A great historical novel should never remind you that you are reading historical fiction; the distance between the writing and the subject should be no greater than the thickness of a pane of window glass, and the ability to feel, see, hear, the characters in their element should never be as hard as hearing or seeing through such glass. Travis Holland's The Archivist Story sits gracefully in the middle of Stalinist Russia, and it is a challenge to remember that this tiny novel was written by an American in the 2000s.
Pavel, the quiet, haunted archivist finds himself in a dilemma. He has been chosen, because of his background as a literature professor, to be a drudge in a faceless, nameless office in Moscow who will help destroy Russia's literary heritage. The irony is poignant and is not lost on Pavel, who ultimately must decide whether he can save himself or a small group of hand selected stories. Around this dilemma, Pavel must recover from a tragic personal loss, the travails of his aging mother, the loneliness of middle age, and the doom of Stalin's purges. Friends and acquaintances disappear frequently, as the novel proceeds, and with every loss, Pavel must realize the possibility of his own limited days.
Holland's novel meditates, broadly, on the role of art and the individual; and the doom of the security state, complete with the ripping Censor, echoes, whisperingly, our own fears of increased government, national i.d. cards, and peeking eyes at library records. Pavel's decisions may not be our own, if we find ourselves in a similar predicament, yet we are left to understand that profound loss is not only meted out in a human death toll but can manifest itself through killed art.
The style is sparse and haunting, like the chilled Moscow streets and Pavel's own life. The present tense does not bring us any closer to Pavel, he maintains a distance from the reader, but it does offer a sense of immediacy and closeness to the complete story that would have been difficult in another tense.
If you liked this, you might also like:
Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon - Written by a former member of the Russian Communist Party, this novel provides historical information about Stalin's show trials. Will provide more insights into the period The Archivist's investigates.
Ayn Rand's We the Living: Part-autobiography, part treatise against the tyranny of Communism, this short novel creates the same sort of atmosphere and sense of longing found in Holland's work. (Very different from Rand's other work.)