The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin
Translation by Andrew Bromfield
London: Quercus (2013)
A moment came when I sensed the connection very intensely: This frozen cosmic void that I simply couldn’t drag myself out of could only be filled by that miraculous humming, rustling, booming, swelling tidal wave of words. It turned out that the present moment, the transient, only becomes joyful and meaningful when it passes through words. And without that, the joy in the present that the wise men exhorted me to experience is simply impossible. The entire present moment is paltry and useless if it does not lead to words and if words do not lead to it. Only words can somehow justify the existence of the existent, give meaning to the momentary, make the unreal real, make me me. … I thought I had discovered the truth. I suddenly felt strong. Not merely strong, but all-powerful. Yes, Sashka, laugh at me, do—I felt all-powerful. What was hidden from the ignorant had been revealed to me. The power of the word had been revealed to me. At least, that was how it seemed then. I had become the final link in a very important chain, perhaps the most important chain of all, running from that real individual, who may have been sweaty, with bad breath, left-handed or right-handed, suffering from heartburn—that’s not important—but just as real as you and me, who once wrote: ‘In the beginning was the word’. And look, his words are still here, and he is in them, they have become his body. And this is the only true immortality. There is no other. Everything else is down there, in that pit overflowing with graveyard excrement. … [Words are] the only means of communication between the dead, the living and those yet to be born. …
The more of myself I transferred into words, the more obvious it became that words were powerless to express anything. Or, rather, it’s like this—words can create something of their own, but you can’t become words. Words are cheats. They promise to carry you off on the voyage into eternity, and then they set out in secret under full sail, stranding you on the shoreline.
But the most important point is that reality doesn’t fit into any words. Reality strikes you dumb. Everything important that happens in life is beyond words. There comes a point when you understand that if what you have experienced can be expressed in words, it means you haven’t experienced anything. …
You know, I was the one who was blind. I saw words, but I didn’t see through the words. It’s like looking at the glass in the window, not the street outside. Everything that exists and is transient reflects Light. This light passes through words like glass. Words exist to let the light pass through them. (187-191)
As I warned, posts on several books I’ve read will pop up over the next few weeks but I don’t feel any time constraint on getting them out (and obviously no constraint of the length of a post, judging by this one). I wanted to post on this book first.
The Russian title, Pismovnik, means ‘letter book,’ reflecting its epistolary novel format. The English title highlights the contrasts and dualities in the book. The novel’s structure presents letters between Alexandra (Sashenka, Sasha, Sashka) and Vladimir (Vovka, Volodya, Volodenka). As the letters unfold, though, the reader discovers that not only are the friends separated by space but by time, too. Volodya’s letters describe his experience in the Russian contingency sent to the Boxer rebellion—the Seymour expedition is mentioned by name and his detachment matches part of the Gaselee expedition. (See the Wikipedia entry for an overview of all the international forces involved in the Boxer Rebellion and Mark Sullivan’s article on Russian Operations in the Boxer Rebellion). Sasha’s letters cover a range of more recent years, up until the near-present.
Sasha’s and Vovka’s letters talk past each other most of the time, a fact emphasized later when they complain about not receiving the other’s letters. Writing almost a hundred years apart can clearly add to the problem. Yet references to similar experiences between the two stand out, leaving the reader to wonder if/how they occurred. Mentions of Fresnel’s double mirror or the Big Bang are examples of repeated references, also adding to the symbolism of the novel. The novel presents a world of desire to break “out of the calendar,” freeing Sasha and Vovka from the disease of time where humans are carriers or agents of infection.
Existing beyond the present time ties in with themes about what does existence mean, upon what is existence dependent, and, if we exist, what does it take to be close to others? There’s a recurring motif throughout the novel, this example from Vovka:
Probably, in order to become real, you have to exist, not in your own awareness, which is so uncertain and subject to the influence of sleep, for instance, when even you don’t know if you’re alive or not, but in the awareness of another person. And not just any person, but one for whom it is important to know that you exist. You know that I exist. And here, where everything is topsy-turvy, that makes me real. (33)
Achieving that type of awareness when separated by space and time requires writing…words. Things have to be shared in order to feel as if they existed. One of the ironies in the novel is that Sasha and Vovka feel so close to each other despite the separation while there is a large distance within their families. Married people live like strangers to their partners and children fail to understand their parents, highlighting that physical presence does not always translate to closeness.
There are many additional themes and motifs running through the novel because of its structure and the amount of symbolism in it. Several themes recall Maidenhair, such as the major role that war plays in the novel. Vovka’s letters invoke the appalling nature of war in graphic fashion as well as the boredom—the endless waiting and uncertainty—between cruel acts. Sasha, though, is the one to comment on the endless nature of war: “It’s impossible to believe that there’s war somewhere. And there always has been. And always will be. And they’re really maiming and killing people there. And death really does exist.” (81) War turns out to be one of the several bridges of human nature across the ages allowing two people to connect.
In Maidenhair there is a focus on death and what remains after we are gone. The answer, in several forms, centers on words. The Light and the Dark echoes this focus but, appropriate for the dual nature of its translated title, provides a counterpoint. Words are only pale imitations of what they attempt to represent. Vovka feels a desperate need to convey everything he sees, whether it’s boring, cruel, atrocious, or funny. To him the writing makes it real, as noted in the opening extended quote. In that quote he notes that he realized “words were powerless to express anything.” Or as he puts it elsewhere, “Don’t cavil over words. It’s only a translation. You know that words, any words, are only a bad translation of the original. Everything happens in a language that doesn’t exist. And those nonexistent words are the real ones.” (100) He emphasizes words are “a kind of sleight of hand, a fraud, unreal, a despicable surrogate.” (190) Even so, in a turn on allusions to Descartes and Scheherazade, writing/storytelling means you exist, you are still alive.
Writing, in this case, means a mixture of fantasy and reality, fitting in with the dualities of the novel. There are moments that sound like something straight out of Herodotus, or more appropriately, Solinus. Reports of dog-headed people, natives with one large webbed foot that allows them to lie in its shade, or exploits of Prester John mix with all-too-real events. Sasha repeatedly mentions the feeling that she is split in two or has a twin, one bold (and bad) opposing her good self. The contrasts of life and death, war and peace, visible and invisible, body and mind all explore our many dualities, complementary and necessary to make a whole.
Literature plays a major role, mostly by analogy but occasionally directly. Authors mentioned include Marcus Aurelius, Democritus, Gogol, Jules Verne, Thomas Mayne Reid, Pushkin, Ovid, and Shakespeare. Works or tales referred to include Hamlet, Prester John, The Brothers Karamazov, Gogol’s The Portrait, Verne’s In Search of the Castaways, Gogol’s The Inspector, Gulliver’s Travels, Gogol’s The Nose, Alberlad and Heloise, Don Giovanni, the tale of Alyonushka, and One Thousand and One Nights. The references are in passing most of the time but they add depth to what the friends try to convey to each other (although it's important to note most of the references come from Vovka). The references also provide contrasts, such as the repeated reference to "In the beginning was the word" appearing close to the mention of the Big Bang, where "In the beginning we were all together, a single whole." Sasha believes that after death we gather back at that point. My favorite reference is the one to Hamlet by Vovka: “Do you know what Shakespeare was really writing about? About the fact that the time will be back in joint when we meet again and I put my head on your knees.” (315)
Similar to the use of the maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus veneris) as a symbol to cover themes in Maidenhair, Shishkin uses Democritus’ atomist doctrine to summarize themes withing The Light and the Dark. Vovka mentions the theory, believing it at first but later understanding it is wrong:
How amusing it is that for Democritus the body is only divisible as far as the soul—the soul is the final, indivisible item, like the atom. There’s always a space between atoms. ‘If atoms touched, they would be divisible, but they are indivisible by definition: for it is only possible to touch with parts.’ That is, bodies can touch, but there will always be a gap between souls, a void.” (78)
Vovka's final letter, reading like a fevered dream, mentions he is “on his way” to Sasha. He relays a conversation he had with Prester John, who tells him Democritus was wrong. People are and always will be warmth and light, that not only bodies touch but gaps don't have to exist between souls, something the two letter-writers have understood all along.
(Update: 23 May 2013): Tony at Tony's Reading List has a post on the book, too.