Adiminutive Jew who chronicled the absurdities of Soviet life with lethal precision, Isaac Babel could not have lasted long under Stalin’s suffocating rule. He finally succumbed during the Great Purge of 1939, along with countless other intellectuals who paid for the potency of words with their blood.
Travis Holland’s debut novel, The Archivist’s Story
, has Babel languishing in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison, where he finds an unlikely sympathizer in Pavel Dubrov, a young archivist charged with destroying the manuscripts of censured writers. Desperate to rectify an academic past in which he rashly denounced a colleague, Dubrov decides to rescue Babel’s final, unpublished story from the clutches of loyal apparatchiks, for whom burning books is a patriotic charge.
Babel became “a master of the genre of silence” when he tumbled from official grace, but Dubrov is willing to risk his own life to preserve the condemned author’s work for posterity, even though the Lubyanka bosses clearly smell a traitor in their midst. The fate of Babel’s manuscript, however, jostles for attention with a number of lackluster plotlines—an ailing mother, a wife killed in a suspicious train wreck, an incongruous love affair with a building manager—that turn what could have been a masterful literary thriller into a rote study of Dubrov’s crisis about his place in the world.
Holland is familiar enough with the details of Soviet life, but his treatment of the Stalinist era and its clash between public optimism and private dread thoroughly lacks imagination. Know- ing that Dubrov “does not want to be alone with his fear” hints at the terror millions experienced, but offers little beyond an uninspired, textbook gloss of Russian history. And while it honors the legacy of a literary giant, The Archivist’s Story has none of the scorching insight that made Babel’s writing a national security concern.