The Birdcage Archives

Friday 23 August 2013


Hello Gentle Reader

There was a line in “Maidenhair,” by Mikhail Shishkin – one of the greatest and renowned contemporary authors of Russian Literature; that (this will not be quotes because it may not be verbatim – I was reading in travel when I read this passage): fate takes pity on some, punishes others. This all happens with no scrutiny. Peter the master of fate in “Maidenhair,” by Mikhail Shishkin, scrutinizes, and is well aware that he holds the keys to the gates of paradise. Looking across the table of the refugees who, do their best to make their case heard. While our main character only known as the “the interpreter,” (of Russian refugee’s) only translates the petitioners pleas for mercy, for asylum. Yet Peter is skeptical. His matter of fact way of interviews, Name, Age, and reason for asylum is all meant to discover a lie; any false information at all. Yet there is an issue. The ever skeptical Peter is out to look for fault some false embellishing of information. But if you have only your story – your words; all past evidence of documentation or testimony’s left behind; how can you convince the ever skeptical Peter?

In this long sprawling novel, of just over five hundred pages, Mikhail Shishkin tries to answer the question; but also questions about life and death; love and world; as well as God. Ambitious subject matter – that also has potential to fall into cliché. Yet with such a novel that defies easy summarization, Shishkin has done something rather unique. Something difficult and does not always succeed in. Yet he accomplished something that I doubt many authors will or would be able to do, and pull off. It’s ambitious. it’s difficult and tightly packed with literary allusions, and shifting narratives and a continual steam of consciousness like style that – at times as a reader one may feel that they have bitten off more than they can chew – and often wonder if Mikhail Shishkin has also bitten off more than he can chew as well.

Mikhail Shishkin is not a new name on the literary scene. Shishkin is the handsome contemporary Russian author. With salt and pepper hair, trimmed scruff, and those pale sky blue eyes. I first came to know who Mikhail Shishkin back in two-thousand and eleven. The German website “,” had an interview with the Russian author. The interview was conducted because the German version of Maidenhair then translated as “Venushaar,” had won that, years “German International Literature Award.” Mikhail Shishkin has been living abroad though, for quite some time. Since nineteen-ninety five – almost twenty years; the author has been living in Switzerland. Though the Russian reading public and critics have revered and celebrated the author. In the interview, Shishkin has explained why his novels, were difficult to get translated in German. They were often rejected because they were seen as too ‘demanding,’ and therefore were risky in the market. Yet with the publication of “Venushaar,” in Germany and now “Maidenhair,” in English speaking countries – it is certainly understandable why there were reasonable concerns in regards to publishing a translation; at the same time it has proven to be well worth the risk.

If there are two literary darlings of two-thousand and twelve and two-thousand and thirteen it would be the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai and Mikhail Shishkin. Both authors write demanding and challenging work. Yet both have been well received by critics and international readers, for their ability to challenge and reward. Mikhail Shishkin has had a different life from Krasznahorkai. After graduating from university where he studied English and German, Shishkin worked as a street sweeper, road worker, journalist, translator, and school teacher – then finally in nineteen-ninety three, Shishkin debuted with a short story “Calligraphy Lessons.” From nineteen-ninety five he lived in Zurich, Switzerland. Shishkin’s prose has been compared from Dostoevsky to Tolstoy all the way to expatriate author Vladimir Nabokov and even to James Joyce. Though many say if he were to be compared to any Russian writer it, would be Pushkin. Shishkin however had this to say in regards to the authors that have taught him, and which he admires:

“Bunin taught me not to compromise, and to go on believing in myself. Chekhov passed on his sense of humanity – that there can’t be any wholly negative characters in your text. And from Tolstoy I learned not to be afraid of being naïve.”

Mikhail Shishkin also made some news back in the early part of May. Mikhail Shishkin had asked for his name to be removed from an international literary event, as he did not want to represent a country: “where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime [and] where the state is a pyramid of thieves.” Shishkin therefore did not attend the expo on ethical grounds as he put it. Though it still has not changed much political efforts in Russia. Just recently the government signed legislation that would ban talking about homosexuality and its existence with children – Santa Claus exists but not gay people! Other criticism has come over Russia defending the Syrian government regime, and there unresponsive attitude towards North Korea’s threats.

This is a difficult and demanding novel. “Maidenhair,” pushes the boundaries of logic without a second thought. The prose is lucid, lyrical and deals with a lot of stream-of-consciousness. There is no running continual arch of a story. No real plotline. This does not demean the work. As the short story writer, William Trevor once pointed out: a story does not need a plot; but it does need a point. Mikhail Shishkin’s novel does have a point over plot. He uses the interrogations or interviews between Peter and the petitioner – while the interpreter acts as the mode of correspondence; as a way of both showing the truth is subjective.

Many of the stories told through the interviews, are farfetched beyond belief. But in a sense Shishkin plays with the idea of truth, as well as stories. As it’s pointed out the people do not have any documentation or paper work to back up their claims. No matter how absurd they are. So Peter is less to catch their lies; scrutinize their supposed true accounts of their persecution. Yet these, stories like, much in this book baffles logic; and laughs at any concept of order. It is written in a sense of dream logic. Everything happens because it happens. Not with rhythm not with reason. In that sense this book can be very hard. It’s hard to get into because there is no relation and sometimes the demands that are being forced upon the reader, can sometimes be a bit too trying. In that sense its innovation is also its biggest flaw. At times it can be a rather large blemish. Yet it does succeed a lot. We understand what is going on only when we cease to attempt to place any sense of order on it. Eventually memories, memoirs, interrogation, and stories – they all merge into one another; bleed in and out.

I must admit though Gentle Reader; the question and answer format is not something that I particularly enjoyed in this book. It really tested my own tolerance for what I can accept, in an attempt at logical understanding or rational comprehension. It just proved to be frustrating, and tried the patience, that did not always run smoothly.

Yet there is salvation in the notebooks of Isabella. A young Russian girl who first starts keeping a notebook and diary during The Great War, and later lives on during the Soviet Union. She proves to be a humanely narrator. One who has hopes and dreams – she recounts observations of her family; she falls in and out of love; she feels no greater pleasure than to love. Each time she pours out her feelings of love and infatuation towards the new object of her affection. Yet later down the road it meets its eventual end. She recounts her admirable farther, her dutiful mother; her siblings that drift in and out of her life, like dandelion seeds in the wind. They all flicker in the incandescent light bulb of her memory. A continual tango of her life of highs and stalling periods, and lows where she confesses and pours out once again; only later on to be on the rise again.

Yet Isabella can at times be self-pitying and offer only banal observations that a young person can offer: such as her ugly hands; her enjoyment in the activity of singing, petty jealousies, annoyances with friends. Yet it’s much appreciated, and a sense of grounded realism and the story can be followed nicely feels more like an achievement and less like a bad mistake, or that you haven’t quite grasped what everyone else is so hyped up about. Yet its Isabella’s narrative that takes on a lot of the necessities of the novel, and in that sense, it allows for Mikhail Shishkin to show is novelistic abilities, and show, that he can deal with human concepts or abstract concepts and how they affect they individual. These themes of love, and war – death and heart break, blend so easily in with Isabella’s narrative. The loss of one of her lover, who went out to war, out of some senseless duty – or irritated jealousy and not being self-sacrificing like all the other brave soldiers; and instead finding himself sitting around debating why war happens and how to prevent it. Yet as Shishkin shows with Isabella, people have the uncanny ability to move on. Too forget their love and their loss for the dearly departed. They move on, and love again. They love the living. They feel the heartbeat. They laugh with them. They rejoice the sunshine on their skin. In a sense in Shishkin’s novel love does not belong to someone solely. It transfers and transcends from individual to individual. It is constantly in a shift. Constantly in movement. Husbands take lovers; and wives meet a gentleman caller. All because affection, has once again changed to some degree or another. Perhaps it’s not an original concept. Yet Shishkin deals with it well. Always avoiding clichés, but finding unique characters, and showing that the banality can be as interesting in the narrative in fact more true to the narrative then action filled events – like a war or some revolution. Though war and revolution also work for Shishkin; as Isabella lives though the events of the twentieth century, we see everything presented through her biased eyes. It is still very interesting.

Unfortunately this novel is very difficult to review. I feel as I’ve only been acquainted with this novel, and will most likely have to read it again and again and again before it starts to make sense; before I start to understand the literary allusions that are being presented in the text, and how they accompany and make it work. I can see why it was nominated for the Best Translated Book Award, but also how it was beat out by “Satantango,” is the Mikhail Shishkin writes and deals with themes that will need to be re-read and over looked again and again. One does not completely understand or comprehend what they are reading with “Maidenhair,” the first time they read it. They come to understand it more and more, after each re-reading, becoming not just acquainted with the work, but forming a deeper understanding and relationship with the text, and with what Shishkin has tried to accomplish and has in many ways achieved.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary