The Book Club

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You . . .

Dear Chris,

Actually, an amalgam of Grizzly Adams, Rambo, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail sounds like a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing, since all three of those are pictures that, at different stages in the evolution of my taste, I liked pretty well. The movie you imagine would at least have a chance of being one of those so-awful-it’s-kinda-fun schlock masterpieces, but I fear that the sumptuously expensive three-hour Archangel lumbering toward theaters everywhere will be fatally infected with the book’s witless self-importance, and therefore fail even as kitsch.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Harris intends no less than an allegory of post-Cold War Russian politics. As in a medieval morality play, each character represents exactly one thing. Kelso is the Western Intellectual–ineffectual, hamstrung between principle and self-interest, the dupe of forces he thinks he’s mastered. O’Brian is the Western Media–cynical, opportunistic, and shallow. Suvorin and Zinaida are the two faces of the New Russia: Suvorin wants to forget the past, and to move forward and westward, whereas Zinaida knows that the past must be confronted (she is also enough of a residual Marxist to understand the importance of primitive accumulation to capitalist development). He is ultimately powerless: His budget has been cut, his authority curtailed, and he’s dispatched (for symbolic rather than narrative reasons) to the wastes of Siberia to freeze to death in his Italian shoes.

And the moral? That the Western intelligentsia and the Western media are in unwitting collaboration with forces working round the clock to restore totalitarianism, that the Westernizing reformers in Moscow will be powerless to check these forces, and that only a young generation that has faced down the demons of history can save Mother Russia.

Hmmm. Perhaps I give Harris too much credit.

To return to the movies, it’s hard to think of a cinematic genre that Archangel neglects (other than maybe romantic comedy, but I’m sure the script doctors are working on how to play up the Stalin-Anna Safanova dalliance into a cute little May-December thing). You mentioned science fiction–Stalin fils as clone. And also of course historical costume drama, shoot-’em-up cop thriller, etc. But let’s not forget the buddy picture–O’Brian and Kelso, a carefully mismatched pair thrown together by fate (that is, by the hidden hand of the KGB) who discover they have to drive from Moscow to Archangel. And of course they return, again to maximum cinematographic effect, by train. So let’s add Rainman or maybe Thelma and Louise to your mélange, along with that amazingly bad (and widely unseen) Jon Voight picture Runaway Train (directed, if I’m not mistaken, by a Russian).

But we need a cast! Anthony Hopkins can do for Stalin what he did for John Quincy Adams in Amistad–unless Danny DeVito wants a crack at the role. Christopher Walken can be the diabolical Lavrenti Beria, with Jason Robards as Papu Rapava, Neve Campbell as Anna Safanova, and as Son of Stalin … Gary Oldman.

A Merchant-Ivory production directed by Tony Scott (the other one, of course, but you and I can split a point of the gross).

I can’t resist quoting two more prize passages, both of them attempts at what we might call idiomatic authenticity. The first is from Single & Single, which confers individuality on its characters by giving them tiresome verbal tics: The Swiss banker who begins every other sentence with “Actually”; the gay character whose speech is just peppered with italics; Alix Hoban with his fixation on words like normal and axiomatic; and on and on. But I’m especially fond of the fulmination of an entirely minor character, the mayor of the Turkish fishing village in which Tiger Single’s henchman Arthur Winser has met his prolix and pointless end:

The mayor was back, eyes blazing. “Boat was dirty! Was too many blood! Owner from this boat very sad man, very angry! Very superstitious of God! He has burn boat. He don’t care! Insurance? He spit!”

But this eloquence cannot match the simple poetry, as recorded by young Anna Safanova in the diary for which so many will risk their lives a half-century later, of Papa Stalin. (He is speaking, like Don King or Bob Dole, of himself, but in the third person):

When Comrade Stalin was in exile … it was his happiest time. It was here Comrade Stalin learned how to hunt and fish. That swine Trotsky maintained that Comrade Stalin used only traps. A filthy lie! Comrade Stalin set traps, yes, but he also set lines in the ice holes, and such was his success in the detection of fish that the local people credited him with supernatural powers. In one day, Comrade Stalin traveled twenty-five versts on skis and killed twelve brace of partridge with twenty-four shots. Could Trotsky claim as much?

The last bit sounds like a word problem from a Soviet math textbook.

May I say in closing that, for my money, you are the Dean of Online Suspense-Novel Book Chat.