by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Marian Schwartz.
Open Letter, 506 pp., £12.99, November 2012, 978 1 934824 36 8
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Most writers of fiction want to give their readers the sense of an alternative passage of time to the actual one. This, the narrative drive, comes through a combination of events following one another in chronological order and events having consequences that lead to other events – a mix, in other words, of the consecutive and the contingent. Pride and Prejudice, The Big Sleep and The Code of the Woosters are both consecutive and contingent. Anna Karenina, Housekeeping and A House for Mr Biswas are consecutive, but less contingent: much that happens in these books, as in life, is not about a chain of cause and effect – things simply happen, one after the other.

The narrative habit of hopping back and forwards in time, so common in modern novels, is a superficial challenge to chronology. It’s unusual to come across a novel that is neither contingent nor consecutive. Even great monuments of modernist prose, like Ulysses, depend to some degree on the notion of consecutive chronology. To find narrative comparators to Maidenhair, the first novel by Mikhail Shishkin to be translated into English, you have to reach for outliers like Tristram Shandy or Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, where time and contingency have been disassembled. While the texture of Maidenhair is quite different from either, it resembles them in that it stretches the definition of ‘novel’. The enveloping structure of Shishkin’s work is not so much a story as a prose portfolio, an exhibition you walk through in a particular order because that’s the way the pages are put together, as you might walk clockwise round a gallery.

It sounds forbidding and obscure, but Maidenhair, first published in 2005, was a publishing hit in Russia, where it won two literary prizes, and in Germany. One explanation for this may be that the reading public has a greater appetite for experimental fiction than the cynics believe. Another may be the nature of Shishkin’s experiment, which relates to the enclosure, rather than to the entirety of its contents. Difficult as some passages are, there are long sections embedded within the book that are conventionally dramatic, even romantic, involving the quest for love embodied as grail, elixir, end.

In so far as Maidenhair has a unifying story, it hangs on a man employed to translate exchanges between immigration officials in Switzerland and Russian-speakers seeking asylum. The asylum seekers are portrayed as frightened, tormented, not necessarily honest people fleeing a brutal Eurasia for security, peace and comfort in a spotless Alpine haven – souls trying to enter Paradise. The official who passes judgment on them is called Peter Fischer. Just in case you miss the point, the walls of his office are hung with pictures of his fishing trips around the world.

It’s the dialogue between the asylum seekers and their interrogators – initially the interpreter and Fischer together, later a composite agent who may represent the interpreter’s meditation on the exchanges – that sets the book’s directions. First we hear the asylum seekers offer plausible yet vague stories of persecution: one was menaced for threatening to expose corruption among border troops on the Russia-Kazakhstan border; another was beaten up for supporting the opposition candidate in an election; another, an orphan, was raped by the town bigwigs; others were discriminated against for being Jewish or having Aids.

These tales are challenged by the sceptical Peter as generic, rehearsed, and it is suggested to the asylum seekers that they need to do better. They can do this in two ways. They can graft a myth or an epic story from another era onto their own lives: hence the names and patterns from the legends of Daphnis and Chloë and Tristan and Isolde and from Xenophon’s Anabasis that are smeared throughout the book. Or they can justify their lives by detail – by clearly remembered, isolated moments, of no obvious significance except that they are remembered. The alternative is the ‘rejected’ stamp on the asylum seeker’s case file.

According to our instructions, improbability in statements is grounds for affixing this very stamp. So you’ll have to come up with a better legend for yourself and not forget what is most important: the minor details, the trivia. Who would have believed in the resurrection had it not been for the detail about the finger placed in the wound?

As the book goes on, both Peter and the asylum seekers recede. The interpreter appears in question-and-answer sessions with himself and with a former lover who committed suicide. The asylum seekers’ attempts at justification of their claims before Peter becomes a series of efforts by the interpreter and others to justify their own lives by the recital of a stream of brief, intense memories. Shishkin presents a universe in which each life is an implicit plea for its own value, measured in the fine grain of experienced detail. The characters’ belief that an experienced moment endures for ever, long after the person who experienced it is dead, recalls Schopenhauer’s claim in his essay ‘On the Indestructibility of Our Essential Being by Death’:

He who, by virtue of the strength of his memory and imagination, can most clearly call up what is long past in his own life will be more conscious than others of the identity of all present moments throughout the whole of time. Through this consciousness of the identity of all present moments one apprehends that which is most fleeting of all, the moment, as that alone which persists … He will understand … that although when he dies the objective world, with the medium through which it presents itself, the intellect, will be lost to him, his existence will not be affected by it; for there has been as much reality within him as without.

What Schopenhauer’s argument looks like in Shishkin’s hands is a stream of small memories, one after the other, like this:

On the first day of vacation she jumps from the porch and lands barefoot on a rake lying in the grass. She fashions a little house out of a shoebox, cuts out a door, hides her hand in the house, knocks with the other, and asks: ‘May I come in?’ And she won’t let the second hand into the house. She holds a piece of crumpet out to Mama on a fork and, indulging her, pops it into her mouth so that the tines jab her palette – and there’s blood. She dreams of her father putting her to bed and telling her at night that if you set your slippers out all neat and tidy they’ll run off to savage lands and bring back dreams and put them under children’s pillows …

And so on, for page after page. The most intense memories are from childhood, from when you are in love, or from periods of suffering. Shishkin is horribly good at portraying Russian prisons and the Russian military, where bullying has become so institutionalised that it is the institution. There is a brilliant portrayal of the NCO Gray, arch-tormenter of the junior ranks yet brave in battle. Shishkin disrupts the conventional hierarchy of intensities so that the testifying conscript’s most important memory of Gray is not any of his cruelties or his gruesome death in a firefight but the way he snapped the elastic of his boxer shorts on his belly. When he does die, the conscript says: ‘I’m sitting next to him and watching the blood mix with the puddle of water underneath him. I also remember the ribbed sky and the feather clouds at sunset.’

The most accessible plea for love as justification for a life comes in intermittent extracts from the diaries of a singer called Bella Dmitrievna, born in the late 19th century, whom the interpreter was supposed to interview for a biography in the late 20th century, when he still lived in Russia. She dies before he meets her, and the book project collapses, but he keeps her journal. ‘The old woman had indeed written in great detail about all kinds of superfluous people only she cared about, endlessly recalling various unimportant details,’ the interpreter notes contemptuously. A few pages later, on page 104, about a fifth of the way through the book, we begin reading extracts from the diaries, chunks of which occur repeatedly from that point on. Shishkin gives a vivid, convincing voice to Bella Dmitrievna as a child, an artist, a woman and a would-be mother, ecstatic, despairing, vain, tough, as we follow her to old age through her musical successes and failures and her many lovers. It’s both very good – a well-written piece of historical fiction, a clever variation on the works of great Russian woman diarists and memoirists like Maria Bashkirtseva and Nina Berberova – and quite conventional: a regular narrative embedded in an experimental book. It isn’t so much woven into the rest of the book as adjacent to it, daring the reader to follow it and skim the harder bits between.

Shishkin was born in Moscow in 1961, the son of a submariner war hero and a schoolteacher who were already divorced by the time he appeared. He worked as a journalist and taught German and English in the 1980s, and in 1995 moved with his second, Swiss wife to her homeland, where, among other jobs, he worked as an interpreter for officials interviewing asylum seekers. He had a short story, ‘Urok Kalligrafii’ (‘Calligraphy Lesson’), published in the journal Znamya in 1993, and critical success followed quickly. Each of his four novels – Vsekh Ozhidaet Odna Noch (‘The Same Night Awaits Us All’, 1993), Vzyatie Izmaila (‘The Storming of Izmail’, 1999), Venerin Volos (Maidenhair, 2005) and Pismovnik (‘Letter-Book’, 2010) – has won national prizes.

Pismovnik, to be published in English by Quercus next year under the title The Light and the Dark, looks the way Maidenhair might have looked if Shishkin had pumped up the Bella Dmitrievna sections, counterpointed them with a longer but less interesting version of the conscript’s tale and stripped out the radical mosaic of stories and memories that make up the rest of the book. The more recent novel has, in far greater measure, the aspect most difficult to cope with in Maidenhair. The idea of people justifying their lives by offering up a stream of brief, intense memories works well when there are a few such moments. Like this, from Bella’s diary:

School begins, actually, with Iosif Pokorny’s stationery store on Sadovaya. All you have to say is: ‘Bilinskaya, first year.’ They outfit me with a packet that has all my textbooks, notebooks, paints, brushes of the right sizes, pens, erasers and pencil case. Wishing to demonstrate the squirrel’s softness, the clerk runs the brush across my cheekbone.

It’s all very poignant and you feel that yes, it might just as well be me remembering something like that; yes, that sounds like the memory of an apparently unimportant thing whose importance turned out to be that I remembered it. But what can’t be demonstrated with a quote is the way that after a certain point the sheer quantity of such moments becomes indigestible, monotonous, even nauseating, like tapas being shoved down your throat, small plate after small plate, long after you’re full. It’s part of the charm of Maidenhair that Shishkin occasionally acknowledges the problem. ‘By the way,’ an interrogator-interpreter-asylum seeker asks at one point – by this time the boundaries are very blurred – ‘do you ever wonder why there is such an abundance of these unnecessary, fleeting people? It’s a small story, not enough for everyone.’

In interviews Shishkin has made claims for the universality of his work and his characters; he does not, he states, pander to the European and North American thirst for the Russian exotic, for a snowy bears’, babes’ and billionaires’ wonderland of extremes. This is true as far as it goes. There is such a thirst, and Shishkin doesn’t pander to it. And yet his work projects a particularly Russian reality, of which extremes are a part. He has a way of switching abruptly from gore and torture – in prison, in war, in a gruesome Chechen execution video – to childhood memories of little boys and girls snug in their parents’ care. The effect can be rather sentimental, in a way Chekhov and Bunin weren’t. But ‘sentimental’ isn’t necessarily a pejorative word. In Maidenhair it’s reflective of a genuine contemporary Russian fear of a universalised bullying culture, against which love and childhood memories are the only haven; where the deeper men and women burrow into the haven of love and mothers, the less capable they are of dealing with the wider world, and the more likely they are to become bullies and victims themselves. It is the yearning for paradise that permits the hells to stand. As a character who may or may not be the interpreter’s dead girlfriend says, ‘the sweetest freedom of all is the freedom to return to where you were happy. To the moment that’s worth the return. I leaf through my life and search in it for surges of happiness. And where I once nearly suffocated from love, I can stop and shut the book.’

Marian Schwartz, Shishkin’s translator, has done a good job of turning his Russian into smooth, strong American English. It is understandable that she baulked at the biggest single challenge he presented, to find an alternative to the English word ‘interpreter’. The usual modern Russian word is perevodchik. The word Shishkin uses is the archaic tolmach, redolent of the middle ages, with overtones not merely of translating from one language to another but of explaining and understanding. Curiously, another Russian writer, Mikhail Gigolashvili, who lives in Germany, published a book with a German-resident Russian interpreter as its central character in 2003, two years before Maidenhair came out. The title of the book, in Russian, was Tolmach. (In an interview Gigolashvili denied feeling any resentment over Shishkin’s greater international success. The two Mikhails, he said, were friends, ‘not like cat and dog, not like Dostoevsky and Turgenev, but like Pushkin and Gogol’.)

For all Schwartz’s skill in rendering Shishkin into English, there are a few errors, worth mentioning only because it is remarkable how a single mistranslated word can throw a whole passage off kilter. Schwartz’s translation has a hut made of ‘reed, hazelnut branches and upturned stumps that look like the lines on your palm’. I spent some time puzzling over how ‘upturned stumps’ could look like the lines on someone’s palm until I checked the original and saw that Shishkin’s word was koryagi, which means not ‘upturned stumps’ but, in this context at least, ‘driftwood’. In one of the novel’s darkest, finest and most mysterious passages, the conscript’s tale of the NCO Gray, Shishkin wrings compassion out of a kicked ball. Schwartz renders it as ‘remember the soldiers playing soccer in the hospital yard with a holey rubber ball, and after each kick some stuffing came out and slowly healed over, as if the ball were catching its breath, pulling in air through the little hole.’ In the original there’s no mention of stuffing, as there wouldn’t be, with an inflatable ball. It’s ‘poyavlyalas vmyatina’ – ‘a dent appeared.’ It’s a pity, because the confusion distracts from the combination of sadness and joy, brutality and hope, virility and vulnerability in the scene, all focused on the ball that is beaten, crippled, recovers – beaten by bullying young men who are themselves about to be bullied by war. ‘Then Gray jumped out of his chair and kicked it so hard the ball looked more like a rubber cap,’ the interrogator – now morphed into a narrator – says to the conscript.

Can’t you sense the beauty in that? Authentic, living beauty, not the kind on the glossy cover at the newsstand. I’m not talking about the fact that these men, in blue boxers and boots, running after a ball-cap in a hospital yard strewn with broken glass, made a vow and are prepared to sacrifice themselves, their cloud-brains, their draft-pulse, their wind-breath, for others, for the fatherland. Isn’t there beauty in that? Isn’t there beauty in the pair climbing the mountain with a bundle of firewood for the sacrifice, the old man and the boy, and the boy asking: ‘But where’s the lamb, father?’ And the old man replying: ‘Just wait, you’ll see!’

It’s not long before the conscript is telling the interrogator-interpreter-narrator about his childhood memories of his mother.

There is a danger, in trying to describe Maidenhair, of making the book sound more straightforward than it is. But Shishkin also has his Manichean side, represented in the Gray passage: the idea that love and war, cruelty and kindness, violence and tranquillity are in a state of eternal balance, and that the duty of the fortunate is not to fret about the unfortunate but to enjoy their fortune more intensely. There are places in this rich, difficult, sometimes rewarding book where one could stop and shut it and walk away knowing Shishkin believes love to be the point of it all; and other places where one could stop and shut it and not be so sure.

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