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'Archangel' by Robert Harris

Take a fascinating ride

Sunday, April 11, 1999

By Allan Walton, Assistant Managing Editor/Arts & Entertainment

 
 

Archangel

By Robert Harris

Random House
$24.95

   
 

As a bodyguard for KGB chief Laventry Beria in the years immediately following World War II, Papu Rapava was witness to remarkable events. But the most remarkable of all remained secret until he elected to share several bottles of vodka late one night with a middle-aged, disgraced former Oxford historian named Fluke Kelso.

As Rapava’s story unfolds, Kelso, in Moscow for a symposium, finds himself believing the unbelievable.

Is he so desperate for a discovery that can wipe away the tarnish of his career that he’s easily duped? Or is Rapava’s recollection the truth — a long-held secret that the world must learn or suffer the consequences?

Readers have no choice but to follow Kelso into the heart of Mother Russia and the murderous mysteries confined within her.

It’s a trail — and tale — of intrigue, history, terror and, ultimately, satisfaction. But before readers embark, they’re treated to a masterful flashback of the night Josef Stalin suffered a fatal stroke in March 1953.

Rapava, we’re told, was there, summoned to Stalin’s dacha by Beria. As the night unfolds and Kremlin emissaries struggle to pull order from chaos, Beria and his bodyguard snatch a collection of the dictator’s papers and head to a cherry orchard. Commanded to do so by his boss, Rapava digs a hole in the ground and the papers — including a notebook (a diary, perhaps?) — are buried.

In no time, Stalin’s successors convince themselves someone committed thievery. Scant months later, Beria is dead and Rapava is sent to Siberia, where hard labor and even harder winters take turns punishing him for the better part of 15 years.

Rapava is released in the summer of 1969, the day America walks on the moon. Stalin’s secret is still safe. And it remains safe — or so we assume — until Kelso enters the picture.

As it turns out, Kelso is one of several in pursuit of Stalin’s papers. But before Rapava can reveal the location, he disappears. Kelso’s search for the onetime bodyguard who pierced the inner circle of the Kremlin leads him inside modern Moscow, where sex and drugs are nothing more than currency.

He tracks down Rapava’s daughter, a prostitute, and eventually wends his way across Russia to the White Sea port of Archangel. Pursuing Rapava’s pursuer are the KGB, an ethically malignant American journalist and Vladimir Mamantov, a Stalinist fanatic who thirsts for the good old days of Papa Joe’s regime.

In a book filled with twists, it won’t spoil too much to say Stalin’s diary reveals the presence of a son. And in a country where economic development is slow and painfully unsteady, there are forces who believe the return to power of a new Stalin could cure all ills.

Robert Harris, acclaimed author of “Fatherland” and “Enigma,” has earned another notch on his computer with “Archangel.” The book is riveting and deserving of the audience it’s already earned and will continue to earn.

Although his plot here owes a small debt to Ira Levin’s “The Boys From Brazil,” Harris is an original. Better in my estimation than John le Carré, Harris knows how to sell a story. His writing is visual, lively, enthralling. The reader walks away not just entertained but feeling informed.

The opening flashback is nothing less than literary glue. As Rapava reveals his personal road map of torture, the reader dare not even blink:

“Rapava held up his mutilated fingers and wiggled them. Then he clumsily unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it from the waistband of his pants and twisted his scrawny torso to show his back. His vertebrae were crisscrossed with shiny roughened panes of scar tissue — translucent windows onto the flesh beneath. His stomach and chest were whorls of blue-black tattoos. Kelso didn’t speak. Rapava sat back, leaving his shirt unbuttoned. His scars and his tattoos were the medals of his lifetime. He was proud to wear them.”

With “Archangel,” Harris has his own medal. In the realm of historical fiction, he proves anew he has few peers.

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