Given its context of Stalinist Russia, I knew that it was unlikely that The Archivist’s Story would be a happy or humorous novel, and I was right. Travis Holland has captured the deadening effect of collectivization on the Russia people and the inhumanity of a society where trust and friendship are rare and fear of authority a daily concern. And yet, it’s a story of the power of one man to act courageously in the face of such fear and reprisal, treating decently and humanely even one who hates him.
Pavel Dubrov is a former teacher now assigned to the archives of the infamous Lubyanka Prison, the hellhole into which countless political dissidents, intellectuals, and writers are cast. Pavel works under the insufferable Lieutenant Kutyrev, a true believer in the Revolution. Every day he organizes files containing the manuscripts of writers imprisoned in the Lubyanka, and then, one by one, carries files to the incinerator. It’s a particularly distressing task for a teacher, for one who loves books, and it comes to a head over his encounter with an unknown manuscript written by Issac Babel, the well-known writer of Red Calvary. Holland chronicles Pavel’s lonely and anguished existence well, contrasting it with the continued humanity he exhibits. For example, when Kutyrec becomes ill, Pavel escorts him home to his family, even over Kutyrec’s objections:
“I don’t want your help,” Kutyrec says.
“What are you going to do, stand around for God knows how long in your condition waiting at some bus stop? In this weather? Be sensible. Let me help you.”
Why would you help me? That is the deeper meaning behind Kutyrec’s question. Because you need my help, Pavel thinks. Because you are human.
This colloquy illustrates the fundamental theme of the story: one man’s attempt to reclaim his humanity in the face of the gross inhumanity of a police state. When events appear to seal Pavel’s fate, when he loses most of what is dear to him, he takes action, not only preserving Babel’s words but also the letters of his friend and, at least temporarily, the manuscripts of many of the files he was tasked with archiving. His actions testify to the importance of words, their enduring value.
In the end, the story is not all sadness, and affection grows for the characters even as the author propels us to what we sense is a bittersweet conclusion. When I can say, at the end of a story, that I miss its main character, as I did here, I know the reading has been worth it.
Travis Holland has done well. His prose is accessible and persuasive in rendering 1939 Moscow and lives caught in that place and time. It’s a profound first novel and one I recommend. And to think --- I bought the book without a recommendation but solely based on a reading of the jacket notes and first paragraph. Sometimes the risk is worth it.