on April 9, 2001
First off, for those of you think that "Archangel" is an alternate history in the tradition of Harris' excellent "Fatherland", it's not. This novel is more of a "what if"; an examination of the ripple that one change in history might have. I don't want to discuss the specifics for fear of ruining the plot, but suffice it to say that it involves the politics of modern day Russia.
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.
A setting that chills the bone; a premise that chills the heart. These are the pillars of Archangel, a tension driven third novel by former BBC correspondent and London Times columnist Robert Harris.
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.
As Kelso decides to spend his final day in Moscow either refuting or corroborating Rapava's story, the writer comes face to face with Mamantov, a Stalinist who feels "the force of Comrade Stalin, even from the grave," and lives amidst the ex-dictator's memorabilia - miniatures, boxes, stamps, medals.
Surveying the collection, Kelso shudders, remembering that today one in six Russians believe Stalin to be their greatest leader. "Stalin was seven times more popular than Boris Yeltsin, while poor old Gorbachev hadn't even scored enough votes to register."
As Kelso becomes convinced that Stalin's secret papers do exist and obsessed with finding them, he is dogged by R. J. O'Brian, an overly zealous reporter whose beat is the world.
But, once the notebook is found instead of holding answers, it poses more questions. The last piece of the puzzle may lie in Archangel, a desolate White Sea port where "Everything had decayed. The facades of the buildings were pitted and peeling. Parts of the road had subsided."
Together Kelso and O'Brian drive 800 miles across an eerily deserted frozen landscape to reach Archangel before a storm rolling in from Siberia buries them or pursuing government agents capture them.
What the two find, Stalin's long hidden secret, is more appalling than either of them could have imagined.
With ever escalating suspense Mr. Harris catapults his mesmerizing narrative to a shocking denouement
Film rights for this unsettling tale have been sold to Mel Gibson, and it will surely capture a slot on bestseller lists.. Archangel is too close to possible for comfort, and too spellbinding to put down.
on August 14, 2000
Der Fuhrer is too horrible to be seen face-to-face in Harriss' debut novel "Fatherland", and was only referred to by radio announcers. In "Archangel", Harriss stokes the same idea from a different perspective - obsession with the 20th century's other monster, the evil Joseph Stalin. As in "Fatherland" and "Enigma" (the latter of the two is a great read when you consider it as a possible prequel to the former), the unlikely hero is something of a detective - in this case an historian. But Harriss refuses to succumb to the "snobbery of chronology" by which history is simply dismissed as anything more important than an explanation for how we are today. In Harriss world, the past has a habit of finding its way back to the present - whether it's the proof of genocide (Fatherland) or Soviet-backed massacres (Enigma), nothing is ever consigned to history without a chance to rear its head and spoil our ordered world. In "Archangel", the past is Stalin and his reign of terror. Post-Soviet Russia yearns for direction and a clique of ex-Soviet generals and politicians remain permanantly on the verge of returning the nation to soviet rule. Even the structures arranged by the Yeltsin government to create democracy have the seeds of autocracy, and those who seek to prevent the rebirth of the KGB may actually be following in its footsteps. But it's business as usual for the westerners who exploit Russia's resources and its potential for a market. The hero-historian, lead on to believe that the official story of "Uncle Joe" may be incomplete, looks deeper into records and finds that the dead dictator's legacy may yet be unrealized. Helped - sometimes pushed - by an American TV journalist and by the daughter of a Stalinist security guard, the hero rtacks down the ephemeral clues - stories and other conspiracy theories - for the hard evidence: a journal pried out of Stalin's desk by Beria. But even that prize isn't enough, and the heroes head out to Archangel, the irradiated northern frontier of Russia, where they confront, not only the truth, but their powerlessness against it and (gasp) their own complicity in its realization. "Archangel" arguably surpasses previous novels - though Harriss has yet to draw a world as fully realized as post-war Berlin of "Fatherland" - in that the story is built on the experiences of flawed and credible charachters. In any novel built on old stories told to the main charachters, there is always the plot-weakness that the stories may be completely fake. Harriss deftly turns this into a strength by highlighting a sort of intellectual obsession by which the human charachters can't help but believe the stories. This isn't as simple as the obsession of Harriss previous charachters (in Fatherland, the hero is shocked to learn that his warm socks were knit from the hair of concentration camp victims; the cryptoanalyst in "Enigma" was motivated by love and the need to save England from the U-Boats), and the obsession drives the book. When one of those stories recounts Lavrenti Beria's last day at work, expecting to take over Stalin's job, the obsession becomes palpable. The former KGB boss, as Harriss descibes him, has no idea what's waiting for him within the Kremlin. History tells us he should have called in sick that morning. But who'll warn us not repeat Beria's mistakes?
on April 27, 2000
Robert Harris has definately proved himself to be among the top writers in the business. He intriges you with facts pertaining to the setting of the story. The information used in this book was well researched. Fiction is twisted in with the interesting facts of Russian history and Josef Stalin. There are many things very pleasing in this book. It is suspenseful, informative, and exciting. The suspense keeps you guessing what will happen next throughout the book. He uses foreshadowing with a twist to it. Never do you know for sure what will happen next. This book is very informative. It gives facts of Josef Stalin mixed with a little bit of fiction. He gives the readers a feel for what Russia was really like under Josef Stalin's rule. Throughout the book the question what-if is asked. Excitement is another element the book has. There is a lot of conflicts that has you racing back and forth wondering what will happen. Once the climax is reached the excitement level really rises. The action makes you want to keep reading. The end of the book is also great. This is definately a book to buy if you like excitement and mystery.
on April 11, 2000
This tale of post-Soviet era derring-do has the protagonist, Fluke Kelso, in Moscow, during which time he comes into possession of a handwritten notebook previously possessed by Stalin. After much preliminary dashing about in the capital, the contents of this notebook send our hero careening north to the rusted-out city of Archangel on the Barents Sea, where he confronts this potboiler's version of Evil.
There are several aspects of this book that I found unusual. First, Kelso is not some smarmy Yank defending Mom, Old Glory, Apple Pie and the American Way against the forces of Chaos. Rather, he's a tweedy Brit manning the walls in support of Queen, Union Jack, Spotted Dick and what's left of the Empire. (Unfortunately named, Spotted Dick is, like apple pie, a dessert. Steamed pudding with currants, topped with a custard sauce. If you don't believe me, there are recipes for it on the Web.) Second, Kelso is not of the usual hero Right Stuff - a swashbuckling spy, or a world-weary cop, or a brilliant physician, or a hard-charging lawyer. Rather, he's a perfectly ordinary - almost too ordinary - bloke who happens to be an historian, whose chief talent is a knowledge of Soviet and Russian history. (We'll soon be seeing CPAs or convenience store clerks in Defender of the Free World roles, for Chrissake!) Third, Kelso fails to bed the woman passing as the story's female lead. As I recall, he doesn't even manage a kiss. Maybe it's because she's a part-time hooker. (A little too lower class, old boy. Perhaps even Bond would hesitate, what? And the Queen would not be amused.)
In any case, the action is well paced with reasonably satisfying plot twist and ending, and the dialogue is not inordinately inane. It also raises the very valid question as to modern Russia's propensity for a return to Stalinism. As Kelso observes, the Russians have no tradition of democracy, and are quickly weary of the social debate and wrangling associated with such. Under these circumstances, what they are likely to want is a Strongman with a Hard Line, and any hard line will do. Quite right, I think.
on March 25, 2000
PoliticaL fiction is a difficult art. This book is a page-turner. It is an eye-gluer. You have to go on and finish it as fast as possible. But when you come to the end, you find out that nothing has really been achieved. The secret son of Stalin is a myth. The impossibility for the Russians to learn democracy is a point of view, hence subjective. In the end, the book looks like a perfect justification of the emergence of a new dictator as being the only solution for Russia. Putin is behind the door. I remain unsatisfied with this vision , this fate and even fatal reduction of history. Russia, like any other country, has no hope, no future in a dictatorship, no matter how democratic it may dress. The characters are simple-minded, whereas in a democracy a person can only survive if this person is double-minded at least. In the end the vision is totally closed on any future and hope. In the end the vision is fatalistic and lethal for democracy itself. Of course it is a novel. But the use of real elements, real names, real politicians and institutions gives a stamp of truthfulness to what is nothing but an ideological and subjective vision. In other words it gives a vision of the Russians as unable to get up to the twentieth or even twenty-first century. This is discriminatory if not fundamentally "racist". The Russians will invent their democracy, even if a little dictator, without any depth, has to be the go-between of the future. This little dictator will enable the Russians to realise what democracy is and to get rid of the old vision, so perfectly represented in the Russian Communist Party that refuses to follow any trend, to listen to the future. Jacques COULARDEAU
on February 8, 2000
This book is two thrillers, not one. The first establishes the truth behind the notebook, the second, after an interlude en route to the freezing depths of Archangel, confronts the truth.
Half way through, I found it difficult to predict how or why the awful truth hidden away in the forests should be so terrifying, but all becomes clear as the book unravels. The potential horror of resurrected Stalinism is highly plausible, while the ending translates what had apparently been a series of chance encounters into premeditated history. This is where truth and fiction blur - Harris has woven his fiction so closely with reality that the tale quite possibly contains a grain of truth or rumour.
There are loose ends, particularly the motivations and hidden agendas some characters have stored away. However, to pick holes is somewhat churlish, for Harris knows how to enter the reader's psyche and to create a page-turner.
I look forward to the next Harris saga with keen interest. At the current rate, should be due about 2004!
on November 26, 2000
This work is rich in historical and "documentary" detail more than its plot and characters. It stimulates further inquiry into the 20th century history of Russia, but comes short on the literary and artistic side. the plot seems to falter and collapse two thirds the way reading the novel and become a fantastic and highly implausible dream. The ending was done in a haste in which the characters destroy each other in a suicidal rage which is supposed to correct all the mistakes. Somehow the pace of events accellerates in the last third of the novel and ends the story in a short summary of what it could have been if it were written more patiently. It could have been much more memorable if the hand of the author have not forced the characters into hasting exits from the plot near the end. Stalin's biography by Edvard Radzinsky has more artistic and literary beauty in it and makes a better reading into the Stalin's era.
on December 11, 2001
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 Fluke Kelso, seems to be logical.
Most historical fiction somehow cop out in the end but this didn't. Don't want to reveal details but the final hundred pages are not as anti-climatic as other similar novels I have come across.
Also, his caricatures of journalists, historians and Stalin are pretty amusing. Yet the little known facts that he mentions about Stalin were very interesting and deeply disturbing. Harris claims that Stalin is more alarming figure in history than Hitler and the case he makes throughout the novel is pretty convincing.
There is a sense that he,(Harris), is having fun with the story and Soviet history and I enjoyed the ride. Beautiful book. Can't wait to get hold of his other works.
on April 1, 2001
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 cold-war era. This book has an outstanding plot tied to a secret notebook that was supposedly stolen from Stalin on the day that he died. From the moment we learn of this missing notebook (on about page 2) through to the last page, Harris takes us on a wild ride from Moscow through the Northern reaches of what used to be know as The Soviet Union. The story never slows.
Harris is a masterful fiction writer. He uses words that paint pictures so vivid that we feel we are with the characters. He weaves historical facts into a wonderful tale that had me reading every free minute over the course of three days. If you are looking for an exciting piece of fiction, don't miss adding this book to your reading list.