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Book Review: “Archangel” by Robert Harris

Reviewed by Michael Specter

The cold war wasn't good for much, but it certainly was a terrific time for thrillers: the East and West were so neatly divided, the atmosphere so ominously noir, and everything fit so well into a world in which the angels of democracy were destined always to live in conflict with the alluring tug of the devil.

In the near-decade since they took the wall away there have been new and arguably greater threats posed by nuclear and biological terrorism than any that Stalin could possibly have imagined. For readers, though, it just hasn't been the same. Nothing seems quite so malevolent, so wholly shrouded in evil, as the Kremlin once did. True, Russia today is a country slipping into a different kind of darkness, and it can be horrifying to watch. But some days you can hardly tell the good guys from the bad.

So we have to be at least a little thankful to Robert Harris, who in his new novel, ''Archangel,'' has given those of us who retain some literary nostalgia for the Evil Empire exactly what we have been waiting for: a thriller about the bad old days set in the deep, gray present. In his previous work, most notably his 1992 novel ''Fatherland,'' in which Hitler triumphed and Nazism lives, Harris mapped out as his special terrain the effects that the 20th century's great villains have had on the world; I am sorry to report it's a subject that never seems to lose its resonance.

''Archangel'' does more than simply touch the past: its central question — what would happen if the great spirit of Stalin returned to the land he practically destroyed — hovers like a storm cloud over Russia today. It is an issue that's easy to dismiss, and hard to approach in a novel; but Harris goes at it with real reporting. Many of the little details, from the badly patterned wallpaper in the dachas of the power elite (today no less than in the Communist era) to the two webbed toes of Stalin's left foot, make the place feel gruesomely right. In Harris's able hands you can feel the oppression of Stalin's time on every one of Moscow's poorly lighted streets. His contemporary portrait of the city, overflowing with sin, possibility and hopelessness, seems unbelievable only if you have never spent a day there. ''At five past 10, the door opened, '' Harris writes with perfect accuracy about one of the city's nightclubs. ''A yellow light, the silhouettes of the girls, the steamy glow of their perfumed breath. . . . And from the cars now came the serious money. You could tell the seriousness not just by the weight of the coats and the jewelry but by the way their owners carried themselves, straight to the head of the line, and by the amount of protection they left hanging around at the door. Clearly, the only guns allowed on the premises belonged to the management.''

''Archangel'' is not without its problems, beginning with the plot. The story line reads like, well, a cheap thriller, though one that moves with the speed of a freight train: Fluke Kelso, a dissolute Soviet expert whose early academic promise seems to have withered away with the Soviet Union itself, stumbles on the story of the half-century while in Moscow to participate in a conference titled, appropriately enough, ''Confronting the Past.''

While his staid academic colleagues listen pliably to the lectures arranged by officials from the Russian national archives, Kelso encounters a fearsome man, Papu Rapava, who was once the bodyguard of Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, and then spent the mandatory 15 years in Siberia. Rapava, after tossing back enough vodka to float the Potemkin, claims that Stalin left behind an astonishing secret, to which only he has the key. It's a hokey literary device, but one that allows Harris to link Russia's gloomy present to its terrifying past.

The harrowing — and often outlandish — story flows from there. It turns out that Russia's most evil and effective man left behind something more of himself than even his many great admirers had hoped, and Kelso is immediately pulled on a thrilling journey that takes him to the edge of the Arctic, in Archangel, a northern city that we are to interpret as the archtypical repository of that great mythic beast, the Russian soul. Harris's book is most exciting as he maneuvers Kelso through the political and criminal intricacies of Moscow, hooking him up with an audacious and sadly credible television reporter who knows far more about sophisticated phone equipment than he does about the country he is covering. Once they set off on their quest for the truth, things get more troublesome — for them and for the novel. The characters are led across the vast snows of the Russian winter by the unknown hands of an extremist with a penchant for collecting 30's memorabilia. Like so many of the characters in this novel, Vladimir Mamantov would seem ludicrous if he didn't also seem so real. It is the ruthless Mamantov, a Stalinist dinosaur, who turns out to be the only man in the book who knows what he's talking about.

Kelso and the television reporter, R. J. O'Brian, race to find their quarry for strikingly different reasons: Kelso is driven by his need to know what happened in the land to which he has devoted his intellectual life. He is a historian in the rare position to see where history can take us. O'Brian knows a scoop when one hits him in the face. And this is obviously the greatest scoop he will ever have. Naturally they find what they are looking for — and that's when the novel sinks beneath the weight of its own implausibility. The spirit of Stalin is indeed alive in the land, but this time, predictably enough, it emerges purely as farce. Don't dwell on the details of the novel too long or they will melt away like single snowflakes striking a windowpane.

Harris has drawn a rude collection of characters: they are boorish, obtuse, ignorant, vulgar and gloriously pretentious. You could see them as foolish and fantastic, but none of them seems particularly out of place in Moscow today: the asinine television journalist; the sodden professor who never realized his potential; the aging whore with a heart of gold who mistakenly manages to get her father tortured and murdered (and who, naturally, is saving her hard-earned dollars so that she can go to law school) and the extremist waiting for the brass ring to come around to his side one more time. He is the best character of them all.

If you pull at the threads they'll unravel; so don't. The book is still fun, exciting even. That's because Harris never loses sight of the big picture. He understands that the Russian people are desperate, that they long for anything that could transport them to a better place, and that at this point, they are willing to shoulder the most unbelievable burdens to get there.

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