Russia has one of the world’s great literary traditions, which for many is defined by bearded sages who write philosophically and morally committed mega-tomes. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn fit that mold, and not uncoincidentally was the last Russian author to attain global fame.
Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American audiences still expect Russian writers to conform to the dissident vs. tyrant stereotype. Contemporary Russian prose is far richer than that, and since 1991 all kinds of writing have blossomed.
One of the most acclaimed authors is Mikhail Shishkin, a multiple-award winner at home and in Europe, whose novel Maidenhair has just been published in an elegant English rendering by translator Marian Schwartz.
The first thing to stress about Maidenhair is that any attempt at summarizing the novel’s extraordinary complexity will fail miserably. “Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter — the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise — and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else.” So reads the first sentence of the publisher’s blurb, and while technically true it makes the book sound like a worthy, potentially tedious exercise.
In fact, the most important information is contained in the subsidiary clauses — that many of these stories are untrue, or legendary. For although the Swiss officers’ Q&A sessions begin in realistic mode, they rapidly mutate as the interrogations roam across time and space, blending myth, history, hearsay and memory. The identities of the speakers become blurred, as if the stories themselves and not the speakers control the narrative.
Shishkin also blends in other modes of writing. For instance, his narrator writes letters to his son, “Nebuchadnezzasaurus.” At first they discuss school and history before the writer details the breakdown of his relationship with his son’s mother. As the novel progresses, Shishkin incorporates the diaries of a real-life Soviet-era singer into the text.
Thus Maidenhair exhibits an extraordinary multiplicity of voices, eras and styles. It is this, not politics, that has made Shishkin an occasionally controversial author in Russia. His allegedly demanding style, his use of found material and even his residence in Switzerland have provoked and alienated critics, with one even claiming that he would “eat his underpants in public” if Maidenhair sold more than 50,000 copies — which it did in the first 12 months following publication. Sadly, the boxer shorts were not ingested.
Maidenhair is neither dry nor difficult. It is a delight to read. Yes, the book addresses the Russian experience, but it is not post-Soviet exotica. Shishkin has spoken of a desire to return Russian literature to its place in world culture, and he addresses themes that affect everyone — love, loss, war, illness, guilt, fear, death — without ever becoming trite or banal.
In short, Maidenhair is the best post-Soviet Russian novel I have read. Simply put, it is true literature, a phenomenon we encounter too rarely in any language.
Daniel Kalder is the author of Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse From Moscow to Siberia. He lives in Austin.
Dallas Morning News 26th November 2012