‘Maidenhair’ by Mikhail Shishkin (Review)

Anyone who reads Russian literature in English will have noticed that there is, shall we say, a slight obsession with the classics.  For every new translation, there are a couple of dozen updated versions of novels from the Golden and Silver ages of the country’s literary past.  However, there is good new stuff out there too: I enjoyed Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Happiness is Possible when I read it last year, and today’s offering is another contemporary book which came with a lot of hype.  Let’s see if it lived up to it…

*****
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair (translated by Marian Schwartz, review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) has been touted as an instant classic.  The five-hundred page novel starts off in Switzerland as a story about an interpreter for Russian refugees, a man who must listen to the stories of atrocities they spin in an attempt to prolong their stay in the country.

Very soon though any idea of a straight narrative is abandoned.  Shishkin creates a tangle of intermingled strands, zipping backwards and forwards in time and space, alternating between fiction and reality (whatever that is).  As well as following the unnamed interpreter in his work (and on his travels), the reader must navigate the books the interpreter is reading, the postcards he writes (but never sends) to his son, and the diary entries of a famous singer and actress whose biography he was once commissioned to write.

It is an overwhelming confusion of genres, styles and stories, the parts coming together to create a whole which is extremely difficult to understand fully, but wonderful to read.  A book which came to mind while reading Maidenhair was Cloud Atlas, another ambitious novel which plays with genres, meta-fiction and text types.   Shishkin, obviously, is indebted to his Russian influences, and mentions of Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev and Tolstoy are scattered across the pages of the novel.  However, there is a lot here that is Joycean too, with drifting stream-of-consciousness passages bumping shoulders with black humour and language straight from the gutter.  Hmm – I’m not sure I’m making myself very clear here…

At the risk of falling into the trap of comparing my current book with another recent read, Maidenhair again seems to be a novel which attempts to discuss just about everything.  It is a work about war and peace, about love and (above all) about stories.  One of the main ideas seems to be whether it is possible to be happy while others suffer, whether we can smile and dance while others are slaughtered in unnecessary wars:

“It’s like with happiness.  Since everyone can’t be happy anyway, whoever can be happy right now, should.  You have to be happy today, right now, no matter what.  Someone said there can’t be a heaven if there’s a hell.  Supposedly it’s impossible to be in heaven if you know suffering exists somewhere.  Nonsense.  True enjoyment of life can only be felt if you’ve known suffering.  What would the leftovers of our soup be to this mongrel if it hadn’t had a whiff of hunger?”
p.474 (2012, Open Letter Books)

The privileged, comfortable reader may well feel a few pangs of guilt at being able to settle back in a soft reading chair while Chechens flee the Russian army – the quotation above shows that not everyone feels the need to worry about justice and fairness…

Another focus is Shishkin’s proposal that life is lived in four dimensions.  Everywhere we go, we leave traces of ourselves, meaning that we are everywhere we have ever been (or will ever be).  This means too that the ghosts of yesterday are still here today, all the people we have ever known existing at the same time and in the same space.  In fact, some of these people and things are merely copies of earlier beings – life is full of imitations of imitations with no original.  As we see from the statues the interpreter visits in Rome, or the actress Bellochka’s constant stream of boyfriends (each one seeming to be ‘the one’), everything repeats, nothing is new…

…at least I think that is what he is getting at.  With all the constant jumping around between realities, it can be hard to keep tabs on what is actually being said.  Not that this is necessarily a problem.  Even if all our lives are inextricably interconnected, there is no need to get to grips with every single thread:

 “You just have to understand destiny’s language and its cooing.  We’re blind from birth.  We don’t see anything and don’t pick up on the connection between events, the oneness of things, like a mole digging its tunnel and bumping into thick roots, and for the mole these are just insurmountable obstacles and he can’t imagine the crown these roots nourish.” p.268

Moles, yep, we are all moles.  Let’s move on.

As you may have gathered from the ramblings above, Maidenhair is not exactly a comfort read.  In fact, it is a book which makes the reader work hard for their enjoyment on many levels, whether that involves keeping track of who is narrating which section or having to flick to Wikipedia to look up historical, literary and mythological figures name-checked in the novel.  If that all seems like too much hard work though, you can just appreciate it as a set of interconnected stories and enjoy the language (and with Marian Schwartz’s excellent translation, that makes for very good reading indeed).  In the end, it is all about the stories…

Many reviews of Maidenhair have been rather effusive, and the ‘instant classic’ tag has been thrown around a fair bit.  On a first read, I’m not sure I can make a judgement like that, but it is a very good book, and one which I’m convinced will be just as successful in its translated form as it was in the original.  One thing is for sure – it is a novel which will stand up to rereading, and one which will reward the reader who is prepared to put in the time and effort.  If that sounds like you…

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10 thoughts on “‘Maidenhair’ by Mikhail Shishkin (Review)

  1. I'll agree on withholding judgment as an “instant classic” but it's a juicy read. It resides somewhere between 'disturbing' and 'haunting'. I definitely plan on rereading it down the road, which is a high recommendation for me. Thanks for the review on such a challenging book!

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  2. Dwight – I'd go for 'confusing' at times 😉 Definitely one that needs to be reread a few years down the track, the kind of book that more people should read (but don't…).

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  3. St Thomas Aquinas had a vision of heaven, where the righteous can enjoy their beatitude & the grace of god more richly by being granted a perfect sight of the damned, suggesting the idea that you can be happy whilst others are not. This does sound like something I could find enjoyment in, great post.

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  4. I started light and dark by him last night then be reading this later in the month he has been in news this weak about the russian regime ,I do worry about the instant classic tag myself hard to judge how many books have dropped to unknown clasic under it ,all the best stu

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  5. Stu – I'm itching to start 'The Light and the Dark', but I've got a ton of IFFP reading to do first… Yep, hard to judge future tastes in the present – best to avoid it really 😉

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