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Mikhail Shishkin: Венерин Волос (Maidenhair)

If there were any doubt that the contemporary Russian novel had come of age, this novel would dispel this doubt. Here is a first-class post-modern, complex novel, which clearly shows that the Russian novel is once again one to be reckoned with. The main focus is on an unnamed interpreter, who works for the Swiss government department, dealing with asylums seekers. The interpreter’s job is to interpret Russian-speaking asylum seekers who come for an interview. Sabina had been the chief and she was generally very sympathetic to the asylum seekers and their stories, so much so that she rarely turned down an application and, as a result, lost her job. Her successor, Peter Fischer, is far less sympathetic and, indeed, is the opposite, in that he rarely approves an application.

Peter listens carefully to all the stories, the stories of people brutalised by the Chechens, subject to homosexual rape or whistleblowers who are punished for their whistleblowing. But he has heard it all before. They are making up the stories or, in some cases, they are using someone else’s story. He finds them out, when the police find their passport and documents at the railway station or he interviews each family member separately and they tell different stories. For example, one family – mother, father and daughter – claimed to be Jews who had been subject to vicious anti-Semitic attacks. However, when he interviewed the girl, he asked if they went to church regularly. She confirmed that they did and even crossed herself. There are questions and answers, with many of the answers giving considerable detail of their ill-treatment. Peter rejects them all.

However, there is a lot more happening in this novel and Shiskin tends to merge it all, as we jump easily from one to the other, not always knowing who is talking. Indeed, characters seem to get up mixed up between the stories. Firstly, we learn about the interpreter’s previous life and his wife and son, but, as Shishkin puts it, And it came to pass that his wife was now someone else’s wife. The interpreter keeps in touch with his son, writing to him as Nebuchadnezzasaurus, a name the son had adopted from his island empire, as he describes it to his father. These stories occasionally get mixed up with stories from the classics, that the interpreter reads on his break. We learn, in detail, about his earlier journey to Italy, which, of course, gets mixed up with other stories, not least how he met his wife, with Tristan and Isolde being involved. Finally there is Bella Dmitrievna.

When still in Russia, the interpreter, who was then a teacher, had been commissioned to write the biography of Bella Dmitrievna, an actress and singer, for a new biographical series. He was offered three hundred dollars to do so, a sum equivalent to his annual salary as a teacher. He was instructed to go and interview her but to tread carefully, as she was very old, very frail and not always lucid. He tried to make an appointment but was continually put off. Eventually, she died without his having seen her. Soon after the publisher went bankrupt and the project was abandoned. However, we do get her (very detailed) story, from her childhood to adulthood. We learn that she was named after Queen Isabella of Spain and, on occasions, her games involve her playing at being a queen. Her childhood is generally happy, spent in Rostov, with early love interests and a love of music but she also sees the dark side, with pogroms. She has personal tragedy, too, with her brother killed, her good friend dying of cholera, and learning that her father has another family. She has tumultuous love affairs. But is she that shows the good side. It is not she but I who loves most in the world “art, music, painting, books, society, dresses, luxury, noise, silence, laughter, sorrow, longing, jokes, love, cold, sun, all the seasons and every kind of weather, Russia’s peaceful plains and the mountains around Naples, snow in the winter, rain in the fall, spring with its apprehension, peaceful summer days and its beautiful nights shimmering with stars.” Bella appears to be anti-Soviet – she and her family even welcome the German capture of Rostov – and goes off to Paris but returns to Russia with her husband Iosif, where she seems to lead a protected life as a Soviet star.

The history of Russia has not always been a happy one and we get a whole range of grim tales, from the corpse in the chimney to the (alleged) tortures carried out by the Chechens on the asylum seekers, who come to Switzerland. There is a story of the soldiers in Afghanistan, with their Afghani prisoners eager to die and collect their seventy-two virgins, provided they died a bloody death, so the Russians made sure they died a bloodless death, by drowning, for example. Indeed, many of Russia’s wars figure, with all their violence – the two world wars, Afghanistan and Chechnya. As mentioned above there are the pogroms against the Jews. Alyosha, one of Bella’s early lovers, recounts the horrors of World War I and she herself sees a red agitator hanged. Religious and racial intolerance are also to the fore, and not just against the Jews. We learn about Catherine the Great’s forcible expulsion of Greeks and Armenians, with thousands perishing, and the ill-treatment of gypsies.

Shishkin is not just interested in the current world but delves back into history and legend, mixing in a story involving Daphnis and Chloe, mlyvo, the legendary land of the dead, Paganini and the Russo-Turkish War. Tales from Xenophon are also thrown into the mix, even mixing Xenophon and World War I. It is confusing but fascinating, at the same time, and clearly shows the breadth of Shishkin’s imagination. There is a lot of bad, particularly in the history of Russia, but also a lot of good. The two, indeed, go hand in hand. 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.

This is a complex novel and not always an easy read. It is not a plot-based novel but impressionistic, giving us a kaleidoscopic view of Russia, Russians and the world. It is one of those novels you really need to read more than once both to grasp what it is saying and to fully appreciate it. That it will be one of the classics of post-Soviet literature is clear and we must be grateful that it finally made it into English, after having been translated into other languages previously.

Publishing history

First published in Russian in 2005 by Vagrius
First English translation by Open Letter in 2012