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Mikhail Shishkin: Взятие Измаила (Taking Izmail)

If you have read either or both of Shishkin’s novels translated into English, the style of this novel will not be too unfamiliar. Shishkin gives us a romp through modern Russia and Russian history, focussing on the unpleasant side but not ignoring the few good things, dipping into the classical world and telling complex stories by various narrators, so that, at times, it is not always clear who is talking to whom. Indeed, the blurb on the back of the French text (which is what I read) says Finally, the author is as lost as we are, knocked out by Russian life .

The book starts with the story of a lawyer who travels through the Russian countryside, helping young women who have been accused of killing their babies, though it starts with the lawyer recounting how a famous lawyer got his (female) client off a murder she had confessed to. The lawyer is called, at least initially, Perun, the name of an old Slavic god, and other Slavic mythological creatures come into play. But we are soon jumping to Hyperides, a Greek orator and speech-writer, to whom the unspecified narrator is talking. Indeed, as the narrator says to Hyperides Everything is unstable, unsteady, wavy and it certainly is.

Inevitably, we have both a male and female character called Sasha but it is the male one (Alexander Vassilievich) who plays the greatest role in this book though, of course, we only learn this sometime into his narration, when his father speaks to him (telling him that everyone, when they die, becomes Osiris.) He is a lawyer, with a daughter called Ania. We meet him after Hyperides and, after the explanation with his father and his attendance at the funeral of a wife of a colleague. We see him in his office, with a woman, also called Ania, seeking his help because her father has been accused of murder. Her father is a magician/memory man. He is able to read the contents of sealed letters (the trick is later explained to us) and memorise strings of figures, aided by his daughter. He insists on his innocence and refuses Sasha’s help. We learn about the murder – a maid was unable to get into a locked hotel room and is helped by a charming young man (who has since disappeared) and finds the door is blocked by a body. It is not clear why Lunin, the magician, should be considered guilty. But it does not matter because we have moved onto something else – the story of a man who confesses to a murder he committed three years ago. The authorities refuse to believe him and, only at his insistence, do they go to the spot where he claims to have buried the body. He cannot remember where but eventually he recognises the spot and, finally, some human bones are found. He is arrested and then vigorously tries to defend himself against the charge. We then move on to other crimes, a history of poisonings and Sasha’s private life. Circus acts and the history of Nice are some of the other subjects we are introduced to.

Just as we are wondering where we are going next, we go back to Sasha’s early life and the story of his mother, who died just before he was to take his law viva voce (at which, not surprisingly, he did terribly). Only later do we learn that his father, who married his maid just two months after his wife’s death, is accused of murdering his wife and, when the body is exhumed, traces of arsenic are found. The father dies of a heart attack before any investigation can take place so, as with other plot threats, we never learn whether the father really did murder his wife. We are then off to Yuria, Abkhazia to follow Maria Dmitrievna (Masha). She is married to a man referred to as D., called Genia by his family and, formally, Evgeniy Borissovich. Yuria is a garrison town, where much of the population consists of soldier’s wives and exiles. D is a member of the local assembly. She is not happy. Indeed, she states, quite clearly, that they really, really need to leave the place. It is hateful, subject only to the laws on the jungle. Cruelty and ferocity are prevalent everywhere and any show of humanity a considered a weakness. We learn about life in the prison there and this is one of Shishkin’s standard set-pieces, showing the real horrors of life in Russia. Everything serves some purpose. Nasturtiums need sun, lizards need their paws, everyone needs liquids, the lark need its wings and Russia prisons. And, just to show how unpleasant life can be, we go back to the cruelty of Tatars.

I could go on listing the various stories and scenarios that Shishkin pulls out. His approach is to start a story. One of the characters in this story may then start to tell his/her story, without the first story having been finished and then a character in that story may do the same thing. Alternatively, without warning, he may suddenly start a new story. Often, we are given no indication, except for the context, that this is a new narrator. We are often not given the identity of the new narrator till well into the story and then, when we do, it may be an initial, a familiar name, a patronymic or surname. These may be mixed up, so it is not always clear whether it is the same person or a different one. In many cases, some of the same characters suddenly and unexpectedly reappear in one of these stories. Much of it is miserable, with either unpleasant incidents in the lives of these people or a general unpleasant scenario, such as the prison or Shishkin’s description of Soviet psychiatric treatment. Sometimes we get into time travel, as when a character called Motte (M.) is arrested when he gets into an altercation with a woman in the street, thrown into prison and brutalised. He wakes up in ancient Egypt, where he gets to meet the Emperor of Egypt. Sometimes Shishkin goes off on a tangent, discussing an interesting topic such as Volapük or phrenology or the crime of not assisting a person in mortal danger.

This is either annoying or great fun, depending on your point of view. I found it thoroughly enjoyable, as we wade through story after story, all too often not knowing where we are. However, if you prefer a more formal story line with a clearly delineated plot, you may find this book awkward. Frankly, I preferred it to his previous two novels that have been translated into English, as there was a clear story, even if you were not sure who was telling it to whom and who was involved.

Publishing history

First published in Russian in 1999 by Vagrius
First English publication by Quercus in 2017