Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin (trans. Marian Schwartz). Open Letter Books. 506pp., $17.95.
“Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum,” comes an order in the early pages of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair. The response begins, “There was a voivode by the name of Dracula in the Orthodox land of Wallachia,” and continues with a story of Dracula’s cruelty, first to a pair of foreign ambassadors, next to his own soldiers, and finally to a crowd of peasants, for whom he threw a luscious banquet, then “ordered the building locked, surrounded with straw, and set on fire. And the fire was great, and all in it burned.”
This stunning response reveals the logic of Maidenhair, the first of Shishkin’s novels to be translated into English. Although Shishkin’s prodigious talent has been recognized for many years in his native Russia, as well as in Germany and France, until now English readers have only had access to “The Half-Belt Overcoat.” That story, translated by Leo Shtutin, appeared in the Read Russia! anthology published earlier this year, and was, to my mind, easily the best in the collection. Maidenhair more than lives up to its promise; beautifully translated by Marian Schwartz, it is a fierce book from a sharp and generous mind.
There are, roughly, three narrative lines which structure the novel: in one, a nameless interpreter (Shishkin’s alter-ego), who works with asylum seekers in Switzerland, writes letters to his absent son, “Nebuchadnezzasaurus.” In another, two voices of unknown or unstable identity engage in a series of questions and answers. In the last, a Russian singer named Bella Dmitrievna records her life, and most of the twentieth century, in diaries which the interpreter will eventually read when he attempts to write her biography. With these three strands, Maidenhair weaves its tangled braid, although contained within it are also a dizzying array of historical digressions, philosophical preoccupations, parables, letters, jokes, and literary allusions.
I hesitate to describe the book as “universal” lest this imply that its themes, or its treatment of them, are banal; they are not. On the contrary, they are wonderfully inventive. So when I say that Maidenhair is universal, I mean that it wants to constitute a universe — or perhaps a map of the universe that is the same size as the universe itself.
Maidenhair operates in an epic time that makes little or no distinction between a story and a life, and in a pagan cosmos that allows the world to be continuously created, destroyed, and created again. Whether the creation and destruction take place in word or in flesh is inconsequential; it amounts to the same thing. For Shishkin, everything is of one substance, and so what we encounter are not new stories (for there are no new stories), but rather variations on a theme: translations, interpretations.
Despite its breadth, the novel is a closed system, and everything and everyone in it is ultimately an incarnation of something else. The interpreter — also referred to as “the biographer,” “the teacher,” and once, “the thief” — is a troubled echo of a person, constantly finding himself, like the nymph in Greek mythology, with a breaking heart and an inability to speak except through other people’s words. He substitutes history and legend for the stories of his own life: his letters to his son are mainly spent recounting ancient battles; to describe the dissolution of his marriage, he casts his wife as Isolde, and her former lover, who died in a car accident, as Tristan. “You’re mixing everything up!” the imaginary figure of his teacher shouts at him, “You always mixed everything up! You’re a bungler.”
And indeed, everything is bungled. Characters wander in and out of each other’s stories, distinguishing features migrate from person to person, ancient Greeks are confused with Chechens, and refugees demand asylum because Dracula once lit a great fire.
But this is only because they are all caught up in the same, non-linear river of time, perpetually re-enacting the same stories. The interpreter finds his counterpart and double in Bella Dmitrievna, who, like him, has lost a lover and a child, and who, like him, is an interpreter. Even in her own writing, Bella has become a vessel for the words of others. “I am sound, word, and gesture,” she writes, quoting her acting teacher. In fact, she is almost always quoting someone, as is the interpreter, as is nearly everyone in the book. If the text is, as Roland Barthes says, a fabric of quotations, then it is for Shishkin the fabric of the universe. As the asylum seeker asserts: “We are what we say.”
“All our Russian disasters come from our contempt for the flesh,” Bella writes later. Although she is only parroting a comment she has not entirely understood, the sentiment is not made entirely in jest. Maidenhair is largely about the problem of writing, or at least the problem of narrating, and what saves it from being self-indulgent is precisely its rebellion against contempt for the flesh.
Shishkin has an animist mind; there are beautiful moments of minute observation scattered unexpectedly throughout the novel: speculations on the writings of beetles, for example, or about snow or grass. Everyone in Maidenhair is a writer or a storyteller, but writing and storytelling are not sacred activities; or at least, they are no more sacred than anything else that comes out of life. It was the detail of the finger in the wound that made the Resurrection credible, Shishkin writes; holiness is not in words but in words andfingers, words and insects, words and whales. Writing is no guarantee of immortality, nor, perhaps, is it important.
Shishkin has been described as the heir apparent of the great Russian novelists, and indeed, there are times when he seems to have taken the best from each of them. From Tolstoy he has inherited a sense for the epic; from Dostoevsky, spiritual acuity and a social conscience. He takes Nabokov’s remarkable linguistic flexibility but none of his arrogance; like Chekhov, he looks on humanity with humor and compassion. Shishkin’s Baroque turns of phrases seem written out of necessity and joy rather than pretention; he respects his readers, he delights in language, and he does not need to show off.
Dare I call him a happy Russian? Though Maidenhair is laced with political brutality and sorrow, it nevertheless embodies a kind of inner freedom, a clear-eyed belief in the value of life. With tender determination, characters urge each other to love and be happy, not because they wish to deny or even to combat suffering, but simply because they recognize that no feeling is final. Suffering is guaranteed, so we must make sure that joy is as well.
“Everything is always happening simultaneously,” Shishkin writes. “It’s a matter of time zones.” The reader may approach the end of the novelwith an increasing sense of déjà vu, and that is no accident. Everything starts to converge, or rather, we finally become aware of the convergence that has been there from the start.
Madeleine LaRue is a writer and translator. She lives in Berlin.
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