Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin

March 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin

The newly announced longlist of the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards has inspired me to finish my review of one of the nominated titles.

The first reading of Maidenhair is like tipping the pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw out of the box and turning them all picture-side up. It’s quite the endeavour, requiring dedication to a fiddly and time-consuming task. Once the pieces are all out, there’s a vague sense of what the finished puzzle might look like: some sky, some grass, a white poodle with a red ribbon, a Bavarian castle standing grimly above a river. In no way, though, is your task complete. The same is true of a single reading of Maidenhair: once through is simply not enough to really appreciate it. The most you can hope for is to catch sight of some particularly attractive individual pieces, a fuzzy idea of the bigger picture, some parts that look really interesting, and the occasional group of pieces that could be anything.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about difficult books recently, including whether Zadie Smith’s NW is a difficult and experimental book because she doesn’t use quotation marks to set off speech (hardly something new: I’ve been copy-editing a novel from 1767 that doesn’t use them either). Maidenhair is a book, I think, that genuinely justifies the “difficult” label. The translator, Marian Schwartz (who has done an excellent job—all the Open Letter books I’ve read have been very well translated and are, into the bargain, very attractive objects) is quoted as saying “Maidenhair is not tough for tough’s sake. It’s tough because it has so much to offer and especially because it’s trying to construct narrative in a new way.” Schwartz read the book eight times during the translation process, and reassures readers that “There’s not a gratuitous word in it.”

One way for a book to be difficult is for its individual sentences to be challenging, to defy skim-reading, or to be complex in structure, esoteric in allusion and abstruse in vocabulary. Maidenhair is not difficult in that sense; each sentence—indeed, each paragraph and each section–is clear. This novel is difficult in another sense, one that frustrates the brain’s desperate desires to seek out and establish patterns. In Shishkin’s book this intellectual need is thwarted by three intertwined yet unrelated narratives (notwithstanding the suspicion that a second reading might throw up links between them—but then again, it might not). Just when you start to get comfortable with one of the narratives, maybe unbutton your coat and stop perching right at the end of your seat, you have to stand up quickly because someone’s whipped your chair away from behind you. They’ve left another one in its place, sure, but it’s lower to the ground, a bit harder, and just, well, unexpected.

The opening narrative strand was a conceit I liked exceedingly: Russian asylum seekers trying to gain entry to Switzerland having their stories interpreted by the narrator who is, in fact, working as a narrator. The tales the refugees tell are horrific but also banal: so much torture, so much death, so much cruelty. And are they really the truth, or are they simply magic words to gain access to paradise? Another strand is the interpreter’s life, the breakdown of his marriage and his letters to his son, who has remained in Russia; a third is diary extracts from a young singer. The whole thing is intercut with constant historical and mythical allusions, and is constantly questioning the very idea of truth, and of words as carriers of truth. But the essence of Maidenhair cannot be captured well in terms of plot or storyline. It’s more like an amazing university conversation of ideas, the kind that happens late one night and seems the very reason for the existence of universities, and then never happens again. The process of reading the book is more important than having read it, I think. The crucial element is not so much what you know after you’ve read it so much as the questions it makes you ask while you’re reading it.

Maidenhair has stayed with me in the two months since I’ve read it. It’s a book that confirms Open Letter’s excellence in curation (except, of course, for a slight gender imbalance). If I say it’s worth persevering with, it sounds as though reading it is unenjoyable, which is far from true. But Maidenhair is a book that demands and then rewards attention, so it’s not one to read if you’ve turned into a gadget and can’t even concentrate long enough to read a single tweet without checking your email halfway through.


(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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