« Two Great Myths | Main | Book Report: Five Children on the Western Front »

Book Report: The Librarian

I’ve recently been reading two specfic books in translation. One of them is The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, which I haven’t finished, and the other is The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov. It’s interesting to me that both of them begin with lengthy introductory passages that do not introduce characters that will be in the bulk of the novel. In both cases, they are talking about events a generation ago, and the closest we come to a central character in this part dies. After that bit—and I’m talking about fifty pages or more—we skip forward to the present day, or something like it. A new place, a new time, new characters. In both cases, that initial part was somewhat difficult for me to get through, in part because there didn’t seem to be a plot, as such, with a main character who wants something and circumstances preventing it, just a long (and violent) setting of the background. Probably just a coincidence, but I don’t read a lot of non-Western fiction, and it seemed odd that the two such books I read this year both started in a way that I found very difficult to get in to.

The other really odd thing… OK, so The Librarian is about a set of books that, if read a certain way, grant the reader strength, endurance, good memories, or other qualities. The bulk of the book is the struggle between groups of readers who disagree about the correct ways to read the books and want to control them. The struggle is mostly violent (incredibly violent; this may be the most violent book I have ever read) and as smaller reading rooms coalesce into larger organizations (or, rather, as large organizations force smaller reading rooms to join them or die) the violence between those large organized libraries increases in scale. People within these organizations are willing to commit the most appalling atrocities in defense of their books, and in fact derive the strength to do so from reading the books themselves.

Now, that’s not the odd thing. The odd thing is… so I have developed a habit (that’s not the odd thing, or perhaps it’s an odd thing but not the odd thing I am leading up to) of finishing a book and, if I am feeling at all unsettled about my interpretation of it, looking up a few reviews and essays about it. Books of quote-literary-merit-unquote will have more such, of course, but there are blog posts and such for all sorts of books these internetty days. Anyway, I looked up what people were saying about this book, which after all won a literary award in Russia, and it turns out was a controversial choice at the time, so when it came out in English people did write about it quite a bit. And here’s the odd thing: none of the essays or reviews I looked at talked about Mr. Elizarov’s attitude toward Scripture.

They talked about his satire of capitalism, his nostalgia for the Soviet era of his youth (or his subversion of that nostalgia, depending on the interpretation) and the racism of the characters (and possible of the book). They talked about the violence. They talked about the beginning, and they talked about the end. But they didn’t talk about religion and Scripture.

Does that not strike you as odd? I mean, if you came across a story about people who were killing each other over the right way to read a book, wouldn’t you assume that the writer was writing a satire of religion? Part of what I was looking for in the essays was whether other people found the satire to be as muddled and unsatisfactory as I did, but evidently they didn’t find it at all. And perhaps for a Ukranian living in Moscow, more or less my age, Scripture is not a cultural thing, and people killing each other over control of books is assumed to be resource-based or even economic-theory based. But it seems odd to me that the Westerners writing about it didn’t make that connection, even if Mr. Elizarov hadn’t intended it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Huh, I think of this as being not uncommon, for a prologue chapter to show a scene from the past that sets the scene for the present (the main story). I cannot, of course, think of a single example offhand... But I feel like the thing where the prologue ends with "and then a hundred years passed" or "until an intrepid explorer stumbled upon the whatsit" or whatever.

Yeah, no, I think of those as being short (


Post a comment

Please join in. Comments on older posts will be held for moderation. Don't be a jerk. Eat fruit.