Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
If you’re intrigued by the history of totalitarianism, particularly as played out during the Stalinist period in the U.S.S.R., then you have probably read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind. Suffering on such a massive scale is difficult to imagine, much less describe for readers who have not lived through these horrific events. If anything, the graphic representation of violence in our daily lives-on T.V., the internet, video games, etc-have desensitized us to human suffering. While novels and memoirs written by those who experienced the Stalinist purges reveal the horrors they and their loved ones endured, more recent representations of life during communism seem to shy away from depicting overt violence. I’m thinking of the popular German movie The Lives of Others, which chose to focus on the periphery, in an incredibly effective representation of character transformation and political voyeurism.
“I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…” – Isaac Babel
Written in this tradition, Travis Holland’s impressive debut novel, The Archivist’s Story, attunes readers to the nuances of living under communist regimes: the constant fear; the ever-present threat of violence; the relentless surveillance; the pressure to succumb to the totalitarian machine. Instead of focusing on the key players (Stalin and his cronies) or on the violent horrors of the Gulags and prisons, Holland reveals the drama of the center stage by depicting the periphery. The story is told by Pavel Dubrov, a Lubyanka prison archivist whose job is to destroy “deviationist” literature. In a file, he discovers a story that he believes is written by Isaac Babel, who is himself imprisoned. Because he admires Babel and his work, the archivist performs an act that speaks to his courage: he saves one of Babel’s documents. It’s true that Pavel doesn’t have much to lose at this point: his wife was killed in a train accident; his mother is dying of brain cancer. The archivist’s life revolves around his sordid duties at the Lubyanka. Refusing to burn a document may not seem like much. But one must remember that, during the Stalinist period, even looking at someone the wrong way or not applauding loudly enough after a communist speech could mean a death sentence. Saving a document that not only went against the party line, but also countered the very spirit of dogma reigning over the U.S.S.R., constituted a heroic gesture. Through the elegance of his prose, the strength of his characterizations and the engaging pace of his narration, Holland allows readers to step into the nightmarish reality of Stalinist Russia and appreciate its impact upon ordinary lives.
Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com