American succeeds in Russian territory

 

FICTION: The Archivist’s Story By Travis HollandBloomsbury, 241pp, £12.99

IF YOU knew nothing about this novel, nothing about the history that has inspired it, driven it, nothing of the human story that makes it so heartbreaking, nothing of the terror, that fear of being slowly stalked, just the author’s use of four eloquent lines of verse by the great, doomed Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, quoted by the young American author of this sad, understated and beautiful novel would make you want to read The Archivist’s Story:

You took away all the oceans and all the room.

You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.

Where did it get you? Nowhere.

You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

If is as if those lines were written to accompany Holland’s book, which was this week deservedly shortlisted for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, but of course they weren’t. A heart attack killed Mandelstam as he travelled to a labour camp in 1938 about to begin a five-year sentence.

Silent words of love seen but not heard through a train window by a distressed mother bidding farewell to her son is one of the many haunting images evoked by Travis Holland. He has written a Russian novel, or rather a human story set in the Moscow of 1939 when Stalin was all powerful and the world was rushing towards war. Yet the feel is Russian in a way that even the gifted Martin Amis did not quite summon in his excellent House of Meetings(2006) in which a Gulag survivor remembers and regrets.

Admittedly the Amis novel is more stylistically ambitious. Holland has written a conventional narrative in which a depressed widower, Pavel Dubrov, a teacher who is now working in the archive of the Lubyanka Prison, is confronted daily with the destruction of literature. He lives alone with only his memories and his guilt. It is bleak yet Holland is a writer of restraint. At no time does the narrative appear top heavy with research and it is obvious that Holland had decided to concentrate on mood rather than historical coherence.

It may be an historical novel, but it is not a history book. The death of his wife in a train accident that appears to have been deliberately choreographed has left Pavel in a state of mourning as her body will not be released until the facts of the accident have been finalised. With all of this churning around in his thoughts Pavel faces a new dilemma, he has been entrusted with the verification and ultimate destruction of the final, unfinished work of Isaac Babel. Not only that, he meets the writer now a prisoner and looks at the differences marking a face he has known from his books: “A bruise is fading under his right eye, and a faint film like dried salt, coats his lips. The wilted wings of his shirt collar lie crookedly across the lapels of his wrinkled coat. And this finally, which Pavel finds most disturbing: The writer’s glasses are gone. Somehow he had expected Babel to appear as he once did in his dust-jacket pictures.”

The portrait of the aged writer is movingly done. Babel is weary but dignified and clearly sees Pavel as the enemy. Pavel is quick to explain himself: “I’m not an inspector. . . I work down in the archives . . . Actually I used to be a teacher, believe it or not. I taught your stories.”

Holland makes the encounter between an invented character, an admirer, and the writer who was born in Odessa in 1894 and following his arrest in 1939 disappeared into the Soviet penal system and died probably in 1941, appear real.

Later, Pavel, who keeps remembering lines from Babel’s work, watches Babel’s hand. “He notices that the fingers of Babel’s right hand, spread on his thigh, are twitching ever so slightly, as if a faint current of electricity were coursing through them. Suddenly Pavel is struck by the realisation that the very lines from the story floating in his brain once flowed from that hand, those fingers.” Babel wants to complete his unfinished story; Pavel however is expected to destroy it.

Somewhere from the depths of his defeated soul Pavel finds the courage to act. Alongside his private campaign is his concern for his mother who seems to be losing her memory. She lives with a young couple and their children. The communal way of living is well described and Holland also gives a sense of the anonymous lives lived by the various tenants in the apartment building where Pavel goes through the motions of an existence that could barely be described as a life.

Throughout the narrative is the tension, the fear, the dread of the knock at the door. Everyone is a potential spy, no one can be trusted. Somehow, amid the poverty and the bleakness, Holland has created a book that is courageous and beautiful. In its aura of paranoia, it is reminiscent of Florian Henckel von Donnesmarck’s eerie film, The Lives of Others. Pavel is not without friends. His various exchanges with Semyon, an outspoken academic, an older man who knew Pavel’s father and was also for a time a lover of Pavel’s mother, are convincingly balanced upon their shared history. As is his tentative romance with a pragmatic fellow tenant who has her own ghosts.

Semyon turns out to have once met Babel and describes him to Pavel as “funny, Very funny, in fact. Which surprised me, since I’d pictured him as being so serious. Serious and rather sad. Like his stories. Although some of the humour I saw in Babel that night does occasionally come through in his stories . . . I’ve always thought it a shame he didn’t publish more . . .”

Semyon is a terrific character who refuses to be defeated when Pavel remarks: “Maybe we don’t deserve to be remembered”. Semyon quickly retorts: “Nonsense. I for one insist on being remembered. Why else would I make such a nuisance of myself?”

It is a deliberate narrative; exact, visual, as tense as a thriller and as philosophical as a metaphysical tract.

Holland has looked to history in the shaping of an inspired and inspiring debut; he has also looked to his own voice, his own vision of one man’s daring, possibly doomed attempt to put a grave wrong right.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times