Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Archivist's Story

On May 1, 2007, a new novel featuring an archivist will hit bookstores. I can already sense archivists everywhere tensing up about the portrayal of the archivist – will it be fair, accurate, play on stereotypes? I hope that such hand wringing doesn’t happen. Set in Moscow in 1939 under Stalin, the aptly named The Archivist’s Story (New York: The Dial Press, 2007), ISBN-13: 978-0-385-33995-7, fellows the story of Pavel Dubrov, a former literature professor, assigned to the Lubyanka prison to work with the manuscripts confiscated from Russian novelists, poets, and other writers declared to be enemies of the state and forbidden to write. Ultimately, the task of Dubrov is to destroy these manuscripts, referred to as “weeding,” working from carefully prepared inventories, when instructed by Party officials to do so.

Ably written by Travis Holland, The Archivist’s Story is a compelling read, a tale of the young archivist as his life unravels in his final days. Dubrov, struggling with the death of his wife a year before in an act of sabotage and the loss of his livelihood of teaching literature, over the space of a few weeks cracks under the pressure of the censored society and the wonderful stories and verse that are in the files under his nose. There are moments when Dubrov finds himself setting aside his sinister bureaucratic tasks to read a bit and other moments when he drops his calculated cold exterior to lecture a comrade or supervisor about an aspect of literature. Holland deftly follows Dubrov’s quiet rebellion against a repressive state, and the book reminds one of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 at times in its style and sentiment.

This is a book for our times. Holland presents an engaging array of characters and situations, all having to do with access to words and information and the consequences of their repression. As Dubrov is assigned to rearrange the archives, there are constant checks into his own personal files as the Party faithful grow increasingly suspicious of him (and nearly everyone else). Other characters, such as one who is hoarding old calendars, misprinted cookbooks, and other such useless publications – often using them to make cigarette paper, provides a sometimes comical, but still compelling, juxtaposition to Dubrov’s own activities. Dubrov meets the writer Isaac Babel at Lubyanka (where we know he was imprisoned and later executed in 1940) and begins to read the files of Babel’s confiscated manuscripts, finally resorting to smuggling some of the manuscripts out in a vain effort to save them. Holland’s account of a society fixated with repressing words but on using information collected about every citizen makes our archivist and his love for words seem both heroic and doomed. The Archivist’s Society is a tragedy for our own so-called information age.

We do find compelling images of the archives: “Fourth Section’s literary archives occupy a single room just below street level [where else could we place an archives but in the basement?]. Once a repository for janitorial supplies and discarded office equipment, its many rows of tall blank metal shelves now bend beneath the weight of countless green folders and cardboard boxes, stacked floor to ceiling” (p. 12). Through much of the book Dabrov is involved in a needless reorganization of the archives, reorganizing materials of dead, forgotten, or forbidden writers that will be consigned to the flames. Through the novel’s pages you feel the weight of the archives work in a bureaucracy that has become cold, ruthless, and evil: “All morning they work, carrying boxes and armfuls of dusty folders out of the stacks. The folders still bear the dull red wax stamps on their covers with which they were sealed. Touching them, feeling their solid weight, Pavel again cannot help but wonder what has become of the writers for whom these manuscripts, now hauled around like so much trash, once meant everything” (p. 48). Holland is not commenting on a view of archives as trash, but he is explicating, I believe, how nonsensical it is for repressive governments to be so archives oriented. Dabrov’s occupation as archivist is being used to make such a point. A reader of literature forced from being able to teach about literature and discouraged to encourage others to read being so close to the magical words of writers and consigned to work with a soldier whose reading is confined to perusing newspapers that are themselves controlled and censored. One feels Dabrov’s agony on every page.

Holland plays, of course, with the popular images of archives. At one point, in identifying himself as the archivist, Holland has the interrogator mutter that, yes, he was conversing with the librarian. At another moment, “Pavel imagines a day, years from this morning, when he will return with his metal cart from the incinerator and find no more boxes waiting: no stories, no novels or plays, no poems. Just empty shelves. The end of history” (p. 189). And that is what this novel is about, the end of history, the archivist, and archives. And the discarding of history is a breaking of his reason to live: “With every manuscript he destroys, Pavel can feel a little more of his soul being chipped away” (p. 199). In a final defiant gesture, as he awaits his inevitable demise, Pavel disorganizes the archives, creating “chaos” (p. 232). And we last see the archivist staring out the window into a deserted street, waiting for his keepers and executioners to arrive.

Read this novel.