James Meek

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.

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