The Archivist’s Story
By: Travis Holland
Format/Source: Paperback; my copy
Moscow, 1939. In the recesses of the infamous Lubyanka prison, a young archivist is sent to authenticate an unsigned story confiscated from one of the many political prisoners there. The writer is Isaac Babel. The great author of Red Cavalry is spending his last days forbidden to write, his final manuscripts consigned to the archivist, Pavel Dubrov, who will ultimately be charged with destroying them. The emotional jolt of meeting Babel face-to-face leads to a reckless decision: he will save the last stories of the author he reveres, whatever the cost.
From the margins of history, Travis Holland has woven a tale of the greatest power. Pavel’s private act of courage in the face of a vast bureaucracy of evil invigorates a life th had lost its meaning, even as it guarantees his almost certain undoing.
This novel has been on my want-to-read pile for years. My online friend recommended it to me on GoodReads–it hit all of my interests, both as a reader and as an academic–but for whatever reason I never got around to picking up a copy of thise novel until recently (hurray!). Contains some minor (I think?) spoilers ahead!
From the first page, the author really grabs the reader with his sense of prose. The narrative is introspective and lyrical, which is perfect because a) Pavel, the main character, was a teacher and taught Russian literature and b) it fuels the tense and melancholic/haunting atmosphere of the story.
There are great lines throughout the novel and while I have not read more modern/20c Russian writers, I appreciated the references and inclusion of their excerpts in the pages. It adds to the story and to Pavel’s character as a great reader of Russian lit.The story itself really captures the tension of the Great Terror that took place in the latter half of the 1930s. While the tension is not in the forefront all the time, it lingers in the background and the reader is reminded of it whenever Pavel goes to work or encounters a person towing the Party line. I had studied the Great Terror in detail during my undergrad and there’s still so much about the phenomenon that historians do not understand (for an excellent nonfiction title looking at the everyday impact of the Great Terror on the population, I strongly recommend Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (my independent studies professor recommended it to me when I wrote my research paper on it)). The novel not only factors in the phenomenon of people disappearing in the middle of the night by the NKVD and the process of denunciations but also survival at the day-to-day level, blending in with the crowd.
At the same time, the story raises questions about standing up and doing the right thing and the themes of memory and the process of being remembered. The latter is quite existential; Semyon at one point mentions that everyone is worth being remembered, even the most normal, lay-low individual. How we are remembered by other people and those we leave behind, the mementos we leave behind…it’s all part of that process of memory. If there was anything about this novel that surprised me, it was what Pavel did at the end of the novel and regarding his own sense of being remembered.
Pavel is a character who is going through a lot on top of the ongoing pressure to lay low and remain unnoticed. His life centres around his sense of loss over his wife, Elena, and his struggle to reclaim her remains and her luggage that was lost along the way. It colours a lot of his personality along with the ongoing sense of guilt of how he ended up where he is at the start of the novel. This novel is essentially about Pavel and what he’s going through, how he’s coming to terms with these issues in his life; his action of saving Issac Babel’s stories are merely a consequence of his feelings as oppose to it being a central storyline.
The other characters were interesting too, adding to that sense of survival during this particular period of Soviet history. His apartment neighbour Natalya’s sense of loss doesn’t add much weight to the story except to contrast with Pavel; the mystery regarding her own loss in the past is revealed towards the end but it’s so vague that, as a reader, I couldn’t quite connect with it on an emotional level. Nonetheless, her daily struggle evokes my general sympathy.
What’s also interesting about this novel is that despite of the dread that looms over the characters’ heads under this regime and the difficulty in knowing who to trust in that day and age, there are still bouts of kindness amongst the charactesr; people go about their business everyday but there are small actions here and there–whether it be helping someone home or looking out for someone who’s in poor health–that offset the tension in small ways.
The Archivist’s Story is a quiet but introspective and tense novel that ultimately poses the question of a person’s value in a rigid regime like the 1930s Soviet Union but also the notions of memory and what we leave behind. Using Russian literature is a good way to reflect on these things; on a minor note, I like how the story also briefly touches on the theme of writing as a crucial identity factor for writers. I highly recommend this novel for readers of historical fiction and introspective character drama.