Maidenhair  by  Mikhail Shishkin  translated by  Marian Schwartz  Open Letter Books (October 2012)  Reviewed by Christiane Craig

by Mikhail Shishkin
translated by Marian Schwartz
Open Letter Books (October 2012)

Reviewed by Christiane Craig

In Tromsø, Norway, in 2010, at an exhibition commemorating Russian prisoners of war interned in Norway, Mikhail Shishkin remembered Kandalaksha. Kandalaksha is the name for a city in the northwesternmost region of continental Russia where Shishkin’s father’s brother Boris went missing in 1941, the same year the Soviet Union completed a railway from that city to the Norwegian border, seized by the German army shortly thereafter.

With this knowledge, Shishkin was moved to inquire about a Boris Shishkin at the Norwegian Archives, to discover that Boris had indeed been transported to Norway as a Russian prisoner. Presumed Jewish, he had been executed by German officers a year after his disappearance, at the age of twenty.

When Shishkin first held the prisoner’s card kept for Boris, he was already thirty years his uncle’s senior and this report, along with an imprint of his thumb taken at the time of his capture, were the last remaining documentation of his lost uncle’s life and death—the only physical evidence of his having been at all.

In Shishkin’s Maidenhair, or Венерин волос, the first of his novels to be translated into English, the young soldier Alyosha writes to Bella Dmitrievna, the girl he loves, shortly before his own death:

Apocalypse is from fear of personal death. Universal death is a reassuring justice. It’s frightening to die because no one wants to be left behind. The others will go on and see what will remain forever concealed to you beyond the next turn. The worst thing about the Apocalypse, then, is that there won’t be one.

This fear of personal death is at the center of Shishkin’s project. Bella, to whom Alyosha had addressed his last letters, writes in her diary: “I need a notebook to record the sensations that no one but me has ever experienced before or ever will!”

For long years after his uncle’s disappearance, Shishkin’s grandmother held out hope that he hadn’t died, that he was still living on somewhere. And, in a way, it was so: upon reading the prison report, on which the flesh of his uncle’s thumb appeared in ink, Shishkin recalls how “the boy came suddenly back to life.”

Maidenhair’s epigraph—from the Revelation of Baruch ben Neriah—ends: “For by the word was the world created, and by the word shall we be resurrected.” Indeed, for Shishkin, the word can serve but one magisterial purpose: to resurrect the disappeared and all else that once lived and has since been lost.

And, according to Shishkin, only what was once real could be resurrected, pieced together from written fragments, what he calls “deposits of words”: diaries, memoirs, and letters.

This is how Shishkin defends his choice to copy passages nearly verbatim (only minor changes are made: a dog becomes a cat, a girl is called by another name) from the writer Vera Panova’s autobiography. Her recollections—of school, family, fascination—appear in the fragments of singer Bella Dmitrievna’s love letters and diary.

Shishkin has described reality as an “exterminating machine” of which written words are only the waste material. The refuse of human experience, they must be “brushed clean and put together with glue, as a broken vase is.” He explains his own writing as a kind of textual collage, countering the contemporary fashion of placing emphasis upon personal style. He is rather more interested in questions of form.

Maidenhair, then, is assembled from letters, myths, diary entries, and the transcripts of spoken interviews. The novel’s early pages describe a series of interviews, facilitated by “the interpreter,” between Russians seeking political asylum—entry into “paradise” (Switzerland)—and an unsympathetic Swiss officer called Peter:

Question: Have you ever sought asylum in other countries? Answer: No. Question: Do you have legal representation in Switzerland? Answer: No. Question: Do you consent to expert analysis to determine your age from your bone tissue? Answer: What?

The interviews, at first brief and routine, ramify into endless histories, explanations, and parenthetical digression. Gradually, applicants forget what it was they are meant to prove. Very little of what they explain is “pertinent” to their application: they are only desperate not to disappear.

One man, having arrived in Switzerland without proper identification, launches into a preposterous story, according to which he worked as the body guard for a journalist who claimed that the secret contents of his briefcase would dismantle human evil. The journalist had resolved to carry out the very delicate operation of destroying evil on national television but is killed in a car-bombing just before his scheduled appearance.

His bodyguard absconds with his briefcase to protect it from whatever agents of “evil” would seek to suppress it. Finally, in a moment of fevered distraction, he forgets the crucial briefcase, along with his identification, on a train. But not before he discovers the tortured, half-burnt corpses of his mother and sister at their country home.

Many of the interviewees describe brutalities of a similarly extreme nature: rape, disembowelment, death by fire. Indeed, a great many people in Maidenhair burn, a most extreme attempt to forever abolish their presences from the earth. At one point, a list is given of the names and ages of the Gaugauzes burned alive in a barn during resettlement, and Shishkin advises his readers, “Here are the names, but you don’t have to read them. Just turn the page.”

These stories are interlocked with the interpreter’s letters to his “future, former” son Nebuchadnezzasaurus and fragments of Bella Dmietrievna’s diary, written over many decades and then passed along to the interpreter, who has been commissioned to write her biography.

Maidenhair’s language seems a “tessellated vault” under which its voices refract and converge, engaging one another. The endless work of writing, reading, and re-reading, of transcribing, copying, and translating, gives rise to these many textual echoes. Even in Rome, the “Eternal City,” every sculpture and every icon is only a copy of some lost original, like the girl who sleeps as though swimming a crawl: one arm forward, under the pillow, the other back, palm up.

Beneath the surface chaos of its many narratives, Shishkin’s book would appear fractal in its logic.

The prayer of a young soldier, Vasilenko, is recorded in Alyosha’s love letter to Bella: “God the father is in front, the Mother of God is in the middle, and I am in the rear. What happens to God, happens to me.” Bella tapes Alyosha’s letter in her diary and many years later, it will be read again by the interpreter.

Across time and space, Vasilenko will be “resurrected” by the Word.

Shishkin writes: “We are the branch, but for next year. And the soul of your father the submariner is not in some gull. It’s in you.”

Shishkin’s father had indeed been a submariner, as had his uncle Boris. But Shishkin’s “we” describes not self-identified bodies, but the stories created out of them. One branch—or story—emerges from the tissue of another and is at once particular and continuous.

The eighth-century Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac describes a Cosmic Tree: embrassant l'atmosphère entière de ses mains incommensurables.

It is a recurring image in Maidenhair that can be traced back—from Shishkin, as well as de Lubac—to The Book of Daniel, in which the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of just such a tree, standing at the center of Heaven and Earth.

Like de Lubac’s tree, Maidenhair’s narrative grows in all directions with “incommensurable hands,” except that, in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, the Cosmic Tree is cut down and stripped bare, its stump bound with iron and bronze, made to “remain in the ground, in the grass of the field.” The king calls upon the prophet Daniel to interpret the dream, only to learn that he is himself the tree, and will likewise be cut down.

From its first pages, Maidenhair is explicitly premised upon the stories of the disappeared and the disappearing: marginal persons. Time and space are “decrepit, worn, shakey” and the slenderest of branches—your blackberry branch—are likely to snap off, to be lost in an eternal “Winter”: “stout, hundred-mawed, howling.”

Indeed, Svetlana Lashova refers to Shishkin’s interest in “the lateral branches of history.” Not without bitterness, he invites his readers to turn the page on the names of the dead, to consent to their disappearance.

In keeping with this sentiment, the delicate Maidenhair fern that grows out from the Roman ruins is “God of life”: “The greenest of grasses. It grew here before your Eternal City and will grow here ever after.” The plant is also distinguished in The Complete Burke’s Backyard as having a “Lazarus quality,” which means, as Burke elaborates, “with the right care, it can come back to life from what looks like certain death.” It has elsewhere been called a “master” of resurrection.

If Shishkin is also a master of sorts, what he has mastered is precisely this “right care.”

Many of the fragments of Bella’s diary are written during time of war, and despite the general destruction that surrounds her, her first instinct is toward love and self-delight. Her dearest wish is to sing in a theatre, to be singly worshipped and adored. So when Pavel, her third love, tells how he rode with gunners over a field strewn with Red Army corpses, how drivers split heads under their wheels like melons, chuckling as they went, Bella closes her ears. She objects to atrocity and to human suffering as such: “It’s not my fault that my youth came in time of war! I won’t get another youth!”

Rostov, the city of her childhood, is twice destroyed by war, but always swept clean, rebuilt, painted over. Snow falls and the world is new again. Only in her diary, by virtue of her words, will the war and the ruined city, her youth and its every sensation, its every mood, rise up to “remain forever.”

And as for the ink that stains Lyalya’s lips and tongue—Lyalya, who first taught Bella how to kiss—nothing will ever wipe it from her mouth, neither time nor death.


Christiane Craig is a writer, translator, and Master's candidate at Paris IV. She lives in Paris.