Archangel by Robert Harris

If there is one genre I try to avoid then it’s the thriller novel (and to a lesser degree crime fiction). You know what I mean, the ones you see plague book stores in airports and train stations, where the name of the author appears larger on the cover than the name of the book. Although relatively easy reads with some degree of suspense and action, I never think they offer enough to vary themselves from each other. The stories are often forgettable yet do have potential to be something so much better (that’s the frustrating thing for me) and characters between one thriller novel to the other have some basic similarities to them that I sigh when I notice the similarities. Sometimes it might as well be the same character used by multiple authors. Protagonists tend to be policemen, journalists, lawyers university professors usually with an alcohol problem, with previous broken marriages and kids that won’t talk to them. They are the modern equivalent of what was written in old pulp magazines, lazy, soulless and yet annoyingly popular.

With respect to what I have said above I do however find some notable exceptions from time to time. In this case Archangel by Robert Harris. Archangel is a thriller which is also historical fiction. Published in 1998 Archangel has a look at Russia after the fall of communism and how it has come to grips to handling its recent past. In this case the reign of Joseph Stalin and additionally the secrets he may have held.

The story starts in a hotel in Moscow where a former Soviet guard tells the story of how Stalin had a journal that has yet to be discovered. He tells this story to our main protagonist Kelso (likes a drink, works for a university focusing on Russian history, broken marriages). As Kelso tries to discover more, he does his research, there are people trying to stop him and his associates. One of these is O’Brian who satisfies the generic thriller character by being a journalist, although saying that I was impressed by the character of Zinaida Rapava who in my opinion, the story should have focused on more (she’s not a lawyer as you would expect but is studying it). Once the knowledge of a journal that Stalin had is discovered, it leads our hero to go to Archangel in the north of Russia where we meet what appears to be the reincarnation of Stalin himself. I’ll leave it there with respect to the plot because despite me not liking thrillers, this one was not too bad.

What fascinated me more in Archangel was not so much its look at the Soviet era during the later end of Stalin’s life but how Russia is perceived once the USSR fell and the Federation arrived the change in economy and Western influence along with how Russian people react to it.

I think the story takes time to get itself going, the second half of the book was definitely much better than the second and if anything more focus should have been put on that second half. The book if anything is good to read just to understand if at all possible what made Stalin tick. We know people who were close to him were no safer than his apparent enemies and as Kruschev would tell the world after Stalin’s death, he wasn’t the nicest of guys to put it lightly. We learn about his impact on Russia and how he is still revered. Despite the flaws of Archangel it does have a lot of substance to it, especially from a historical perspective which should you have an interest in it at all, will make you contemplate the legacy of Stalin on the truly remarkable and beautiful country of Russia. I actually would be interested to know what Russians would think of this novel and how a western writer has also perceived them, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This is one of my favourite books and work of fiction in any language. A magical book. Master and Margarita works on so many levels, from farce to comedy, satire, comedy and tragedy.

The story has many layers to it. We see demons playing havoc in communist Russia and we also get to see the story of Pontius Pilot who meets a certain Yeshua Ha-Nozri or Jesus Christ as it may well be. One of the demons tells the tale of proving his existence to a couple of Moscow atheists, we get to see the ruthlessness and vanity of intellectuals, we see a fat talking demon cat. It shows the best and worst of people of which the demons take full advantage of. I could go on more about it, how sane men are seen as mad, how individuals suddenly show up thousands of miles of way, how there’s a party where the worst type of people in history are invited.

We also get to follow the story of the Master and Margarita themselves showing their love for one another and what they would do for each other,  we see much more than that. Even the demons themselves have their soft sides and you begin to like them as well. With the probable exception of the Master and maybe Homeless (who bares witness to the most change in the story) the demons take advantage of the sins of the people they come across.

I have happily read this book a dozen times, even going as far as reading different English versions of it from different translators. Which ever one you get to read you will not be dissapointed. I fell in love with it.

There is an audio book version of it on Audible narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt which is a marvellous narration of the story. He talks with the right tone and nuance for each character.

If you haven’t done so already read this book. Beg for a copy, buy one, borrow one, listen to the audio book. I wouldn’t go as far as stealing the book. Even the demon Behemoth in the story would rather pay for his ride instead of not paying.