January 2013

Jessica Michalofsky


Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin

It was during his six-year exile in Kazakhstan that Mikhail Bakhtin began his studies on the novel, and it was in 1941, in his revolutionary essay "The Epic and Novel," that he said "when the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the dominant discipline." Epic discourse, Bakhtin says, is handed down by tradition; it celebrates and valorizes the past and is formed by memory. The novel, on the other hand, is formed by experience and knowledge of the present, the ordinary now. Who are we? (As opposed to Who were they?) Where are we going? (As opposed to Where did we come from?) Since the question of what happened is always known in the epic (whether Troy was sacked or not, for example), how it will end is not a possible inquiry. Of what happens next is only possible in the novel.

In Russian author Mikhail Shishkin's Maidenhair, what can be known is a result of the tangled stories people tell -- truth becomes "a needle hidden in an egg, that was in a drake, that was in a hare, that was in something else, and all of it in turn was stuffed into a briefcase" -- a series of Russian dolls into which truth and lies become only bigger and smaller versions of themselves.

Maidenhair, Shishkin's fifth novel, though the first to be published in English, can be best described as having all the emotion and intelligence of a Russian classic in an bewilderingly beautiful postmodern style. An unnamed protagonist, identified only as the interpreter, translates asylum seekers' preposterous and convoluted stories of torture, escape, and war that shift through time and place, and mix in with the protagonist's own reading of Persian history, memories of a trip to Rome with his former wife, letters to his estranged son, Nebuchadnezzasaurus, ruler of a distant, imaginary land, and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through the dissolution of Russia in the early twentieth century.

To say that the novel has a unique narrative structure would be a glorious understatement. Narrative lines cross, sometimes mid-paragraph. Like old lovers, characters finish each other's sentences.

The main narrative line, if there is one, belongs to the interpreter and his work at the Defense Ministry of Paradise where he translates refugees' accounts for Peter, the guarder of gates and "master of fates." Peter's job is to evaluate asylum seekers' stories, ferret out the lies, and prevent those with dubious stories from passing through -- which is almost everybody -- "but since you can't clarify the truth, you at least need to clarify the lie."

But the best way to explain the novel is to say that, for Shishkin, story finds its meaning in the telling and draws its truthiness, not from the Latin concept of truth as veritas, but from an older, Pre-Socratic understanding of aletheia, as interpreted by Heidegger as the state of unconcealedness:

Those speaking may be fictitious, but what they say is real. Truth lies only where it is concealed. Fine, the people aren't real but the stories, oh, the stories are! It's just that they raped someone else at that orphanage... And that guy from Lithuania heard the story about the brother who burned up and the murdered mother from some else. What difference does it make who it happened to?

Thus, story and character become fluid concepts, embodying not merely the physical form of an individual, but the longings, confusions, and distresses of the human race.

Open up to any random passage and you will be treated to Shishkin's narrative melting pot:

The Greeks shared what little they had with the Chechens. Xenophon explained as best he could to these frozen, weary, starving people, who did not understand the Hellenic speech, that he was leading his Greeks to the sea. "Thalassa!" Xenophon pointed seaward for the elders. "Thalassa!"

For Shishkin, the telling of personal story reveals the global, pan-historical, and intertextual collective conscious of a civilization -- regardless of whether it is a half-baked story concocted by a Chechen asylum-seeker; the interpreter's nostalgic recollections of his estranged wife or his former teacher; or fantastical tales of Daphnis and Chloe, Tungols and Orochs, or the Ancient Greeks. Therefore, separating the narratives is, in my opinion, counterproductive because the whole objective of Maidenhair is to enable characters to freely emigrate and inhabit neighboring narratives, to wander across the borders of space and time, fiction, myth, and history. In Maidenhair, story is a passport simultaneously granting global and historical citizenship and acknowledging a corresponding responsibility.

Yet, despite the fact that the novel retells the horror and dislocation caused by many of the major wars over the last 3,000 years, Maidenhair is an incredibly optimistic book. This is because characters are never alone in their suffering. Victims become oppressors, lovers become betrayers, and each character has at least two other doppelgangers -- all inhabiting the same narrative body. Shishkin's narrative style permits individual to reimagine their lives and re-tell their stories, together as a people, from multiple points of view: "A few years ago the interpreter sat on these steps, but not alone. Leucippa and Klitofontus. Pyramus and Thisbe. The interpreter and Isolde."

If Bakhtin were alive today, I'm quite sure he would go bananas for Shishkin. The epic hero that Bakhtin refers to, the one who can't ask questions about himself, and who only sees and knows about himself that which others see and know about him, has been released by the novel from history.

Maidenhair asks: What other lives have I lived? What crimes am I guilty of? Who else am I?

Even in Russia, Shishkin has a reputation for writing that is beautiful but difficult. Conveying the poetry of Shishkin's language while retaining the delicate and tentative connections through the translation is no small feat, and Maidenhair's success in English is thanks to Marian Schwartz's wise translation.

Despite Shishkin's tremendous success in Russia and Europe, including winning the Russian Booker Prize (2000), Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (2005), and the Preis des Hauses der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (2011), he is, for reasons unfathomable to this writer, relatively unknown in the West. Maidenhair is a tremendously intelligent novel, and Shishkin might well win the Nobel for his contribution to the genre and to world literature: formally inventive, textually incandescent, and historically evocative, the novel inscribes the collective conscious of a civilization.

Until now, English readers have only had access to "Calligraphy Lesson," translated by Marian Schwartz and available online, and "The Half-Belt Overcoat," translated by Leo Shtutin, which appeared in the Read Russia! anthology published earlier this year. The latter speaks about the process of writing Maidenhair. In what I now recognize as Shiskin's signature style of mixing fact and fiction, history and myth, he explains the writing of Maidenhair: "The novel, written a few years after mum's death, took its rise from Russian literature, containing as it does many quotations, associations and interweaving plot threads, but by the end I was simply describing what was going on in my own life."

This acknowledgment makes perfect sense when I follow Shishkin's dictum that "We are what we say," and then turn to any point in his novel and ask, Well, what happens next?:

Question: But if the period has already been placed on the page on the last page of the future, can nothing be changed? What if you'd like to fix something in your life? Bring someone back? Love someone all the way?

Answer: On the contrary, even what's already happened can change at any moment. Every person you've lived changes everything that came before.

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Open Letter
ISBN: 13: 978-1934824368
506 pages