I received an advanced review copy of this title from publisher through NetGalley. The original book was written and published in Russian in 2007 and this English version has been published by Pushkin Press.
I recently read an article in The New York Review of Books by Ian Frazier in which he describes Russian satire and humor and the ways in which it differs from the rest of Europe and the United States. Frazier writes, “Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.” Elizarov’s The Librarian is a perfect literary example of Frazier’s description of Russian humor.
The book opens with a description of a fictional Soviet-era writer named Gormov whose books were mass-produced but were of such poor quality that they were relegated to the bargain bin in used bookstores almost immediately. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gormov’s books are rediscovered and are also found to have magical effects on their readers. The Book of Joy, for instance, puts readers into a temporary state of euphoria that is reminiscent of a drug high. There are seven such magical books in the Gormov collection. As groups acquire copies of these powerful books, they are called “Libraries.” These libraries then engage in ridiculous, epic battles to fight for ownership of Gormov’s books.
The most absurd “library” of the bunch is a group of frail and senile old women living in a nursing home to whom the Book of Endurance is read. All of a sudden their newly acquired strength turns these geriatrics into a fierce and bizarre army of warrior-like Amazons who kill people by the hundreds in order to protect their precious library. There is an excessive amount of stabbing with knitting needles and pounding heads with hammers which ridiculous and droll scenes present us with the “slapstick” humor that Frazer describes but where characters “actually die.”
The main character of the book is a meek young man named Alexei whose only concern in life is to be an actor. Of course, his acting career has never taken off so he finds himself divorced and living at home with his parents. When his uncle dies he is asked to put his things in order and sell his uncle’s apartment. The contents of the apartment contain one of Gormov’s books so naturally Alexei is drawn into the world of the libraries. His lack of reaction as people are stabbed and killed around him in order to protect the book is ridiculous and comical. He eventually dons his own armour, which consists of old truck tires, and launches himself headlong into the bloody fray.
The problems with Alexei’s own library and its inevitable clash with other libraries is the topic of the second half of the book. There are many battle scenes where the rival libraries have more and more comical battles in which the clash of these book warriors resemble video games. In the end, Alexei is saved by the brigade of geriatric warriors who lock him up and want to use him as their guinea pig to test out the effects of reading all seven books at once. The ending has a more serious tone then the rest of the book and provides and interesting commentary on worshipping and overvaluing objects, blindly following leaders without questioning their motives and the sacrificing of one person for the safety of the whole community. For a sampling of Russian humor and satire THE LIBRARIAN is a perfect choice, but I will warn you to be prepared for a wild ride.