian,”(1951) “Fly, Happiness!”(1954), “Narva”, (1965),”On the Roads of Labor” (1968), “The Silver Flat-Water,”(1972) or “The Calm Grass”( 1977).
The biography of Gromov went side by side with the development of the socialist fatherland. He finished middle school and pedagogical college and worked as executive secretary in the factory newspaper’s editorial board. The purges and the repression did not touch Gromov; he quietly endured until June of ‘41 before he was mobilized. He came as a military journalist to the front. In the winter of ‘43 Gromov‘s hands were frostbitten; the left wrist was saved but the right was amputated.
So all of Gromov’s books were created by the enforced lefthander. After the victory Gromov moved the family from the Tashkent evacuation to Donbas and worked at the city newspaper’s editorial board until his retirement.
Gromov started to write late, as a mature forty-year-old man. He often addressed the theme of the formation of the country, glorified the cotton being of the provincial cities, towns and villages, wrote about mines, factories, the boundless Virgin Soil and harvest battles. The heroes of his books were usually the Chairmen of the Kolkhozes, red directors, soldiers returning from the front, the widows keeping their love and civil courage, the pioneers and Komsomol members – strong, cheerful, and ready for heroic labor. Good triumphed with painful regularity: the metallurgic factories were built in record time, the recent student during his sixth month internship at the factory became a skilled specialist, the plant exceeded the plan and accepted the new one, and the grain in the fall flowed by the golden mountains to the Kolkhoz’s granaries. Evil was rehabilitated or went to prison.” …
….”Although Gromov published more than a half-million copies of his books, only several copies survived in the club’s libraries in distant villages, hospitals, ITK, orphanages, or otherwise rotting in the basements between the materials of the party’s congresses and serials of Lenin’s collected works.
And yet Gromov had dedicated fans. They scoured the country collecting surviving books, and would do anything for them. In the normal life Gromov’s books had the titles about some flat waters and grasses. However, Gromov’s collectors used significantly different titles – the Book of the Power, The Book of Strength, The Book of Rage, The Book of Patience, The Book of Joy, The Book of Memory, The Book of Meaning…”
Copyright Mikhail Elizarov
Translated by Elena Dimov, edited by Margarita Dimova pages.shanti.virginia.edu/
Mikhail Elizarov was born in 1973 in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. He graduated from Kharkov State University, with a degree in philology. Simultaneously with his studies, he studied vocal at Higher Musical School. Until 1999 he was a student at the Kharkov Arts Academy, studying film directing. He continued his film studies in Berlin, Germany.
His first book, Fingernails (a novella and collection of short stories) appeared in 2001, published by Ad Marginem Press in Moscow. The book was shortlisted for the Andrei Bely prize. He followed that with his novel Pasternak and short story collection Red Film. The books were nominated for the National Bestseller award. His novel The Librarian received the 2008 Russian Booker Prize.
Elizarov has been the recipient of a number of scholarships from European cultural foundations, including Literarische Kolloquium Berlin, Baltic Zentrum (Sweden), and Stipendium der Stadt Schwaz (Austria). His books have been translated into German, French, Italian, Danish, Chinese, Serbian, Romanian, Polish and Hungarian. Since 2007 Elizarov has been living in Moscow where he continues to write. - rus-lit.org/authors/1204/