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Mikhail Shishkin: Письмовник (The Light and the Dark)

The English title of this book gives us a clue to what the general theme of this book is, namely that, in life, there is light and dark, though in Shishkin’s novels, it tends to be more dark than light as, in his other book translated into English, Венерин Волос (Maidenhair). (By the way, the Russian title does not mean Light and Dark but something like Letter-Writing Manual. While the German, Arabic and Polish translations more or less stick to the Russian, the French title is Ten to Two, a reference to Volodya’s watch, which is stuck at that time.) The form of the novel is a series of letters between two lovers, Volodya and Sasha (though they use varieties of those names, as Russian readily allows.) Sasha, as in Венерин Волос (Maidenhair), points out that while the name Sasha is more commonly a boy’s name in Russian, it can be a girl’s name. That they are writing to each other is clear. However, they are living in different periods. Sasha seems to be living in more or less the contemporary period, while Volodya is in the army. We follow the travels of his army group, through strange lands, including Prester John’s land. However we eventually realise that his force has been sent to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, where Chinese forces besieged the Legation Quarter of Beijing, consisting of the legations of the main European nations, the US, Russia and Japan. Troops from these nations were sent to relieve the legations under siege, and Volodya’s troop is part of this force. In Hamlet, Shakespeare famously used the phrase time out of joint, which became the title of a novel by Philip K Dick, which is about time being out of joint. In this book, Volodya refers to the Shakespeare quote (but not to Dick), saying time will be back in joint when we meet again and I put my head on your knees.

While it may seem to start off being a love story, Shiskin sets the tone early on. Sasha says [T]he idea came to me that all the great books and pictures aren’t about love at all. They only pretend to be about love, so they’ll be interesting to read. But in actual fact, they’re about death. In books, love is a kind of shield or, rather, a blindfold. (She later qualifies this statement, saying probably all books aren’t really about death, but about eternity, only their eternity isn’t genuine, it’s a kind of fragment, an instant, like a teensy-weensy fly in amber, a view which is also relevant to this book, as we shall see) While this book may seem to be about love – and, to a certain degree it is – it is also very much about death. Certainly, Volodya and Sasha, when they write to one another, are full of loving endearments. Volodya, for example, writing from China, constantly says how much he misses Sasha, how much he loves her and how much he wants to be with her. She more or less reciprocates.

The opening letters are full of references to their love affair, including a few graphic bits, but there is also a lot about their respective childhoods. We gradually learn that both of them had somewhat troubled childhoods. While Sasha was very close to her father, who spoiled her, and he was a loving father, her mother tended to be much stricter. (She was a woman who had everything right in her life – everything exactly as she wanted it – and it simply couldn’t be any other way.) Eventually, her parents split up, with both of them seeming to have extramarital affairs.. During this period she invented an imaginary twin sister, the evil twin, who was always up to no good. For example, when they were performing a play at home she pretended to fall and bang her head. Blood poured out. In fact, it was beetroot juice she had concealed in her wig. It was not all bad. She remembers the joys of summer, for example. In Volodya’s case, his parents split up very early and he barely knew his father and there was no contact with them. Later in the book, we learn how he tracks his father down – he does not live far away and has a new family – but that does not work out particularly well. His mother remarries and, surprisingly, she marries a blind man. Volodya dislikes his stepfather intensely and dislikes his blindness, including the way his stepfather touches him and how he has to help him. This is, naturally, a subject of much dispute between mother and son and the subject of much grief to Volodya.

For Volodya, much of the story is about the war. He gets appointed, to his surprise, staff clerk, since I’m schooled in reading and writing. Initially, en route, he is somewhat sympathetic to the native populations but when they start sabotaging the railway lines, his views change. All these scumbags are to be exterminated mercilessly. Like mad dogs! Wipe the entire pack of these rotten hounds off the face of the earth! Gradually, they get nearer to Beijing and that’s when things start to go wrong. Volodya gives us detailed descriptions of death and destruction – dead bodies in the street or floating in the river, men with horrible injuries and slaughtered dogs, with their entrails hanging out. Indeed, much of the rest of Volodya’s account is grim, except for his continual and repeated adoration of Sasha and also how good it is to talk to you about all these things that have disappeared. But the Chinese are cruel. The Chinese have better weapons (they got them from the Germans). His job involves sending out death notices to the families of those have died and he finds that he has to invent things, particularly when the death has been foolish or, at least, not heroic.

Then, one day, Volodya’s mother receives a death notice for Volodya. Has he died? His letters continue though, of course, he is writing a hundred years before Sasha. Has it been erroneously assumed that he has died? There is no evidence for this. Ultimately, it does not really matter, as regards the letters. Both continue writing them, even though they presumably are not getting delivered. (There is further evidence for this, as they never seem to respond to what the other has said.) Sasha continues to write as though Volodya is still alive, right up to the very end of the book. She marries a divorced man, but that goes wrong, particularly when her stepdaughter is badly injured. Her parents both die, one soon after the other. Her friend, Yanka, has children and has affairs. Meanwhile, Volodya is recounting the horrible events in China. A shell hits his comrades, who are standing around talking, while Volodya has had to temporarily excuse himself because of his dysentery. Many men die, there is looting and there are executions, all of which Shishkin recounts in great and grim detail, Volodya is tired, he is depressed, he hopes that, if he is to de, it will be with a direct hit and not in agony as he sees many men die. He himself only kills a dog but sees many men die and many men killing. Beijing, as we know, is relieved.

What to make of this novel? In particular, what are to make of the obvious time difference? Are Volodya and Sasha writing to each other, even though they are separated by a hundred years? The Russian film director, Pudovkin, famously made a segment of film in which he showed a shot of a man running, seemingly, towards someone, a shot of woman running seemingly toward the man, a place where they might be running and a shot of a man and women hugging. You were meant to get the impression that this involved a couple running towards one another and then hugging. In fact, all the shots involved different people filmed in different places. Editing, Pudovkin’s favourite subject, was the key. Is it the same in this book? Are we meant to feel that Sashenka and Volodya are writing to each other when, in fact, it is two people writing to different Sashas and Volodyas, or is it a case of time out of joint? It does not really matter, except to give us something to think about. What matters is that we do see the light and the dark. For is not light the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light? Volodya asks.

Publishing history

First published in Russian in 2010 by Astrel
First English translation by Quercus in 2013