Thursday, 26 January 2012

Die Hard in Moscow, or How Not to Get Killed By Librarians

Just before I left Moscow's Gorky Literary Institute at the end of my Year Abroad, I stole a large coloured map of the Moscow Metro from the wall of the classroom where I had spent many an idle hour not learning noun tables and the declension of passive participles. (There, I've admitted it. So sue me, Mr Peshkov.) Many years later, that stolen map is finally framed and mounted on the wall of my house, re-enchanting me with the mystique of all those resonant station names, marble halls, and stately escalators. I retrace the rhythmic incantation of our route to college: sand-red Dmitrovskaya, bland Savyolovskaia, Mendeleevskaya (perekhod k Novoslobodskoi, sparkling with stained glass), the bouquet of Tsvetnoi Bul'var, the triadic sunburst of Chekhovskaia, Pushkinskaia, and Tverskaia where we emerged to the surface. Then there were the less regularly visited stations, all with their own lexical or situational splendours: statuesque Ulitsa 1905 goda, the expansively pacific Prospekt Mira, the mysteriously hygienic Chistye Prudy, inoffensively eccentric Orekhovo, and the wonderfully fiery Shosse Entusiastov. Those not-yet-built dotted lines, with their promise of future efficiencies! And the infectious Russian belief that time does not actually pass while one is travelling through a tunnel, ensuring that everyone is always late.
Dmitry Glukhovsky
But I digress. This prologue should explain why Dmitry Glukhovsky's book Metro 2033 (first published online in 2002) was preordained to captivate me, in spite of its weak backstory, minimal character development, disappointing rather than tantalizing conclusion, and frankly pre-Neanderthal gender-typing. Now that I've cleared the negative stuff out of the way, let me return to metro-paean mode. Like the London Underground, the Moscow metro doubles as a bomb shelter; in Metro 2033 it has become home to a community of a few thousands, survivors of a devastating, unspecified worldwide nuclear conflict. For some - such as the hero, Artyom - the metro is the only home they have ever known. Glukhovsky's attempts at social history are either inept or amusing (the emergence of Fascist and revivalist Stalinist fiefdoms, the latter on the Red Line, of course; or the evolution of the Circle Line stations into a sophisticated mercantile guild, known as Ganza after the Hanseatic League), sideswiping unsubtly at contemporary Russian political trends. His fantasy is much more compelling. Artyom's station (VDNKh) is facing repeated incursions by black-skinned, zombie-like mutants with telepathic powers, who have evolved above ground in Botanicheskii Sad. After a charismatic stranger called Hunter perishes in a sub-Die Hard attempt to eliminate these mutants further up the line, Artyom sets off alone to "Polis" - a fabled confluence of underground cities at the spot where, uniquely, four lines intersect - underneath the Lenin Library.

Glukhovsky isn't particularly good at metaphysics: plotlines about a secret book in which the future of the human race is written, or about the ultimate destination of human souls, are stereotypical and unconvincing. He's much better at urban mythopoesis. Did you know that the reason there are sliding doors on some platforms in the St Petersburg metro is because, during construction, workers kept disappearing? Only blood and bones were ever found. Hence the doors, as a sensible precaution to forestall subterranean carnivores from escaping upstairs. Did you know that, after the Moscow Metro was built, Stalin gave orders for a SECOND METRO LINE (Metro-Dva) to be constructed, EVEN DEEPER, as an ultimate bomb shelter for the elite - who now oversee the affairs of plebeian Metro-One from a discreet distance? Have you heard about the lonely wanderer who, camping for the night on an abandoned platform, saw and heard a lit-up metro train slide slowly through the station, crammed with oblivious commuters, apart from one child at the last window of the last carriage, pointing and laughing at him as he stared in terror? Did you know that there are cannibalistic pygmies with poisoned blow-pipes hunting along both Blue Lines? Glukhovsky excels at expressing the inchoate terrors of the lightless tunnels (terrible even for their natives, raised in semidarkness) and in mapping them - sometimes tongue-in-cheek - to the real-life topography of the metro.
One of my favourite passages involved Artyom's first expedition to the surface, after he reaches Polis. Here, in this last great sanctuary for intellectual culture, Artyom makes the understandable faux pas of calling the scholars and antiquarians 'librarians'. They turn pale with horror at the term: they prefer to be known as 'brahmins'. Even when they dispatch Artyom to the Lenin Library on a secret mission, they refuse to explain in advance what the 'librarians' are, or why they inspire fear. "Don't talk on the stairs. [...] Only shoot if you absolutely have to," one of the sub-Steven-Segal-esque stalkers (in the Tarkovskian meaning of the word) warns Artyom as they creep inside the massive, silent building. 
"Shots might attract them." "Attract who?" Artyom had to ask. "What do you mean, who?" Miller turned his question back on him.  "Who do you expect to meet in the Library? Librarians, of course". Danila gulped and turned pale. Artyom glanced at him, then at Miller, and decided that now was not the moment to pretend he understood everything. "And who are they?" Miller raised an eyebrow in surprise. His bearded companion covered his eyes with his hand. Danila looked at the floor. For a long time, the stalker kept his searching gaze trained on Artyom; when he was finally sure that the latter wasn't joking, he said dispassionately: "You'll see for yourself. Remember the key thing - you can stop them from attacking if you look them in the eye. Straight in the eye, got it? And don't let them sneak up behind you..."
Despite this crash course in librarian management (which I would recommend to any readers encountering the truculent floor staff in Humanities One and Two of the British Library), bad stuff inevitably happens - involuntary seppuku in the stacks, anyone? Since they are sensitive to the slightest noise, the librarians converge rapidly on Artyom's team:
'And now down that same staircase, to which they had only just turned, hunched grey figures stole unhurriedly and absolutely noiselessly. There was more than a dozen of the beasts, almost entirely blending into the twilight. Each one of them would have been about Artyom's height had they not moved doubled over, so that their long forepaws, strikingly similar to hands, almost brushed the ground. The creatures moved forward on their two hindlegs, shifting slowly, but silently and with surprising agility, from one foot to another. From a distance they resembled, more than anything else, gorillas from Artyom's childhood biology textbook...'