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19 November 2018

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Book Review

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The Librarian

By Mikhail Elizarov (Pushkin Press, $18.95)

It has been said that the most vicious, uncompromising political battles take place inside nonprofits and university English departments. Such brutality in unexpected places lies at the heart of Elizarov’s novel, in which seemingly unassuming, harmless members of Russia’s 1990s intelligentsia take up maces, battleaxes and spears to wage bloody hand-to-hand combat for control over... books.

But not just any books. They are the lost novels of an obscure Soviet author named Gromov that inexplicably reflect onto their possessors unusual powers (memory, bravery, fury, endurance) when read under the right conditions. And since possessing more books conveys more powers, there is something worth fighting for.

At the center of the action is the unassuming Alexei, who at the outset finds he has inherited his Uncle Maxim’s Siberian apartment, yet only belatedly does he discover he has also been bequeathed the Book of Memory. As the newly appointed keeper of this tome, he becomes a Librarian, trying desperately to survive while under siege from all sides by other reader groups.

After The Librarian, it is a bit difficult to think of a book club in exactly the same way again. And, admittedly, the book does at times seem to lurch from one graphically medieval bloodbath to the next. Barely do we get an opportunity to meet a character before they are gored or decapitated. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the book’s great appeal (it won the Russian Booker).

But one hopes there is more to it. Because between all the fight and flight, the novel is something of a requiem for a country torn asunder by poverty and criminal gangs, a sort of nostalgic tribute to a time when words and books held greater meaning, when people would expose themselves to great personal risk to preserve books and ideas for later generations.

But perhaps that is reading too much into things.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2016