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I Can Read Russia from Here

Travis Holland's “The Archivist's Story” steals from the Soviets and makes up the rest.

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It would seem pesky problems like book banning and burning would have vanished with other archaic practices like leeching and burning witches at the stake. But with Alaskan governors trying to thin out library shelves and West End moms crying wolf about coming-of-age novels in high school English classes, a book about the power of the written word seems an apt choice to win Virginia Commonwealth University's seventh annual First Novelist Award. In his novel, “The Archivist's Story,” Travis Holland visits a terrifying time in the not-so-distant past when voicing an unpopular opinion was the signature on a death warrant.

“The Archivist's Story,” set in Moscow in 1939, follows Pavel Dubrov, a young literature-professor-turned-archivist in the Lubyanka prison who encounters Jewish writer Isaac Babel shortly after his arrest and imprisonment. Dubrov decides to smuggle out chapters of Babel's final manuscript, risking his own life in the process.

“I was just knocked out the first time I read Babel, just really knocked out,” says Holland, who later happened upon a post-Soviet book called “Arrested Voices: Resurrecting the Disappeared Writers of the Soviet Regime,” by Vitaly Shentalinsky. That book detailed Babel's arrest, the false confession he made under torture and the night of his execution. The manuscripts were signed for by a young officer named Kutyrev — also a character in “The Archivist's Story” — before they disappeared forever.

“The idea that his stories that he had been working on in silence for a decade had just vanished … part of me just couldn't believe something so extraordinary would disappear,” Holland says. “And then this image came to me of a man hurrying home carrying stories in his coat.”

Five years and two trips to Moscow later, Holland had a manuscript of his own.

But how did a 37-year-old creative writing teacher at the University of Michigan compose the concise, stark prose that rings of the Russian writers he admires? “I must have been channeling them,” says Holland, who immersed himself in Russian literature before and after the idea for this book. “It wasn't something I consciously sat down and tried to emulate. If I'd tried I would have been either paralyzed or made a weak copy, maybe parodying it, which I didn't want to do at all.”

Although nobody knows the exact fate of Babel's final works, Holland manages to conceive a story that stays true to Russia's history while making Dubrov's decisions — to risk his life to save a book — equally plausible. What is lost when a book is lost? It was this question that Holland wrestled with the most while writing his novel.

“I came to the conclusion that a book is not more precious than a human life, but it is the fullest picture that we can leave behind of what it is to live. As opposed to a movie or a picture or a song, with a book you spend days and weeks in a conversation with another human being. It's the deepest conversation you can have. When you erase a book, you erase that person. So there is this double sin, crime or injustice here — not only did they lose their lives but the very proof that they had even lived.” S

Travis Holland will read from “The Archivist's Story” and participate in a panel discussion with his editor and agent for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award ceremony Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. in the student commons. Visit www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu or call 828-1331.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was one of the final judges in this year's contest and I have also been asked to moderate the Friday night panel.

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