NOVEMBER 1999 |
Robert Harris has an impressive track record both as novelist and journalist. His account of the Hiller Diaries fraud, "Selling Hiller", is intricate but lively, and his inventive powers were demonstrated by "Enigma" and "Fatherland".
"Archangel" is a thriller with some fact thrown in. I worry when I see a row of books in a store, all of them described as the thriller of the century. "Archangel" is not that. It is a gripping book, but it has in it the germ of an idea that could have been superb. Despite having a reasonable knowledge of modern Soviet history (and having come to this straight from reading a biography of Stalin) I was unsure where the fact ended and the fiction began, which must be a tribute of sorts to Harris' abilities.
The story begins on the night Stalin has his fatal stroke. Having read an account of it, I was struck by the fidelity of Harris' version. Stalin has his stroke behind closed doors; his staff are too terrified of his wrath to investigate, but finally a guard enters, discovers the stricken leader, and sends for the nearest party bigwig. He in turn summons Lavrenty Beria, who takes the curious decision to shut the door and leave his colleague "undiscovered" until the following morning. Behind closed doors, however, Beria was up to something, and the explanation Harris provides is that he was looking for a notebook. We do not know what was in the notebook, but we know that Stalin had one, and that it vanished at his death. In Harris' story, we hear from the driver who, as a young man, accompanied Beria on that night in 1953, and now tells his tale to Fluke Kelso, a middle-aged former Oxford don, who is hooked by the thought that the book may be recoverable.
Outlining much more of the plot might spoil it for readers, so I will say only that I found nothing that contradicted known history, and quite a bit that - if true - would explain it. There are some chilling reports of interrogations, in which witnesses who claim to know nothing when asked a question, suddenly remember a lot about things when it is asked again. We wonder what they suffered between the two questions to jog their memories. There are some appealing characters, and many more appalling ones, prostitutes, hoodlums, thugs and politicians. Even Boris Nikolaevitch Yeltsin has a few lines. There are KGB men in sharp suits with American accents, and there are Russian patriots who will maltreat and mutilate an old man to further their ends.
The factual part is disturbing enough, but when the author plays "what if?" it frightens the reader to ponder "what if..." Harris' story were true? The tale he tells is too plausible to be a relaxing read.
The main flaws in the book are the uneven pacing and the thin characterizations. It requires considerable effort from the reader to keep the characters in his head, so numerous and indistinct are they. At one point I had to re-read a chapter because I had confused two characters. As for the pacing, in a book of around 400 pages, a lot of action is squeezed into the last fifty, and it gives the impression that the author decided he had had enough and wanted to wrap it up quickly. The analogy of a very slow 5000 meter race with the leaders all sprinting the last lap comes to mind. And I was left impressed by Harris' research and his story-telling, but wishing he had taken a year or two longer to get the writing to go with the very startling plot. A near miss, then, rather than the thriller of the century, but still worth reading, if only to discover what it is that awaits Kelso in Archangel.
GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.