Archangel Paperback – Nov 2 2009
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Archangel is a remarkably literate novel--and simultaneously a gripping thriller--that explores the lingering presence of Stalin amidst the corruption of modern-day Russia. Robert Harris (whose previous works include Enigma and Fatherland) elevates his tale by choosing a narrator with an outsider's perspective but an insider's knowledge of Soviet history: Fluke Kelso, a middle-aged scholar of Soviet Communism with a special interest in the dark secrets of Joseph Stalin. For years, rumors have circulated about a notebook that the aging dictator kept in his final years. In a chance encounter in Moscow, Kelso meets Papu Rapava, a former NKVD guard who claims that he was at Stalin's deathbed and says that he assisted Politburo member Beria in hiding the black oilskin notebook just as Stalin was passing. Before Kelso can get more details, Rapava disappears, but the scholar is energized by the evidence Rapava has provided. As Kelso begins to pursue his historical prize, however, his investigation ensnares him in a living web of Stalinist terror and murder. It soon becomes clear that the notebook is the key to a doorway hiding many secrets, old and new.
Harris's understanding of Soviet and modern Russian is impressive. The novel rests on a seamless blend of fact and fiction that places real figures from Soviet history alongside Kelso and his fictional colleagues. Especially disturbing are the transcripts from interrogations and the excerpt from Kelso's lectures on Stalin; the documents provide chilling evidence to support Kelso's claim: "There can now be no doubt that it is Stalin rather than Hitler who is the most alarming figure of the twentieth century." --Patrick O'Kelley --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
As in his first thriller, Fatherland, Harris again plunders the past to tell an icy-slick story set mostly in the present. Readers are plunged into mystery, danger and the affairs of great men at once, as, outside Moscow in 1953, Stalin suffers a fatal stroke, and the notorious Beria, head of Stalin's secret police, orders a young guard to swipe a key from the dictator's body, to stand watch as Beria uses it to steal a notebook from Stalin's safe and then to help bury the notebook deep in the ground. These events unfold not in flashback proper but as told to American Sovietologist C.R.A. "Fluke" Kelso by the guard, now an old drunk. Following a lead from the old man's story as well as other clues, Kelso, soon accompanied by an American satellite-TV journalist, goes in pursuit of the notebook and, later, the explosive secret it contains; others, including those who cherish the days of Stalin's might, are on the chase as well. With this hunt as backbone, the plot fleshes out in muscular fashion, fed by assorted conspiratorial interests and a welter of colorful, if sometimes too obvious (Stalin as madman; Beria as sadist), characters. The crumbling ruin that is today's Moscow comes alive in the details, which continue as Kelso's search moves north into the frozen desolation of the White Sea port of Archangel. Sex, violence and violent sex all play a part in Harris's entertaining, well-constructed, intelligently lurid tale, which, along with his first two novels, places him squarely in the footsteps not of "Conrad, Green and le Carre," as the publisher would have it, but of Frederick Forsyth. And, like Forsyth, Harris has yet to write a novel without bestseller stamped on it?including this one. Simultaneous audio book; optioned for film by Mel Gibson.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
To explain why would take a small novel to begin with, and I'd give away whatever lame excuse for suspense Harris's writing contains. I'll stick with three things.
First, the excitement of the novel is based largely on the fact that a secret has been kept from Stalin's death in 1953 till the mid-1990s, when a British historian of the USSR happens to stumble across it. The secret's location happens to be the Russian city of Archangel -- which, as it happens, is the last word screamed out (in the novel) by Lavrentii Beria, the secret police chief who's killed shortly after Stalin's death (in real life) and goes to his grave knowing where the novel's secret is kept. The word "Archangel" is supposedly baffling to Beria's interrogators, and no one connects it with the actual city. The problem here is that, as anyone who's taken 2 weeks of freshman Russian knows, the Russian word for the city is "Arkhangelsk," while the word for archangel is "arkhangel." So no Russian would be confused by Beria's last words. The fact that Harris makes so much out of this linguistic confusion shows that he doesn't know nearly as much about Russia as he does about Germany.
Thirdly, Fluke Kelso -- the British historian who serves as the main character -- is totally unappealing. Harris has created the most boring, cliched, unlikeable picture of an academic imaginable: hard-drinking, womanizing (is there a novel anywhere that doesn't depict a professor sleeping with his students?), and self-absorbed.Read more ›
Overall this is a strong novel. Harris once again makes good use of real history to set the tone, and in this case displays an astute take on the political situation in Russia. He wisely recognizes that freedom without prosperity can make people nostaligic for even the most brutal regimes. Furthermore, in its latter stages, "Archangel" serves as a cautionary tale for the dangers of nationalism run amok.
So there is a lot of meat to this novel. Unfrotunately, Harris hurries through the last 50 pages or so. Of course, I understand the need to create a sense of urgency and pace to any thriller, but by the end I almost felt like he was just bailing out. There were a lot of different paths that might have led to a more satisfying conclusion.
All in all though, "Archangel" is a strong political/thriller, which is let down, but not ruined, by a rather rushed conclusion.
As in Fatherland (1992), with its disturbing thesis that Nazi Germany had been victorious in World War II and Hitler still lived, Mr. Harris skillfully blends fact and fiction to craft an equally frightening tale of contemporary Russia.
"There can be no doubt that it is Stalin rather than Hitler who is the most alarming figure of the twentieth century.....Stalin, unlike Hitler has not been exorcised....Stalin stands in a historical tradition of rule by terror, which existed before him, which he refined, and which could exist again. His, not Hitler's, is the specter that should worry us."
These words are spoken by "Fluke" Kelso, an antithetic hero, to be sure. Thrice divorced, an unsuccessful writer, he is a historian, a Sovietologist who greets alcohol with enthusiasm and his colleagues with ennui.
In unforgivingly frigid Moscow, where "air tasted of Asia - of dust and soot and Eastern spices, cheap gasoline, black tobacco, sweat," Kelso is a part of a symposium invited to view recently opened archival materials.
He is visited in his hotel room by Papu Rapava, an older man, a drunk, "a survivor of the Arctic Circle camps," who claims to have been an eye-witness to Stalin's death. Rapava says he was once bodyguard and chauffeur for Laventy Beria, the chief of the secret police. Rapava claims to have accompanied Beria to Stalin's room the night the GenSec suffered a stroke, and to have assisted Beria in stealing Stalin's private papers, a black oilskin notebook, which was later buried.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
I did like it, but it had some poor ideas shown. Like the keeping a secret for a decades in Russia. The good parts, in my humble opinion, show the more personal insights of family... Read morePublished on June 22 2007 by Matthew Gawelczyk
This was truly a novel I enjoyed. Sharon Shinn writes in a pleasant manner, and her stories are so unbelieveable, that they become believable. Read morePublished on Feb. 12 2005 by J.Jones
I found Archangel by Robert Harris to be mesmeizing in its unflinching blending of fact and fiction. Read morePublished on April 18 2002 by Uncle Chino
This is the first Robert Harris novel I have read and I enjoyed the story. Harris gets straight to the point with the story and every step by the main character, a historian called... Read morePublished on Dec 11 2001 by Pavithra
I dont normally submit reviews, but felt I had to defend this book against a paltry 5 star rating. It successfully combines the best features of an historical novel and a thriller... Read morePublished on Nov. 22 2001
I had especially saved "Archangel" as a read during my first-ever trip to Russia, and hats off to Mr. Read morePublished on Sept. 26 2001 by C. Kuschel-Toerber
This is a compelling page-turner that will keep you up at night. If you enjoy cold-war thrillers, Robert Harris has figured out how to bring them back to life in this post... Read morePublished on April 1 2001 by Tom Williams
When I first began reading Archangel (my first Robert Harris read), I was captivated. The opening scene set by Harris is incredible and really draws you into the story. Read morePublished on March 6 2001 by Albert L. Riess III