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Writing in the Moscow Times Natasha Randall, whose translation of “We,” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, was published last year by The Modern Library, reviews The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland:
The master short-story writer Isaac Babel was arrested by the NKVD in May 1939 and executed in January 1940. For a long time, it wasn’t clear when he died: His wife eventually learned of his demise 15 years after the fact. When he was arrested, all his papers were confiscated. His unpublished manuscripts were never found.
Travis Holland’s gripping debut novel, “The Archivist’s Story,” summons up this moment in time — the months during which Babel was incarcerated in the Lubyanka security-police headquarters — through the eyes of one of the Lubyanka’s archivists, Pavel Dubrov. Pavel is a former literature teacher who is now in the employ of the NKVD, responsible for organizing the archives of seized literary manuscripts in the basement of the notorious building on what was then known as Dzerzhinsky Square. His department is in the process of cataloging and then incinerating the manuscripts, file by file.
As the novel opens, Pavel is interviewing the newly imprisoned Babel about a discrepancy in the latter’s file. The scene is a quiet one: Pavel offers Babel some tea and feels pity for the author, who has had his glasses confiscated. “It is a small matter that brings them together. A story, untitled, unsigned, and by all appearances incomplete, which the officers in their haste have neglected to record in the evidence manifest.” Babel asks Pavel if he can be permitted to write a letter to his wife. “I’m sorry comrade,” is Pavel’s reply. “Understand, it’s not a matter of whether or not I’d like to help you.” Pavel is moved to tears by the author’s request but turns to the matter at hand. He shows the manuscript to Babel. “It’s mine,” the author concedes.
Indeed, Pavel cannot help Babel, for he has little or no power over the archives and the inmates of the Lubyanka. He takes his orders from a bureaucrat called Kutyrev who says: “I’m not really much of a reader.” As Pavel grows increasingly uncomfortable with the destruction of so much literary work, Kutyrev becomes suspicious. Pavel knows full well that Kutyrev may pass on his suspicion to his superiors.
Outside of work, Pavel leads a lonely life; his wife was killed in a train accident some years previously. He lives alone in an apartment block near the Donskoi Monastery, which overlooks the chimney stacks of a nearby cemetery’s crematorium. This is the crematorium that serves the Butyrka and Lefortovo prisons and the Lubyanka — disposing of the remains of their executed and starved.
The repeated journeys to the archive’s incinerator, and Kutyrev’s obnoxious philistine dogma, eventually take their toll. “Pavel is suddenly, powerfully sick to his core: of Kutyrev and his grinding, mindless ambition, of these deadening metal stacks and their dust, which Pavel can all but feel sticking in his lungs. Mostly, though, he is sick of himself.” Later that evening, as he is carting yet more manuscripts from stack to stack, Pavel is seized by an impulse. He takes the newly discovered Babel story, folds it and stuffs it down the back of his pants. Then he walks out of the Lubyanka and heads for home.
Holland’s measured narrative maintains a swift pace — it’s a suspenseful story, full of brushes with peril. Pavel’s act of sabotage could cost him his position, if not his life. But with the pressures of Stalinist life in 1939, something has to give. Adolf Hitler is beginning his offensive on Soviet territory, and Pavel’s friends and mentors are being threatened with arrest. After the meeting with Babel, Pavel’s work at the archive gains a new purpose — or, rather, it regains the original purpose of archival work: preservation.
So Pavel hides the short story, and then a second short story, behind some bricks in the wall of his apartment block’s basement. His neighbor, Natalya, a building attendant with whom he is having an intermittent love affair, notices something and says: “I could hear you the other night. Down in the basement.” He tells her he was looking for clothes among his boxes. “‘I don’t know,’ she says, ‘It doesn’t matter, Pavel. Whatever you were doing.'”
Meanwhile, a major called Radlov summons Pavel to his office — being noticed is a big sign of trouble to come. But it’s not clear what Radlov wants, other than to make Pavel nervous. The major says: “He killed himself. Gogol. Do you know how?” Pavel knows that Gogol starved himself. “‘Do you think,’ Radlov asks, ‘that because you’ve read his stories, you understand Gogol any better than those who knew him personally?'” Pavel isn’t sure what he is being asked. It seems that Radlov is trying to make Pavel articulate the distinction between an author’s work and life — to put a value on each. But Pavel can’t say a word: “To even speak of the disgraced dead is to risk joining them.”
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.