The Archivist’s Story, by Travis Holland


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.

impaclgotemplate1I 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.

holland2First 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.


15 Responses to “The Archivist’s Story, by Travis Holland”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I missed this one a couple of years back, too, Kevin. Thanks to you and the IMPAC, I need to work hard not to miss it altogether.

    By the way, not sure if you noticed or not but I do have my IMPAC discussion page up and running. I’ll link to your review from there.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the link Trevor, I had overlooked it.


  3. John Self Says:

    John Saul writes: very pleased to see you writing about this book, Kevin, as it was the one unread title from the IMPAC list that I was most interested in reading. Well, the second, after Jean Echenoz’s Ravel, but it’s not published until August 2009 in the UK.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Now you have me worried, John. I checked Chapters to see who published Ravel here in 2007 (New Press) and discovered the “usually ships in 3 to 5 weeks” that was quoted when I ordered it last week has been replaced with the dreaded “temporarily unavailable to order new” — which is usually a precursor to the “order cancelled due to factors beyond our control” email. Of the ones I haven’t read, it is the one I am most looking forward to (I love to be able to put on music that relates to the book I am reading and I have quite a bit of Ravel) — as is usual when I get that kind of message, it only increases my desire for the book. We shall see.

    I did like The Archivist’s Story and it is a book that I probably would have picked up from the jacket blurbs. Not a great novel, but definitely worth the time. Have you read The Indian Clerk? I find the premise quite interesting.


  5. John Self Says:

    No, I haven’t, Kevin. Leavitt is a writer who appeals to me instinctively, though I can’t figure out why, since the only book of his I’ve tried – The Body of Jonah Boyd – I couldn’t (or anyway didn’t) finish. Maybe it was the pulping of his novel While England Sleeps for issues around possible misrepresentation of the life of Stephen Spender that gives him a raffish, appealing air.

    Curiously, I see that the Book Depository are offering Ravel with immediate availability – presumably the US edition but they’re selling it priced as though it’s the UK one (though the two are probably the same as it’s being published by the same house in both territories).


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    That is the same cover and publisher as the edition I ordered, so I think your presumption is correct. I note that while it usually ships from the Book Depository in 24 hours, the display quotes the Aug. 2009 publication date (this could lend a whole new meaning to the concept of “virtual book”).


  7. Myrthe Says:

    Your review touches on something that I wrote about some time last year in my review (and in the comments) of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44: The way Western authors write about the Soviet Union. Are they able to catch the atmosphere, the oppression, the way people behaved and thought? I have yet to find a book in which the author succeeded convincingly. This is the link to that blogpost:


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Myrthe: I do think this book is better read as a view of what it is like to live in a repressive society in a general sense than it is as a picture of Stalinist Russia (that’s why I think it is far superior to Child 44, although the two are very different genres). There is another theme in it that my review doesn’t address — the way that society’s like that need to repress creative people like Babel. I think that was why Holland chose this framework for his book.


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    A further thought, Myrthe. I do think Holland does try to capture that notion of “fear” that you write about in your review. Again, however, you need to keep yourself aware that he is writing from the perspective of someone who is contemplating it intellectually, as opposed to someone who has actually experienced it. For me, he did this quite successfully.


  10. Myrthe Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Kevin.

    Just to clarify: I do realize that Child 44 and The Archivist’s Story are two very different books and genres. I actually didn’t mean to compare the two, Child 44 just happened to be the book that brought these thoughts up again. It’s something I had thought about before, but never had the opportunity to (begin to) address on my blog.

    I will definitely try to find a copy of The Archivist’s Story, because it seems to touch on themes (not just Stalin/Soviet Union related) that I’m interested in exploring.


  11. Isabel Says:

    I get some cool reading ideas from IMPAC.

    Thanks for reminding me. I have to go back to it.

    Have you heard of this award?


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: I do know about the Kiriyama prize but have never paid much attention to it — a combination of following the Miles Franklin and the books from the Southern Hemisphere that make the Man Booker have usually been enough for me. Although I do find on checking that I have read four of the 12 winners — and part of the reason I know about it is that two of the winners of this prize designed to acknowledge literature about the Southern Hemisphere Pacific Rim are residents of landlocked, northern hemisphere Central Canada (Rohinton Mistry for Family Matters and Michael Ondaatje for Anil’s Ghost).

    What I didn’t know until I followed your link is that the prize has been suspended since last September and publishers told not to submit books. I suspect that the sponsors have discovered the concept just isn’t producing a return.


  13. Isabel Says:

    Sad, about the Kiriyama Prize.

    Your review reminds me of another work that I read, but this one was written by an actual Russian.

    Good luck finding it.


  14. Carole Says:

    Hi Kevin
    I have been following your blog for some time. I have just finished ‘The Archivist’s Story’ and think that it’s inclusion on the IMPAC list is justified. IMPAC always throws up some interesting reads, particularly books in translation.

    The theme that I took away from reading the book was that of the importance of memory and literature and the way they are connected. Literature is a way of making sense of our past both as nations and as individuals. Without literature we are without memory and if we are without memory we are doomed to repeat our past and are unable to move into our future. Pavel is living in a society without memory, it is dangerous to remember and speak of the past or those that are no longer in the present. With his mother’s dementia he is being erased. As he says in the book by saving the stories he can say ‘I lived’.

    Living in Ireland, the home of the IMPAC Award, this link with memory and literature is very evident, I’m thinking here of books like ‘The Gathering’ and ‘The Secret Scripture’ which I see very much in the same vein – making sense of the past so that we, as a nation can move on.

    I take your point about Holland being an American writing about Russia but I agree that the themes of the book are applicable to more than just Stalinist Russia.

    Thanks for a great review and a very enjoyable blog.


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Carole: Thank you for both your kind words and a very perceptive evaluation of this book — you find a theme (that I fully support) which my review did not address. I agree that it shows why Holland was wise to write this book — it is not really about Stalinist Russia (which others do address more directly), rather it uses that environment to explore other issues, such as the memory and literature which you identify. Please feel free to add valuable contributions such as this to all my reviews — I do appreciate it. Kevin


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