Despite the title, Mikhail Elizarov’s 2007 novel is a far cry from the shushing of the stacks. Set during the death throes of the Soviet Union, The Librarian plunges headlong into a violent and fantastical reality in which the pulp propaganda novels of a forgotten veteran, Gromov, become coveted for the powers they impart to their readers. Schlocky storylines and turgid prose turn into unexpected sources of enchantment, with each of the original novels (which have unpromising titles such as The Proletarian Way and By Labour’s Road) becoming gospels of the states they heighten, from Fury to Endurance. Rivalrous ‘reading rooms’ spring up, searching out the scattered scriptures from where they have taken ‘miraculous refuge’ in obsolescence, rotting in basements ‘between the documents of some Party Congress and multiple volumes of The Collected Works of Lenin’. Mobs of devotees fiercely guard them with armour improvised from ice-hockey kit and kitchenware, ‘like the topsy-turvy outfits of Tweedledum and Tweedledee’. The nod to Lewis Carroll is telling, as Elizarov shares with him an acute sense of the absurd and delights in peopling his post-Soviet Wonderland with a cast of imperious rulers and deranged misfits. Instead of the Red Queen, for instance, there is Mokhova, the mop lady turned ruthless marauder, who slices her way to a position of notoriety and amasses a legion of followers. Through a series of portraits of the rising leaders in this fractious theology Elizarov anatomises the beliefs of a generation who found themselves outcasts in their homeland, clinging to the last vestiges of feeling afforded them by the vision of a ‘Soviet eternity’ they had once been promised.
The more outsized characters are described by our narrator, Alexei, who has a book of ‘Memory’ bestowed on him and becomes the titular librarian almost by default. Alexei, an Everyman with a comically dysfunctional home life, is unprepared for the savagery around him and has distance enough from the phenomenon