I am not very well acquainted with the contemporary Russian Literature. Couple of read of Akunin did not really made me wanting to read more, from a country which ruled the world literature scene over 150 years ( probably the best after the Victorian era English). Mikhail Shishkin's name came up in few discussions with lavish praise by many, during last year and continued with the English translation of his Maidenhair. I was trying to get hold of this book for a while ( there are a few more in similar lights) and I would say, the experience was beyond what was expected.
It's been two weeks since I finished reading this and I realise it is not very easy to write about this book. A bit complex in structure, drifting narrative through out, often confusing the reality with fantasy, the political and social undercurrent within the historical perspective and the authors deliberation over the theme makes it a complex read, often demanding a re-read of few pages in the process. Its in this intensity lies the success of this book.
The book constructed around a Russian Interpreter working for one Peter at the Swiss Migration Service , also working on a biography of an aging Russian singer. Translating and hearing the asylum seekers, as expected, of stories of their life what really happened, or stories that are created for the moment, the tales of despair of hunger, lust and of survival, gets to the pages as transcripts. Adding to this, the interpreter's own creation of stories, of his on deliberations ( to himself) often in the form of questions ( a single question lasting many pages) blurring the division of questions and answers in its form and content. On his part, he himself is trying to re-build his life through his own experiences , including his attempt to rescue his own troubled marriage , in the streets of Rome which he recounts in the form of letters to his son, "Nebuchadnezzasaurus". The stories of asylum seekers move from accounts of soldiers from Afghan, the rebels of Chechnya, people abandoned their own family, the references and recommendations, the images they carry within themselves, often find it difficult to explain without breaking down, the clever intelligent types who work their way through the story telling, often ending up with the same result of rejection.
On a parallel narrative, often mixing with the interpreted transcripts, is the biography under preparation from the diary of the Singer ( Isabella), which he is entrusted to write. The diary staring from the early years of 20th century, prior to the Russian revolution, reproduced in the exact form ( with missing pages, years) of a young teenage girls infatuations, to her growing up years as a singer ( loosing her voice and recovering), who survived revolution, famine, world war and the dissolution of Soviet Union to her own personal battles with voice, the separation of parents and her own multiple failed affairs which she reproduces with no self pity through out the diaries.
The main narrative, continue around the question and answer session at the "Gates of the Paradise" with Peter, the Swiss Official ,'the master of fate' whose job is to evaluate the applicants , trying to prevent those with dubious history from passing through. The existential question about the truth versus lie ( but since you can't clarify the truth, you at least need to clarify the lie) , of fact versus fiction ( Those speaking may be fictitious, but what they say is real. Truth lies only where it is concealed) , of life versus death ( Life is a string and death is the air. A string makes no sound without air). will be at the hands of Peter, or rather the interpreter. The stories are about memory ( most times of memory you wants to forget ) of those who ask questions and of those answer. Hence the questions interpreted, not necessarily by Peter, become reminiscence of the interpreter himself blurring the divide between himself and those at the opposite side.
It isn't an easy read. The structural complexities of the novel, the dreamy narrative drifting in abandon through the pages which leaves you in a state of intoxication at times, the shifting time and space through out the pages and his different voice make it a demanding read. There are many historical references, of Afghan and Chechen accounts of the soldiers, the references to Persian myths and the erstwhile soviet regime adds to the intensity of the overall impact of the book.
To me this is a work of a genius and despite the vigil and focus the book demands, it is highly rewarding at the end. Outstanding work of fiction , translated brilliantly by Marian Schwartz, a book you read as if you are going through a dream.-----------------------------------------
Maidenhair ( 2005)
Mikhail Shishkin ( translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz 2012 )
Other reviews : Dallas News, World Literature Today, Words without Borders, Bookslut, Three percent