"I think you should do some more research first, just to make sure," said Maxy slowly. "You have the name Palitsyn. Apply for his file in the KGB archives--I'll file the applications for you--and find out what happened to him, if he had a family, children. That's the easy bit. Then you can go back to Satinov. You've worked in archives?"Despite the fulsome praise it has received in some circles, Sashenka is a deeply flawed book. One would expect Montefiore--a historian of Soviet and Imperial Russia by day--to try his damnedest to undermine the stereotyped commonplaces of the historical novel, but he does not make the slightest attempt at doing so. His characters, revolutionaries and victims of Stalinist terror alike, are so familiar that it is difficult even to perceive them as the author's original creations. His Georgians, for instance, are all macho good ol' boys who break out spontaneously into "Suliko" (a characterization device approximately on a par with having Southerners sing "Dixieland" and muse about their mothers' grits and cornbread). More generally, Montefiore's reliance on stereotypes allows anyone even moderately familiar with the conventions of historical writing about the period to predict even the subtlest twists of the plot.
"I love archives," she said, hugging herself.
"You can smell the life in the paper. I've sat in the State Archives and held the love letters of Catherine and Potemkin, the most passionate notes, fragrant with her scent and soaked in his tears as he lay dying on the steppes."
Maxy nodded. "Well, these are different archives. Where there is such suffering, there's a kind of holiness. The Nazis knew they were doing wrong, so they hid everything; the Bolsheviks were convince they were doing right, so they kept everything. Like it or not, you're a Russian historian, a searcher for lost souls, and in Russia the truth is always written not in ink, like in other places, but in innocent blood. These archives are as sacred as Golgotha. In the dry rustle of the files you can hear the crying of children, the shunting of trains, the echo of footsteps down to the cellars, the single shot of the Nagant pistol delivering the seven grams. The very paper smells of blood."
-Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sashenka
It is not simply that being a historian doesn't help Montefiore as a novelist; it actually seems to hurt him. Only his historical experience could have led him to include such a cumbersome and unrelenting accumulation of irrelevant "local color." In a misguided attempt to render the novel's world rich and vivid, the author sticks brand names all over the place and dwells tediously on his characters' eating habits. This gambit could perhaps have paid off in the hands of a more skillful writer, but in Montefiore's it inevitably smacks of excessive pride in the results of his research and of unwillingness to let good writing interfere with Important History. (It doesn't help that mistakes creep in regardless.)
The final, modern-day, third of the novel suffers from a much subtler but no less problematic tendency. It concerns a young historian digging up the events of the novel's first two sections while working in the Soviet archives. Naturally, this plotline allows Montefiore plenty of opportunities for overwrought paeans to le gout de l'archive (such as the one above). In the process, he cannot help revealing a fundamentally and uncritically naive attitude to the writing of history. His young historian Katinka, in reading her various files, reconstructs things as they happened, rebuilding from bits of paper those scenes that Montefiore had written directly in the beginning. From scribbles in margins and timestamps on pages she moves easily to lush novelistic detail about who was in whose office when and what was running through his mind at that moment.
I can forgive Montefiore for writing in a female Mary Sue, since her story really is an engaging one. What I can't accept is his refusal to confront the intractable problems involved in recovering the past as it was actually lived. The gaps and silences that every historian encounters--the stories that paper cannot tell--are simply ignored here; behind every one of the lies and euphemisms of Katinka's KGB sources there is a discoverable, meaningful, and convenient truth, a useful piece of the puzzle. How false this idea is, Montefiore himself should be well aware, and given his own experience with archives it seems bizarre that he would allow his book to end with such a manifestly utopian "case closed."
Sashenka would have been an infinitely more compelling book if what faced its characters at the end was not a finished crossword puzzle but a stubborn and unyielding silence. As a genre, the historical novel holds forth a unique promise--the ability to straddle, without denying, the gap between the lived experience of the past and that of the present. It lets us, or pretends to let us, glimpse something mere history cannot see. But in Montefiore's telling, history eventually conquers all. It is a laughably provincial and, of course, self-undermining gesture.rg