Friday, 19 March 2010

Archangel by Robert Harris

Archangel is a thriller/mystery novel about an historian, Kelso, who specialized in Stalinist history and was invited to a conference in Moscow. Kelso’s interest in academia has waned over the years and the conference seems rather unappealing to him, so when Papu Rapava shows up to tell him of a notebook which once belonged to Stalin, Kelso has no problem in ditching the conference to indulge himself in chase of the illusive black oil-skinned diary. Even though it’s modern day Russia, the chase quickly becomes very dangerous as Stalin is still worshipped by many in Russia; his greatest followers willing to risk much to protect his heritage. It’s as though Glasnost was only a surface element and the KGB were slumbering below the surface ready to re-take Russia at a moment’s notice. Kelso must evade these elements in a chase that takes him halfway across Russia with him running the risk of being stuck in Northern Russia until the Spring thaw, if he doesn’t lose his life first that is. Hampered by lack of a visa, colleagues who think he’s gone insane, a dysfunctional father/daughter relationship and a really, really annoying American reporter, Kelso is never sure if and when he’ll ever get out of Russia alive.

The book gets off to a slow start with flashbacks to the Stalin era and the events of the days leading up to and just after Stalin’s death, which explain the possibility of the existence of such a diary. The story picks up a bit when Kelso becomes the main focus, but never really reaches a very fast past tempo. It focuses more on Russia and the issues confronting it today in regards to the past. One memorable passage tells of how Stalin’s memorabilia is sold freely on the streets to the still interested masses and compares with modern day Germany where every trace of Hitler has been wiped out of daily public life. The Russian’s still worship Stalin, while the Germans abhor Hilter. It’s rather a disturbing thought because it means that Russian society may not be quite as free and away from the past as we would like to think. The further Kelso goes into the country, the more apparent it becomes. At least in Moscow the focus of life seemed to be the future and how to cope with Russia as it is today and not on how to return to the past.

The novel is a cross between spy novel, historical fiction, thriller and social commentary. I can’t say I enjoyed it hugely because it is quite dark and the Russian mentality is difficult for me to fathom. I took a couple of Russian literature courses at Uni and the logic never really clicked, so I’m not surprised that I had problems with this one. The ending though, the ending makes up for a lot. That was something I understood, so for me, Harris saved the book with that. Still, I’m giving it a 3 out of 5, but keep in mind that rating is a matter of taste rather than a reflection on the writing

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