Regular visitors to this blog will know that I pay attention to annual literary awards — the Giller Prize, the Man Booker and the Pulitzer (still a few days to go for entries to my Pulitzer contest) are just the most obvious examples. One prize that I have tended to overlook in the past is the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (an awkward formal title, hereafter referrred to as the IMPAC) — I am planning to correct that this year.
I would point to two reasons for that. Most important, the entry criterion for books published originally in English is two years previously (i.e. 2007 for the 2009 award). As I undertand the guidelines, for works translated into English that window extends back four more years — since four of the winners since 2000 were translations, this is a prize that takes that genre seriously. The second factor is that IMPAC comes late in the prize season with an April shortlist and June winner announcement — even we book prize junkies tend to be overloaded by April, particularly on books that by definition are at least two years old. The result is that I tend to look at the winner (DeNiro’s Game, Out Stealing Horses and The Master were the last three) and say “Yes, that was a good book” and move on to new works.
Now that I am paying attention to IMPAC, there are a number of reasons to overcome my bias — not just the attention paid to translated works. With a prize of 100,000 Euros, it is the largest award for a single work. Sponsored by the City of Dublin, nominations come not from publishers but hundreds of public libraries from around the world (a good reason for the eligibility time delay), which arguably makes it more of a “reader” prize than any of the others I have mentioned. And there is no doubt it is the most international of all the English book prizes. There is no citizenship or gender restriction; if the work is published in English, it is eligible.
I liked all three recent winners (DeNiro’s Game less than the other two, but it was still on the positive side of neutral). So when I checked the 2009 shortlist and discovered that I quite liked all three of the eight titles that I had read (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Animal’s People), I decided that all the pointers indicated I should give the other five a try. I don’t promise to review them all, but I will give it a shot. Full details on the Prize and this year’s shortlist (and longlist for that matter) at available at the IMPAC site.
First up of the five is The Archivist’s Story, a first novel by Michigan writer Travis Holland. The author has an MFA from the University of Michigan and the book both thanks and has a cover blurb from U of M’s Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, a novel that I felt should have made the 2007 Man Booker shortlist. I’m assuming he taught Holland — and happy to report that he did a very good job.
In one sense, The Archivist’s Story is biographical fiction — author Isaac Babel is a major presence in the book. The setting is Moscow, 1939 and Babel (along with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other writers) has been arrested and confined in the infamous Lubyanka prison, awaiting death or exile.
The archivist of the title is Pavel. Formerly a literature teacher at the Kirov Academy, he lost that job in one of the bizarre and pointless ideological disputes that characterized the Russia of the time. Through connections (no job is available without connections) he achieved this junior archivist’s post at Lubyanka; he doesn’t like it but it is necessary for survival. Located in a former janitor’s room, the “archives” consists of an ounorganized welter of boxes and files of manuscripts, together with “evidence manifests”, that have been seized from the imprisoned writers.
The book opens with Pavel interviewing Babel to determine whether a handwritten manuscript of a story, not included on his evidence manifest, is in fact Babel’s work. The author confirms it is. Pavel, who admires Babel’s work, wrecklessly smuggles it out and hides it — setting himself on the wrong side of whatever notion of law exists. It would be a capital offense.
Pavel’s has two jobs as archivist. One is to regularly take boxes of manuscripts to the incinerator to be destroyed forever. The other is to try to introduce some semblance of order into the mess of boxes and files that are in the room. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that this disorder was a deliberate tactic of his predecessor (recently executed) to protect the manuscripts from incineration, even if it only succeeded for a few days or months.
The Archivist’s Story has other strong themes. Pavel’s wife died some months ago in a train accident (probably, but not necessarily, sabotage) and her ashes are held up in the bureaucracy somewhere which only increases his loneliness. His only friend, Semyon, a university teacher, is under attack, facing expulsion from the Communist Party which would set the stage for his arrest, exile or execution. And Pavel’s elderly mother, residing with friends in the suburbs, is in the early stages of dementia and has begun wandering, falling and forgetting — further increasing Pavel’s sense of loneliness.
It would be easy — and in some senses fair — to criticize Travis Holland. What right does a young American author in Michigan have to write a book like this when a host of Russian writers, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who actually lived the horror have aleady documented it in well-written and well-read fiction? And I would say, if you are looking to explore the reality of Stalinist Russia, you would be better advised to turn to those Russian authors.
For me, The Archivist’s Story succeeded in quite a different way, one that justifies Holland’s decision to write the book. A characteristic of repressive societies, not just Stalinist Russia, is that every citizen must always be on guard against a “mistake”. A joke, an offhand comment, a postcard, even a look can open the door to persecution. A culture of persecution invites feuds, vendettas and malice on all sides. In a society without law, accusation often equals a verdict of guilt — the condemned don’t even really know what they did wrong. Stalinist Russia may be the most obvious example, but there have been others since (China’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia’s Pol Pot) and there are some today (you can fill in your own blank).
What that constant watchfulness produces in individuals is a continual and unrelenting mental exhaustion. Just as your body cannot tolerate never-stopping exercise, your mind can’t keep up with this demand. Eventually, the mind cracks — just as the innocent prisoners “crack” under torture and confess to whatever has been accused. Holland develops this in an excellent and persuasive way — you find yourself not just identifying with the characters, but cheering for them.
First novel or not, The Archivist’s Story deserves its place on the IMPAC list — and for me has already justified my new-found interest in this prize. I won’t be rereading and reviewing the three I have already read but will provide links to some blog reviews that I find reflect my thoughts. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and was recently reviewed by Trevor at the mookseandgripes. An earlier (somewhat grumpier) review can also be found at the Asylum. John Saul at Asylum also has an excellent review of Animal’s People – if I remember correctly, it was his choice for the 2007 Man Booker. There are many reviews (conflicting, I must admit) of The Reluctant Fundamentalist around — the most recent, and one of the most perceptive, comes from Max Cairnduff at Pechorin’s Journal.
The four IMPAC finalists I have not yet read are Ravel by Jean Echenoz (translated from the French), The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen (translated from the Norweigian), The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt (American, but the book is about a brilliant English mathematician and an equally brilliant Indian) and Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas (also American).
One of the advantages of the IMPAC time delay is that visitors to this blog may have read one or more of these books. If you have observations, thoughts and comments, please do share them.