“Have you understood your rights and responsibilities and that no one gets into paradise anyway?” Peter, a government official, is the man who decides the fate of the men and women seeking refugee status in Switzerland. His formal, matter-of-fact interview style (Name? Age? Reason for requesting asylum?) obscures Peter’s true aim: he’s really just trying to uncover lies. For the petitioners, it’s a harrowing experience. How can you convince anyone of the truth when the only evidence you have is your word? Any other corroborating materials—documents, the testimony of loved ones—you’ve had to leave behind. What if the “reason for asylum,” the story you tell the ever-skeptical Peter, is all that remains?
Mikhail Shishkin’s third novel, Maidenhair, attempts to answer this and a host of other questions on the nature of life and death, love, war, and God. It is an ambitious novel that defies easy summary. Events in the lives of two characters—a Russian interpreter who works with Peter, and a singer from the early twentieth century—serve as jumping-off points for page after page of the author’s lyric, stream-of-consciousness prose. The writing is often so tightly packed with literary allusion and verbal trickery that it makes googling every second sentence a constant temptation. The book follows a kind of dream-logic that holds together only when you stop trying to work out what’s going on. Whatever meaning exists is sensory and associative, like the flickering stuff of memory. Here’s an example passage, chosen more or less at random:
That’s how to slide away from time, from Herod, downhill on frozen manure. Eyes watering in the cold, night clouds overlapping, the track sparkly, snake-bodied. There aren’t so very many people on earth, in fact: on resurrection day it’s really going to fill up. That’s how I remembered that room: winter in one window, and branches of flowering lilac in another nudging a cloud. Bottles along the tracks, but no message in any of them.
This moves on, in the same dozen-page-long paragraph, to merge seamlessly into the interpreter’s memories; these recollections consist of events from his own life, horrifying tales from the asylum-seekers, and half-remembered snippets of ancient history and myth. Speakers and subjects change without warning, and just when you’ve gotten completely lost, you half-recognize something—an object, a name, a place—but can’t quite remember why. The curious effect throughout these passages is that you are bombarded with stories and experiences that, though you’ve not encountered them before, feel familiar. The intellectual sensation is like having some impossibly elusive word on the tip of your tongue.
Shishkin presents large sections of the book in an unusual question-and-answer format. This begins as a transcript of the interviews Peter and the interpreter conduct with asylum-seekers, most of whom escaped (or claim to have escaped) from the wars in Chechnya. After a while, the roles of questioner and answerer merge: “And once again question-answer, question-answer. It’s like talking to yourself. You ask yourself the questions. And answer them.” The questions start to become longer—and more revealing—than the answers
The only discernable plot exists in the notebooks of Isabella, a young girl from Rostov who dreams of becoming a famous singer. The book includes sections of her diary entries, small islands of much-appreciated realism. Her observations are often banal and self-pitying (“I have such ugly hands!”). But as she grows up and survives war and revolution, she arrives at a coping mechanism that Shishkin will take up later: “The more death there is around, the more important to counter it with life, love, and beauty!” For Isabella, this is a philosophy of convenience: “I want to sing. It’s not my fault that my youth came in time of war! I won’t get another youth!” In the novel as a whole, however, Isabella’s justifications raise the question of whether there is zero-balance relationship between good and evil, life and death, love and hate. Can the bad be “countered” by the good?
Shishkin is often seen as a kind of hybrid between Lev Tolstoy and James Joyce. He uses experimental forms to probe the kinds of earnest, what-is-the-meaning-of-it-all questions that have been out of fashion since, well, Tolstoy. And, much like War and Peace, Shishkin’s Maidenhair is a novel about everything: it explores the workings of the world, history, memory, and mankind’s interaction with the divine. This novel is an attempt to create and explain everything in existence.
In Russia, Shishkin’s books are known for being at once difficult and extremely rewarding. As an extraordinary prose stylist, Shishkin has license to be unconventional simply because the text itself is so beautiful. The danger in translation is obvious: the more the English falters or fails to enchant, the closer the novel approaches complete unreadability. Marian Schwartz’s spectacular translation, which is far more than a bulwark against this eventuality, triumphs in its own right. The long passages of constantly shifting voices and registers come off effortlessly. The only part of the translation that seemed odd was the faithful replication of the Russian footnotes for foreign words and phrases. While it is the convention in Russian, what is to be gained by explaining things like “Herr Fischer” in a note (“Mr. Fischer [Ger.]”) for English-speakers? But these are extremely minor infelicities. And they pale beside Schwartz’s overwhelming accomplishment.
Maidenhair is likely a work of genius—as many in Russia and elsewhere believe—and the key to understanding the novel must lie in Shishkin’s descriptions of beauty in the everyday. Take this passage, where the interpreter observes his sleeping lover: “Where did the girl swim to at night, one arm forward, under the pillow, the other hand back, palm up and you so wanted to kiss that palm but you were afraid to wake her up?” I could quote hundreds more like this. The mistake in interpretation is to try to add these moments up to create a grand, overarching message. In the end, the value resides in the descriptions themselves, in the stories and words. That is where salvation lies:
Resurrection of the flesh. Out of nothingness, out of the void, out of white plaster, out of a dense fog, out of a snowy field, out of a sheet of paper there suddenly will appear people, living bodies, they rise up to remain forever, because they can’t vanish, disappearing is simply not an option; death has already come and gone. First the contour, outlines, edges. Period, period, comma makes a crooked little face. Cross-out. The man stretches from this crack in the wall to that spot of sun. Stretches from nail to nail.
Let’s hope this is not wishful thinking. If Shishkin is right about the power of words to resurrect the dead, Maidenhair has all but secured his immortality.