Mikhail Shishkin’s “The Light and the Dark”

Reviewed by Carla Baricz

Image of Mikhail Shishkin’s “The Light and the Dark”

Very rarely does a book aim to tell not only the story of its writer, but also that of its possible readers—all of them, including those who will never read it. Mihkail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark is that rare work. This “letter-book,” as the title indicates in the original Russian, is the record of the correspondence between Sasha and Volodya, two lovers separated by war. The novel is also a story of the relationship between a self and its better half: “Probably, in order to become real, you have to exist, not in your own awareness [. . .] but in the awareness of another person,” writes Volodya. “And not just any person but one for whom it is important to know that you exist.” We, too, as readers, become real by participating in this exchange: “Because we’re going to die too. And from the letters’ point of view we’re already dead. “There are no letters that are someone else’s,” the painter nicknamed “Chartkov” muses. The Light and the Dark asks its readers to consider experience as an all-encompassing phenomenon. In Volodya’s terms, “this railway halt, this lamp, the blows of the hammer on the axle boxes, the chirring of grasshoppers from the window of the telegraph office [. . .]—it’s all me. [. . .] Everything is only once and now.” Shishkin daringly asks us not to think of the book in our hands merely as an object or narrative that exists independent of the mind that untangles its threads. The emotions that the narrative evokes are our emotions; its observations only make sense in the context of our own experience. Shiskin pushes us to the realization that we are part of the book that we are reading, and that the book we are reading is part of us. As Sasha puts it, “ah, yes, I almost forgot, and afterward the whole of existence will gather itself back into a single period.” This single period, serving as header to each letter, becomes a graphic reminder of this fact. If Sasha is writing, it is depicted as a circle; if Volodya is replying, it is depicted as a square. The Light and the Dark attempts to square the circle.

This complicated, labyrinthine, epistolary narrative goes back to the premise of another text that famously attempts to explain the relationship between the word and the human being who writes it. Volodya returns to the New Testament, citing the first verse of the Gospel of John:

At least, that is how it seemed then. I had become the final link in a very important chain, perhaps the most important chain of all, running from the real individual, who may have been sweaty, with bad breath, left-handed or right-handed, suffering from heartburn—that’s not important—but just as real as you and me, who once wrote: “In the beginning was the word.” And look, his words are still here, and he is in them, they have become his body. And this is the only true immortality. There is no other. Everything else is down there, in that pit overflowing with graveyard excrement.

Shiskin takes John the Evangelist’s profession of faith seriously, asking himself what happens if the word truly does precede and outlast the body. What if “all the great books and pictures aren’t about love at all?” “They only pretend to be about love so they’ll be interesting to read. But in actual fact, they’re about death. [. . .] So probably all books aren’t really about death but about eternity, only their eternity isn’t genuine, it’s a kind of fragment, an instant, like a teensy-weensy fly in amber.” The novel suggests various ways of understanding how the word could be “in the beginning,” before the birth of Sasha and Volodya, and after its end, after their and our deaths—a fragment of eternity.

Volodya’s narrative tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and of his deployment, with a Russian regiment, to relieve the siege of Tianjin, alongside American, English, French, and Japanese troops. His last letters chronicle the taking of the city and his deployment to Peking. Some seventy pages into the three-hundred-page correspondence, the reader is made privy to an unaddressed letter: “Dear Such-and-Such! I greatly regret to inform that your son. Well, anyway, you understand the whole thing already.” One might be inclined to read this statement as merely one of the letters that Volodya—as a general staff clerk—writes to the parents of deceased members of the regiment. However, Sasha informs him in her next missive that “your mom phoned me then, but she couldn’t tell me. [. . .] She held out the notification to me. ‘Look, there’s a piece of paper, there’s a seal, there’s a signature. But where’s my son?’”

Volodya, it seems, has been killed. But his words survive—his letters continue to be written, refusing to mark the period of his death as the final word on the matter. “Time doesn’t grow evenly, there are bald patches in it.” Sasha, too, continues to spell out her life to a man who, she seems to acknowledge, has died, but who, as her beloved, remains very much present.

The Light and the Dark takes the Ciceronian and Petrarchan epistolae familiares—letters written to deceased famous men, like Homer and Seneca—and does something spectacular with the genre. Volodya is not famous; nor does Sasha write to him because he is an intellectually stimulating interlocutor, although he happens to be one. She writes to him because to write is to live, and to live is to write. “Everything around me is message and messenger at the same time,” both of the lovers claim at one time or another. Like Volodya, the fly in amber who is eternally present in letters that are never sent and never come, his “Sashenka’s” narrative similarly expands and compresses. The book spans the duration of their courtship, but between the lines, Sasha tells Volodya about her marriage, her loneliness, her affairs, and her desire for children. She speculates on the lives of those around her, and she describes the deaths of her parents. Do the messages ever reach their intended recipient? If they reach us, the answer is yes: “The only letters that don’t get there are the ones that are never written,” Sasha explains.

To readers of Shishkin, the form that this novel takes should be familiar. Maidenhair similarly includes letters from a Swiss interpreter, named Peter, like the apostle, to his son, whom he fancifully calls Nebuchadnezzasaurus. The letters are in many ways missives to himself, which veer across real and imagined landscapes, historical periods, memories, and states of being: “It is no surprise that you may receive my letter with news only years hence. It’s half-past twelve here now. My half-past twelve will be conveyed to you. Actually, I think I already told you that something is wrong with the time in our boundless expanse,” Peter writes. Something is indeed wrong with time, or rather, with our understanding of the way in which it works. As another character in that novel puts it, “there is no past, but if it were to be told, the words could stretch out for days on end, or maybe just the opposite, and entire years could be crammed into a few letters.”

In The Light and the Dark this is exactly what happens: time is measured in letters rather than days. The letters come from the here and nowhere, from Prester John, the legendary Christian monarch of the East, whose mythical realm, in the Middle Ages, was thought to border the Earthly Paradise. Shishkin alludes to the twelfth-century forgery, the Epistola Presbyteri Joannis, “The Letter of Prester John” to Emperor Manuel Comneus of Byzantium, a text that enumerated the many wonders of Prester John’s realm. In a last, wholly unexpected move, Sasha and Volodya’s epistolary exchange seems to be written in his hand. Are these letters forgeries, too? Yes and no. They are fabulous, in that they are fictive, but fictions are made of words, and it is the word that, according to Shishkin, makes us real. In Volodya’s words, “to me it was obvious that the most ancient primary substance was ink.” Or, as his “scribe” puts it: “I’m Prester John, and everything around here is my kingdom—clamorous, fragrant, and imperishable. I am Lord of Lords and the Ruler of all Rulers.” As in Maidenhair, textual reality turns out to be more permanent, more real, perhaps, than life itself.

Both of Shishkin’s books, like his other works, return obsessively, with tenderness and with great brutality, to the question of whether individual moments of existence add up to more than the sum of minutes we are given to live, and whether and how they may be salvaged through language. Shishkin’s incandescent Russian undertakes this redemptive project, rendering translation a Sisyphean task. One cannot translate Shishkin, in fact; one can only attempt to find an adequate equivalent in the target language. Andrew Bromfield works very hard to do so with The Light and the Dark, and it pays off. In English, his Shishkin becomes, to quote Shakespeare’s Ariel, “something rich and strange.”

The Light and the Dark is a sentimental book, but only because it takes as its subject matter human love, in all of its infinite varieties and with all of its bitter complications—its indefinite hopes, its moments of transcendence and grotesqueness. Which is to say, as Volodya does, that this narrative is a story about death. Death, however, is never the end of the story. In language, we are always in the eternal present, so that, in one of his last missives, Volodya can whisper: “After all, I’m alive, Sasha.” Death belongs to time, and time wavers in this remarkable narrative and finally folds in on itself: “They write from Gaul that in the evening, in the dense rays of the sunset, a fine skin grows on the cobblestones of the street. They write from Jerusalem. [. . .] As the years go by the past does not recede but moves closer.” Of course, language cannot make up for loss: “I want everything alive, here and now. You, your warmth, your voice, your body, your smell,” Volodya cries. But Shishkin holds to the idea that, despite what mortality may take from us, language can nevertheless redeem the ephemeral moment, capturing it and returning us to its present. In letters, he seems to say, we are always the people we were when we wrote them—we are always young, we are always in love, we are always reaching across the dark, like “flies in amber.” The sheer beauty and power of his prose makes us believe that, indeed, as he writes, “it’s going to be the word in the beginning again.”