Image from the New York Times review.
Travis Holland’s first novel, “The Archivist’s Story,” concerns the fate of one of these writers, the Russian-Jewish short-story master Isaac Babel, author of the inimitable Red Cavalry tales, which were set among the Cossack units of the Red Army fighting in Poland in 1920. Holland stays close to the historical context of the period of Stalin’s purges, but imagines the nature and consequences of a man’s unexpected decision to save rather than destroy the manuscripts of a writer sentenced to death.
Babel’s last known words at the time of his arrest were “They didn’t let me finish.” The N.K.V.D. (the K.G.B.’s precursor) was highly conscientious when it came to collecting notes and manuscripts; many were methodically burned, many disappeared without a trace. In his remarkable book, “The K.G.B.’s Literary Archive: The Discovery of the Ultimate Fate of Russia’s Suppressed Writers,” Vitaly Shentalinsky delves into the surviving files from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, exposing what was — and, in part, still remains — shrouded in secrecy. The chapter on Babel ends with a tantalizing question: “And the manuscripts, all 27 folders? On the day of Babel’s arrest they were packed up into seven parcels, each closed with a wax seal, and a certain Kutyrev, a junior lieutenant in the N.K.V.D., following somebody’s orders, removed them as documentary evidence from the file. From then on all trace of them disappeared.”
The manuscripts’ disappearance is the starting point of Holland’s novel, which does indeed feature Kutyrev. However, his subordinate at the Lubyanka archives, Pavel Dubrov, is a fictional addition to the story.
That review goes on to be a touch patronising: “…his intense attachment to Babel can be detrimental to his own fiction. He seems to be writing in a self-imposed shadow of Babel’s genius, peppering the novel with quotes from Babel and his contemporaries and never taking off with the kind of freedom a very talented young novelist should take for granted. Maintaining a greater distance from Babel — perhaps with the invention of an unnamed fictional author, a nuanced creation rather than an intimidating idol — would have allowed Holland to write a less constrained narrative, illuminating with greater defiance and flourish his fascinating central theme: can one small act of personal courage subvert the course, and cruelty, of history?” Well, perhaps, but I was impressed.
This becomes my first Best Read of 2008.
See also Keith Taylor in the Ann Arbor Observer. “Travis Holland’s success in The Archivist’s Story is that he is able to draw us into this world, fearing for Pavel even as we recognize his weakness and his likely failure. He has created the details of the gray Soviet city but also gives sharp moments of beauty in the landscape and in the people who inhabit the concrete apartment complexes. He never feels the need to lecture the reader on the consequences of the story he tells. It is a story I finished in tears, wishing that it could have gone on and on, wishing for a different history.”
There is another great review by Natasha Randall in The Moscow Times (July 20, 2007).
Holland holds the reader in suspense as Kutyrev mysteriously intimates that Pavel’s career will end when he has finished incinerating all the manuscripts in the archive. But Pavel the archivist continues doing what he needs to do: He needs to preserve, and to build memorials. That’s why he steals manuscripts, hoards the letters of an arrested friend and even hides a handkerchief that Babel gave him. As his 58-year-old mother begins losing her memory due to a brain tumor, Pavel’s greatest fear becomes forgetting itself: “A day, one day, when his mother will no longer recognize him, will no longer remember their lives together. Two deaths then: her past, his.”
As trouble looms perceptibly for Pavel, Holland creates scene after ominous scene in a rather straightforward delivery. The writing is barely noticeable, in part because Holland’s descriptions are on the bland side. But the smoothness of the flow and the mounting tension soon engross the reader in Pavel’s fate. With Pavel, Holland competently explores a voice of conscience within one of the most brutal institutions in history. And it is a worthy and interesting voice, though Holland may have erred toward the melodramatic in his treatment.
I did not find it excessively melodramatic. It certainly served as a reminder of how dreadful Stalinist ideology was (and is) in its treatment of ideas, artists and writers — and we ever need to be reminded of this. The temptation to exalt any ideology over freedom of expression and even more important over humanity must always be resisted.
It made me want to read Babel as well…