Published in The UK in 2007 'The Archivist's Story' has been shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award, the most valuable literary award for a work published in English. The six shortlisted books were selected from 146 titles nominated by public libraries in 117 countries making the award one of the most unique in the world and the six shortlisted books some of the best fiction you are likely to read.
Travis Holland takes us back to 1939 when Europe is on the brink of war and Stalin is at the head of Soviet Russia. Pavel Dubrov is working as an Archivist in the Lubyanka cataloguing and sorting the mountain of manuscripts censored by the NKVD ( precursor to the KGB ) whose authors are 'disappeared', either dead, exiled or prisoners in the very prison where Pavel works. A former teacher of literature Pavel's job is ultimately to burn an author's complete body of work when their file is eventually closed.Holland explores the meaning of memory and literature's place in memory. The society in which Holland's characters exist is a place with no memory, where it can be dangerous to remember, thus famines become 'disruptions', a son must stand by whilst his father is denounced and arrested and you can not talk about those who have disappeared.
'...the Lubyanka is simply a microcosm of Moscow itself, where night by night the black sedans and unmarked prison trucks - black ravens, black Marias - slip down the darkened narrow lanes and alleyways, going about their terrible business'
A turning point comes for Pavel when he is instructed to meet with Isaac Babel to clear up the authorship of a short story which has not been recorded in an evidence manifest. Babel was a Jewish short story writer and his final statement to his NKVD Military Tribunal on January 26 1940 is included at the start of the book. At this point in the story Babel is confined in the Lubyanka and almost without thinking Pavel slips the story out of the prison and hides it in his basement. Thereafter we follow Pavel as he comes to realise that:
'With every manuscript he destroys,Pavel can feel a little more of his soul being chipped away...by this time next year there will be nothing left of him.'
This image of there being nothing left of Pavel is echoed in the deterioration of his mother who is suffering blackouts and memory loss due to a suspected brain tumour. His mother's insistence that nothing be done leaves Pavel feeling that there is nothing left for his mother but diminishment and loss and that when she no longer recognises him or their life together there will be two deaths, her past and his. Pavel is therefore facing a future where he will not be remembered.
Literature is also dying in the flames of the Lubyanka's incinerator. Literature is
'A window, Pavel thinks. An entire world.'
and to contemplate life with
'no stories, no novels or plays, no poems. Just empty shelves. The end of history.'
What Pavel is taking to the incinerator is therefore our history. Novels, storys, poems and plays are how we make sense of ourselves and our history. Without them we have no history and with no history we can not know ourselves.
Pavel saves another of Babel's stories and in doing so he can say
'I lived'but in doing so he also knows he can not stop a bullet with paper and therefore prepares himself. The ending is entirely appropriate as our imagination takes us beyond the story and into the world Holland has created, where we wait to hear the sound of a car sent - perhaps - to take us.