Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: In Soviet Russia, joke ruins YOU!


Moscow, 1939 – Stalinist Russia. There’s no such thing as free speech any longer. In schools people are afraid of teaching Chekhov and Tolstoy because they’re not politically aware enough. They don’t emphasize the mores of the Communist Party, and therefore they don’t represent the new Russian people. Persons go missing in the middle of the night by mysterious cars that come pick them up but never return.

These are some of the ideas and images within Travis Holland’s d├ębut novel, The Archivist’s Story, which reads well (I finished it all in one sitting), but feels like a novice’s work as story lines are almost forgotten and, when remembered, are placed haphazardly into the text. There isn’t a sense of rhythm, or the rhythm that is created is a bit off beat.

Pavel Dubrov works in the Fourth Section as an archivist, taking care of the papers of those brought in for interrogation, reading through them and destroying them when need be. He was a former teacher of literature, which is brought to the attention of his supervisor, Radlov, who finds this a bit suspicious – why Pavel was thrown to his department if he was a grand teacher at his respective Academy. It turns out that Pavel left as he helped defame a fellow teacher and cohort for not being with the Party, and this is his sort of atonement.
And atonement it is as Dubrov has to burn texts of major and minor poets and novelists. One of them he happens to come across is Isaac Babel, whose unfinished story he hides under his bed in order for it to have some sort of longevity. Dubrov feels like he needs to save this author, who will later die in a Siberian prison camp.
Although The Archivist’s Story is told well enough, as I was able to pound this off in an evening, I thought that the juxtaposition and the ideas were very easy. The concept that no one in Soviet Russia truly had freedom of speech – there’s a peripheral remark that Osip Mandelstam lost his life due to the fact that he called Stalin’s moustache a cockroach – which haunts our beloved narrator Pavel is mirrored by the fact that Pavel’s mother may have a tumor in her brain and if operated upon may lose her ability to communicate. She says tenderly, ‘What are my options? Let this doctor drill into my skill? And if he does find something there, what then? He’ll have to cut out part of my brain. So I can live out the rest of my life with the mental capacity of an infant. . . . People come out of these operations, Pasha, they’re changed. They can’t speak, they can’t read. They can’t recognize faces. They’re alive but their minds are gone. . . . they’re not who they were before.’ This could be said of any of the characters who experienced pre- and post-Stalinist Russia and it’s as if the author is making sure that we see this quite explicitly.
It’ll be interesting to see where Travis Holland goes from here, because he’s obviously a capable writer. I personally would like to see a collection of stories, for it looks like he can craft a short tale quite well.

1 comment:

Kari said…

Sounds very 1984. I wonder what was the author's inspiration for this book.