Mikhail Yelizarov: The Librarian

This novel became the subject of controversy last December, when it was unexpectedly awarded the Russian Booker prize, one of the most conservative literary awards in the country. For years, the Russian Booker was primarily associated with the most traditional wing of the domestic literary scene, and on most occasions the prize went to books that are utterly conventional, often to the extent of being boring. By the award’s standards, Yelizarov’s novel about a cult following formed around books by a fictional mediocre Soviet writer Gromov, which allegedly have a magical effect, shouldn’t have even been short-listed in the first place. And the fact that it was not only nominated, but ended up winning the award was too much for some in the literary establishment to process. Writer Alexander Kabakov dismissed the book as “low-value fascist trash,” while prominent critic Andrei Nemzer said that he wanted to forget the awards ceremony as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, quite a number of people in the literary community highly praised the novel. What upset the literary establishment, apart from the fact that this important book prize was awarded to “an outsider,” (which doesn’t happen very often with the Booker), was that some of the passages could be interpreted as nostalgic for the Soviet times, which does not resonate with the liberal ideology of many in literary circles. However, this is just one way to look at the book, which, being a “postmodernist” work as opposed to a “realist” one, certainly leaves quite a lot of room for interpretation, like any multi-layered novel with plenty of subtext. This could be one of the reasons behind the favorable reviews by some critics and the scathing criticism of others. In any case, The Librarian came as a big breakthrough for Yelizarov, who was born in Ukraine, lived for several years in Germany, and published the novel Pasternak and two collections of short stories, Nails (Nogty) and Red Film (Krasnaya Plyonka) before winning the Booker. The Librarian’s story begins with the main character, Vyazemtsev, traveling to a provincial Russian city where his uncle, who has recently passed away, left him an apartment. Unexpectedly, Vyazemtsev, who knows nothing about Gromov and whose only goal is to sell the apartment, finds out that his late uncle used to be a “librarian” in one of the groups of Gromov’s followers, and that he has now inherited this title along with the apartment. Ideology aside, the novel has a prominent action component, which features a detailed description of “battles,” in which followers of the Gromov cult take part, with several different groups fighting for the possession of one of the writer’s precious volumes, of which only very few still exist. Clad in bizarre home-made armor, the “fighters” are not just bizarre, “post-modernist” characters, but they could also be looked at as people who found themselves in an utter ideological vacuum following the collapse of the Soviet system. Their fight over the “magical” books can be perceived as an allegory for human beings searching for some ideological or moral guidance. ...

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