Sunday, February 1, 2009

Life In Turbulent Times

I was attracted to The Archivist's Story by Travis Holland because of the title. Museum and archive people are invisible to the average person. Most people who visit museums and archives aren't aware that the institution's entire collection is not on display, nor that there's a tracking and storage system managed by individuals. So, I like to read books and watch movies that feature curators, archivists, and the like.

Pavel Dubrov, the title character, is not an archivist in that sense, though. He works for the Communist party at the Lubyanka prison, maintaining case files. It is 1939, and Pavel's life wasn't always this way. He used to be a teacher, before he got caught up in a false denunciation scandal and was forced to resign. He used to be a husband, before his wife's train was sabotaged. Now, he lives alone and burns poems and novels written by people who, in many cases, did nothing wrong.

The shadow of imprisonment and death hangs over Pavel. Yet, life goes on, in a sense. He spends time with his best friend and father figure. He visits his aging mother, whose capacities seem to be diminishing. He continues to probe for answers in his wife's death (due to a clerical mix-up, her remains and possessions have not been returned to him).

A short story by Isaac Babel crosses Pavel's desk, and he makes the momentous decision to smuggle it out and rescue it, after meeting Babel. This only heightens the shadows around him, which include the shadows of impending war (the book is set in 1939).

In studying Nazi Germany and other totalitarian societies in school, the big unanswered question for me was always why people stood there and let all that happen. The Jews who were forced to register and wear yellow stars everywhere -- why did they do it? How come Gentiles didn't stop the SS thugs from beating them up and smashing their store windows, when they shopped at those stores and were friends with these people, too? This book helps answer that question. It was because any resistance was useless in the face of a large, well-organized machine. A gesture even as small as Pavel's -- hiding a document in one's basement -- was grounds for arrest on trumped-up charges, and either a slow, agonizing death in a prison, or a quick one by a firing squad.

Several such examples of the meaninglessness of resistance surround Pavel's story: the friend who was first fired from his teaching post, then arrested simply because of a personality conflict with someone in his department. The boss of his mother's landlord, whose crime was failing to meet an unrealistic deadline at his job. It makes you wonder how anyone survived at all. The small gestures become important, such as Pavel's decision, or his friend's decision to meet his fate rather than run from it. It serves as a rejoiner to anyone who sat in history class imagining themselves as a leader in the Underground Resistance to Hitler or Stalin, hiding Jewish people in their attics. History remembers the brave, but it's more likely we would have been just like Pavel: trying to survive, and keeping our self-respect through small acts, where we could.

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