Soviet writer Isaac Babel published a couple of volumes of short stories in the 1920s. They were brilliantly observed and filled with irony about the human condition, often funny, yet also very bleak.
He was immediately recognized as a master of the form. But as Stalin tightened his grip on the country, Babel famously chose to become the Master of Silence during the 1930s. In that era, even silence was dangerous; Babel eventually died in prison. All of his unpublished work was confiscated and disappeared, along with its author, into Lubyanka Prison and the enormous bureaucracy of the secret police.
At this point Ann Arbor writer Travis Holland begins his first novel. In The Archivist's Story Holland follows Pavel Dubrov, the man second in charge of the Lubyanka's literary archive, the place where all the unpublished novels, stories, and poems written by those killed in the Stalinist purges are catalogued and then destroyed. Literature is not immortal in Lubyanka; it is made with small marks on fragile pieces of paper that are easily burned. Pavel loves literature, but it is easy for him to imagine a day when there will be "no stories, no novels or plays, no poems. Just empty shelves. The end of history."
Pavel accepts this, even as he tries to save two unknown stories by Isaac Babel from the fire. It is a kind of bravery, although Pavel is not an uncompromised man. He has his job because he has been complicit in denouncing a former colleague at a school. He was no longer trusted by his fellows, and now he is not trusted by the apparatchiks he works for in the secret police. Even though he would prefer to mourn his wife, take care of his failing mother, and read his books, he knows that his world will not allow him to do that. He has seen the signs of his own destruction:
If anything, these last few years at the Lubyanka have taught him that one must always be attentive to signs: an angry word, an unintended gesture — the first faint milky cracks in the ice. He has seen what happens to people who failed to read the warnings, who refused to believe that the beautiful, bright world they inhabited could one day fall upon them like a hobnailed heel, crushing them into dust.
Nonetheless, in the face of certain arrest, Pavel Dubrov chooses decency, to take care of his mother, to guard the memory of a few friends, and to save the two stories. It is a kind of redemption, however tentative.
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.
Travis Holland reads from The Archivist's Story at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, June 20.
[Review published June 2007]