Monday, December 17, 2012

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Translated by Marian Schwartz
Open Letter Books: 506 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9781934824368

Add me to the chorus praising Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin. The funny thing about saying it’s a chorus is that the novel probably means different things to each reviewer. There are some clear themes throughout the novel and I’ll focus on a couple of these, with excerpts, while providing links to other reviews.

I want to highlight Lisa’s review at Lizok’s Bookshelf first since she read it in the original Russian and her post was my introduction to the novel. She hits many of the highpoints and covers many of the story threads. I recommend reading hers and a few of the following reviews before reading the book.

An excerpt provided by Open Letters Books
Review at The Quarterly Conversation
Review at Three Percent
An article at Words without Borders that covers a discussion including the author Shishkin and English translator Schwartz
An interview with Shishkin at Publishers Weekly
For anything I missed, check the review and links at the complete review

There are several narrative lines in Maidenhair. The central character works as an interpreter in Switzerland, processing asylum seekers who are mostly from former Soviet states. Through the interpreter we find out about what he is reading, learn how his marriage failed, read his letters to his son (as they pretend to be rulers of imaginary countries), and explore the diaries of a Russian opera singer (based on, if not intended to be Izabella Yurieva). There is another narrative thread, using the format of the interpreter’s question and answer interviews, covering a wide range of topics with a changing cast of questioners and answerers.

One topic that resonates throughout the novel is the focus on our mortality and what remains after we are gone. One answer constantly surfaces—words. The importance of words figures daily in the work of the interpreter dealing with the asylum seekers. As he hears similar stories repeated over and over again he explains the office’s approach to the interview:
Sob stories! They wanted to live in paradise! Martyrs we get! But it’s not about compassion. It’s about clarifying circumstances. In order to keep them out of paradise, we have to ferret out what really happened. But how can you if people become the stories they tell? You just can’t. That means it’s all very simple. Since you can’t clarify the truth, you at least need to clarify the lie. (page 21)

The words define what we are, their importance highlighted by those seeking asylum—they “become what gets written in the transcript.” This is echoed again during a Q&A session where the answerer describes what happens when you are in prison and someone call you a name. If you fail to respond to that name, then you become that name: “If you agree to a word, you are that word. Now they have to defile you. And then there’s no living for you.” The words are also important because they help us remember and help others remember us. Isabella’s journal highlights this point in several entries, such as, “If you don’t write down what in fact happened, Papa says, everything disappears and nothing remains, as if it never was.” The meaning of what is written, whether recording the past or in stories, changes as we age and “live to the last page.”

Xenophon’s Anabasis gets mentioned a few times in the novel, but an entry in Isabella’s diary captures the importance of his words across the centuries. She is at a party talking with an artist:

He kept talking about death and immortality. He said he was reading a lot of the ancient authors, the Greeks. Right now he was reading Xenophon. I said I’d tried to read him but he was terribly boring, the endless crossings, the parsangs, everyone killing everyone else. I asked him what he found interesting there. “You’re right. These people aren’t interesting. Mercenaries come to a foreign country to kill and replace one tyrant with another, and then they spend the whole book trying to find the sea and head home. There’s nothing beautiful or noble in it. But it’s not about them. They’re no better or worse than today’s soldiers, who are shooting at someone right now, this very minute.” “If not them, then who?” “The author, Xenophon. Imagine, how many people have slipped by (that’s what he said, slipped by, it has an unpleasant ring!), and these Greeks held on because he wrote them down. And now for the third millennia, each time they see the sea he has led them to they rush to embrace one another and shout, Thalassa! Thalassa! Because he brought them to a very special sea. Thalassa is the sea of immortality.” (page 294)

The ugly face of war, as mentioned in that excerpt, is a recurring theme in the novel, echoing through the ages. We see it through the interpreter’s interviews. Isabella’s diary covers some of World War I and the following Russian civil war. There’s a blurring of Xenophon’s story with World War II that creates a particularly jarring effect. The unnamed Q&A sessions relive aspects of various conflicts that still stick with me. Those caught in the middle of war, facing life and death, can’t always talk about it, though. A letter to Isabella from her fiancé on the front line during World War I says that instead of talking about the “main thing”…the war and their possible death…the soldiers talk about trivial things, like boots.

There are beautiful sections with themes mentioned in the other reviews, but I want to focus on the central message that permeates the novel. As Shishkin commented in the PW interview,

“Even though there is much cruelty in the narrative, the novel is really about humanity and love, both of which help to overcome violence. The title of the novel, Maidenhair, is taken from the name of a fern, Adiantum capillus veneris. This fern grows like a weed in the Eternal City of Rome, the setting for the end of the novel. In Russia this type of fern is a houseplant that would perish without human love and care. My novel is about love and care in its various guises.”

The sections including nurturing or caring are few and far between for most of the novel and the practical aspects of it can be annoying, such as the advice given to a pregnant Isabella. She realizes after her father’s death that she never really had a meaningful talk with him about the important things in life. The implication in her diary, although she doesn’t necessarily come to the realization, is that the many times she was together with her family incorporate...are...the important things in life.

In the midst of so much violence and cruelty, the ability to enjoy life and find happiness becomes more important. Isabella works through this conundrum for much of her life, coming up with a working argument later in life:

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 from our soup be to this mongrel if it hadn’t had a whiff of hunger?

It’s always been this way. Someone’s head is being cut off, while two people in the crowd on the square in front of the scaffold are knowing first love. Someone is admiring the picturesque sunset, while someone else is looking at the same sunset from behind bars. It will always be thus! It should be thus! No matter how many tens or millions have their head cut off, at that very moment someone should know first love. Even that adolescent. I can see his face before my eyes. We were returning from the Crimea by train and had stopped at some junction, and directly across was a Stolypin car [a modified railway car used for prisoner transport], and there were bars and someone’s almost childish face in the narrow window. While on our little table we had food, flowers, bottles.

We only stopped for a minute. Everyone in the compartment fell silent. And when we moved on, our gaiety was gone.

Or should it all be the reverse? After that should we all have lived even more gaily? And should the food have been zestier? The sunset prettier? (page 474)

It’s not a formula for ignoring others or for failing to aid them. It is a call to appreciate and enjoy what we have, and that includes the people around us. And words…never forget the importance of words in this novel. The book's epigraph lets you know immediately the essence of what you will find in the pages that follow:

And your ashes will be called, and will be told:
“Return that which does not belong to you;
reveal what you have kept to this time.”
For by the word was the world created, and by the word shall we be resurrected.
–Revelation of Baruch ben Neriah. 4, XLII

Update: An interview with the author at The Morning News

Update: An essay by Shishkin on the relation between literature, freedom and Russia.


Lisa C. Hayden said...

I'm glad to see that you also enjoyed and appreciated Maidenhair! Thanks for mentioning my post.

It's been over a year and a half since I read Maidenhair but I still can't get it out of my mind... I know that's partly because this year I've read reviews, heard Marian Schwartz read from the book, and talked with lots of people about the book, but I think the biggest factor is that Maidenhair is just such a good piece of literature.

Dwight said...

I know what you mean...there are passages and images I have stuck in my mind that I doubt will go away any time soon.

I just remember reading your post and thinking how much I wanted to check it out when released in translation. So glad you posted on it!