As the introduction to this book will tell you, the books by Gromov, obscure and long forgotten propaganda author of the Soviet era, have such an effect on their readers that they suddenly enjoy supernatural powers. Understandably, their readers need to keep accessing these books at all cost and gather into groups around book-bearers, or, as they're called, librarians. Alexei, until now a loser, comes to collect an uncle's inheritance and unexpectedly becomes a librarian. He tells his extraordinary, unbelievable story.
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By Mikhail Elizarov, Andrew Bromfield
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2007 Mikhail Elizarov
All rights reserved.
The writer Dmitry Alexandrovich Gromov (1910 — 81) lived out his days in total obscurity. His books sank without trace in a bottomless abyss of recycled paper, and when political catastrophes finally demolished his Soviet Homeland, it seemed that there was no one at all left to remember the writer Gromov.
Not many people had read him. Of course, there were the Soviet editors who assessed the political loyalty of texts, followed by the critics. But it was hardly likely that anyone had ever pricked up their ears in startled interest at the titles The Proletarian Way (1951), Fly On, Happiness! (1954), Narva (1965), By Labour's Roads (1968), The Silver Channel (1972) and The Quiet Grass (1977).
Gromov's life story progressed step by step in parallel with the development of his Socialist Motherland. He was educated at a Soviet seven-year school and a teacher-training college, and subsequently worked as the executive editor of a factory's in-house newspaper. The purges and repressions passed Gromov by and he calmly carried on as he was until June 1941, when he was drafted into the army and found himself on the front line as a war correspondent. In the winter of 1943 Gromov suffered frostbite in his hands — they managed to save the left one, but his right hand was amputated. After the victory was won, Gromov took his family from Tashkent, the city to which they had been evacuated, to the Donbas and stayed there, working in the editorial office of a municipal newspaper until he retired.
Gromov took up the literary pen late, as a mature forty-year-old. He often drew his subjects from the development of the country as a whole, celebrating the everyday, plain, cotton-print life of small provincial towns, settlements and villages, writing about mines, factories, boundless expanses of virgin soil and battles fought for the harvest. The heroes of Gromov's books were usually "Red Directors" or collective-farm chairmen, soldiers newly returned from the front, widows who had preserved inviolate their love and their civic courage, and Young Pioneers or Young Communist League activists — resolute and jovial, ready and willing to perform some heroic "feat of labour". Good triumphed with excruciating regularity: metallurgical combines sprang up in record times; a young man who only yesterday had been a student was transformed into a seasoned specialist after a mere six months of practical work in an industrial plant; a factory workshop over-fulfilled the plan and took on additional obligations; in autumn golden rivers of grain flowed into a collective farm's storage bins. Evil was always re-educated or clapped in jail. And amorous passions also developed — but they were very chaste: following Chekhov's axiom on firearms in plays, the gunshot of a kiss that was promised at the start of a book was fired as a damp, slobbery blank to a cheek in the final pages. But so much for the subject matter — all of this was also written in a dreary style, in soundly wrought but incredibly insipid sentences. Even the covers, with their tractors, combine harvesters and miners, were made out of some trashy kind of cardboard.
The country that gave birth to Gromov could afford to publish thousands of authors that no one read. The books lay in the shops, their prices were reduced to a few copecks, they were carted off to a warehouse and handed over for pulping, and more books that no one wanted were published.
The last time Gromov was published was in 1977, but after that all those people in the editorial offices, who realized that Gromov's writings were the harmless verbal trash of a war veteran and that, while there was no particular social demand for them, society had nothing against the actual fact of their existence, were replaced by different people. Everywhere he went, Gromov received polite refusals. The state, already celebrating its own imminent suicidal demise, was hatching out the demonic literature of its own destroyers.
Gromov, a solitary widower now, realized that his allotted time had expired, and he too quietly expired, to be followed ten years later by the USSR, for which he had once written his books.
Although altogether more than half a million volumes of Gromov's works were printed, only scattered, individual copies had found miraculous refuge in the libraries of clubs in remote villages, hospitals, corrective labour camps and orphanages, or been left to rot in basements, bound round crosswise with string and squeezed in between the documents of some Party Congress and multiple volumes of the Collected Works of Lenin.
And yet Gromov did have his own genuine devotees. And they scoured the country, collecting the surviving books, willing to go to any lengths to get them.
In everyday life Gromov's books bore titles with references to river channels and steppe grass. But the titles used among Gromov's collectors were quite different — the Book of Strength, the Book of Power, the Book of Fury, the Book of Endurance, the Book of Joy, the Book of Memory, the Book of Meaning ...CHAPTER 2
Valerian Mikhaylovich lagudov could undoubtedly be considered one of the most influential figures in the universe of Gromovian discourse.
Lagudov was an only child, born to a family of teachers in Saratov. He demonstrated significant talent from early childhood. In 1945, as a youth of seventeen years, he set out for the war as a volunteer, but never reached the front — in April he contracted pneumonia and spent a month in hospital, and in May the war was over — the theme of a soldier who missed the war was an extremely painful one for Lagudov.
In 1947 Lagudov was admitted to the philological faculty of a university. After successfully defending his graduation thesis, he worked as a journalist on a provincial newspaper for twelve years, and in 1965 he was invited to join a literary journal, where he became the head of the review section.
Lagudov's predecessor had departed from his post after letting a novel of dubious loyalty slip through. Khrushchev's thaw had already taken place, but the boundaries of censorship remained blurred, and it wasn't always easy to tell apart a text in the spirit of the new times and anti-Soviet propaganda. As a result both the journal and the publishing house had received a severe reprimand. And therefore Lagudov paid attention to everything that arrived on his desk. After glancing briefly through a story by Gromov one evening, he decided to polish the book off quickly and never come back to it. He had a positively warm review in mind — Lagudov's conscience wouldn't allow him to criticize a front-line veteran, even if the veteran's politically correct text about anti-aircraft gunners was mediocre from an artistic point of view. Before nightfall he had finished the book. Without even suspecting it, the assiduous Lagudov had thus fulfilled the Condition of Continuity. Maintaining his vigilance, he had read the story from the first line to the last, without skipping the dreary paragraphs of nature description or any patriotic dialogue. And thus Lagudov had also fulfilled the Condition of Zeal.
He had read the Book of Joy, otherwise known as Narva. According to his former wife's reminiscences, Lagudov experienced a state of turbulent euphoria and couldn't sleep all night long; he said that he had subjected existence to a comprehensive analysis and had magnificent ideas about how to do good for mankind. He said that previously he had been enmeshed in life, but now everything had become clear, and he laughed loudly as he said it. By morning the emotions had subsided, and he drily informed his alarmed wife that it was too early to proclaim his ideas openly. That day he couldn't go to work because he was in a depressed state, and he didn't express any more ideas on the subject of universal harmony.
The substantive aspect of the euphoria that Lagudov experienced did not possess any conceptual points of intersection with Gromov's storyline, and Lagudov himself did not link the events of the night with the book in any way. But nonetheless a certain emotional scar was left on his soul, which ensured that Lagudov did not forget the writer by the name of Gromov.
Eighteen years later Lagudov saw a short novel by Gromov in a seedy little shop at a railway station. Inspired by nostalgia for the happiness of that distant night, Lagudov bought the book; after all the reductions it cost only five copecks and it was not very large, about two hundred small pages — just right for the journey ahead.
In the suburban train circumstances once again assisted Lagudov in fulfilling the two Conditions. Some tipsy young louts travelling in his carriage were pestering the passengers. Lagudov, no longer young and not very strong, chose not to get involved with the burly yobs. As a man he felt ashamed of not being able to pull the villains up short, and so he stuck his nose into the book's pages, pretending to be someone extremely interested in what he was reading.
The volume Lagudov had picked up this time was the Book of Memory (The Quiet Grass), which cast him briefly into a drowsy state. The book implanted in him a phantom of brilliant radiance, a mythical, nonexistent memory. Lagudov was engulfed by such overwhelming tenderness for the life he dreamed of that he trembled in tearful ecstasy at this all-consuming, pure, lambent feeling.
Reading a second Book by Gromov wrought an abrupt change in Lagudov's destiny. He left his job, divorced his wife and disappeared, leaving no tracks behind him. Three years later Lagudov surfaced again, and a mighty clan had already assembled around him, although its members called themselves a "library". This was the term that came in time to be applied to all organizations of a similar nature.
In the first instance Lagudov's library was joined by people on whom he had tested the Book of Memory. Initially he rather arrogantly took the miraculous effect to be the result of his own personal qualities. However, experiments showed that if the Conditions were observed, the Book affected everyone without exception. The psychiatrist Artur Friesman became Lagudov's closest associate, although for the first few months Lagudov had doubted his mental health.
Lagudov was cautiously selective, recruiting members of peaceable professions that had been reduced to poverty — teachers, engineers, modest workers in the cultural sphere — those who had been intimidated and morally crushed by the sweeping changes of recent times. He assumed that the intelligentsia, humiliated by these new times, would provide amenable and reliable material, incapable of rebellion or betrayal, especially if the Books — and, by inference, Lagudov — could help realize the intelligentsia's eternal yearning, as a class, for spirituality.
In many respects this supposition was mistaken. Gromov's Books induced global personality change, and the circumspect Lagudov was merely fortunate with most of his new comrades, in addition to which he received professional assistance from Friesman, who by no means recruited anyone and everyone.
Those who joined the library usually felt profound respect and loyalty to Lagudov, and that was understandable — Valerian Mikhaylovich gave back hope to most of these despairing people tormented by poverty, offering them a meaning for their existence and a close community united around a single idea.
For the first two years the people whom Lagudov gathered under his banner were mostly humiliated and insulted members of the intelligentsia, but then he decided that the library was clearly lacking in a more robust kind of strength. And at this point Friesman came to Lagudov's rescue. Men who had been shattered by the war in Afghanistan often came to his clinic for help. Friesman worked on these men first, and then handed them over to Lagudov. In 1991 the library was augmented by retired soldiers who had no wish to betray their Soviet oath. The former officers transformed the intelligentsia members into a serious combat unit with strict discipline and a security service. The library could turn out up to a hundred fighting men at any time.
Naturally, the system of selection did fail sometimes. Thoughtless prattlers appeared, who blabbed about the Books at every opportunity. On several occasions the shoots of conspiracy broke through the surface of the ground. But the mischief-makers all suffered an identical tragic fate — they disappeared without trace.
There were also cases of Books being stolen. Lagudov was betrayed by a rank-and-file reader, a certain Yakimov. After being issued the Book of Memory from the reserves when his turn came round, Yakimov duped the curator and fled to parts unknown. Lagudov had enough books, and the library was not impoverished, but the precedent was abhorrent in itself and, in addition, the traitor had managed to make his escape.
Other readers took their lead from this successful crime. These ones were caught. To restore Lagudov's shaken authority and to deter any future miscreants, the book thieves were quartered in front of the entire library.
Yakimov was discovered by chance a year after the daring robbery. He had taken refuge in Ufa. A punitive assault force was immediately dispatched there, its mission to eliminate the thief and return the Book. Lagudov's soldiers were greatly surprised when they discovered that Yakimov had not wasted his time in Ufa and had organized a library of his own.
Lagudov's small detachment took the courageous decision not to wait for reinforcements to arrive. They openly informed Yakimov about the showdown in the laconic "we're coming to get you" style. Cold weapons were agreed on and a spot outside the city, as remote as possible, was chosen.
It's worth noting that the readers of Yakimov's library lived according to the principle "the dead know no shame". No one won the victory that night. Both adversaries withdrew, exhausted by the sanguinary conflict.
Lagudov didn't hazard another punitive expedition. He needed to protect the book depository against the enemy closer to home and not send detachments off to the back of beyond, getting faithful readers killed in order to satisfy his own ambitions. His library was in any case surrounded by numerous aggressive rivals.
For a long time Lagudov assumed that knowledge of Gromov was being spread by traitors from his own library. He believed too strongly in his own chosen status and couldn't possibly imagine that anyone apart from him had proved capable of penetrating the secret of the Books independently. Lagudov regarded all those who founded their power on his discovery as second-rate individuals, corrupt thieves. Even subsequently, when he was forced to abandon his ideas of exclusivity, he only accepted contact on an equal basis — and even then grudgingly — with initial, natural librarians: those who had solved the mystery of the Books with their own brains, without any prompting.
However, the proportion of those who became familiar with Gromov through information leaks was actually rather large and many new clans were organized around fugitive readers, without any theft necessarily being involved — at the end of the Eighties it wasn't all that difficult to get hold of the Book of Memory if you really wanted to. The most important role was not played by renegades or by rumours, but by the missionary activities of the first "apostles", whose names have long since occupied their posthumous places in the pantheon of this cruel and secretive society. Some of them are worth mentioning.
Pyotr Vladimirovich Shepchikhin. He worked in a print shop and typeset the Book of Memory. After confusing the dust jackets, instead of the detective novel he had set his mind on, he took home Gromov. By pure chance he got stuck in the lift with the book for the entire night, and when he was freed by lift engineers early in the morning, he came out a different man. A sensitive individual, Shepchikhin immediately realized that the reason lay not in his own physiology, but in the mysterious Book. Shaken by the mystery, he left his job and set off to wander the country, becoming one of Gromov's most fervent propagandists.
Excerpted from The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov, Andrew Bromfield. Copyright © 2007 Mikhail Elizarov. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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