Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin


What kind of story?

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is a novel that is about nothing, while at the same time it manages to be about, well, everything imaginable.   I’d wager a guess that if I knew more about classic Russian literature what I’d find is that this isn’t all that surprising.  Being perfectly honest though, I haven’t read much at all originating from this part of the globe.  It isn’t because of a lack of time or desire, but rather from the fact that outside of the obvious classics no one has pointed me at a contemporary Russian writer of significant importance until now.  Yes, Maidenhair is that impressive, but reading it can also prove to be a bit of daunting task.

On the surface what transpires within its pages in terms of plot progression is fairly mundane.  There are four different overlapping narratives at work that never really seem to connect to one another though they all share a common thread.

First there are a series of stories told by Russian refugees seeking entry to Switzerland to an unnamed Russian interpreter and his partner Peter who are employed by the Swiss government.  These sections of the novel are structured in the question and answer format as follows:


Question: And then, all the stories have already been told a hundred times.  But you—this is your story.
Answer: What kind of story?
Question: Oh, any kind.  Some simple, banally sentimental story always goes well, you know, there was a princess and she became Cinderella.
Answer: I became Cinderella?
Question: That’s just a manner of speaking.  A metaphor!
Answer: Then you should have said so right away, otherwise I’m some kind of Cinderella.


Secondly there are sections where the nameless interpreter is writing letters to his estranged son that are all addressed “Dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!” and contain wildly fantastic tales of a fantasy kingdom that are blended with actual historical facts culled from any number of books that he happens to be reading at the time.

The third thread details the collapse of the interpreter’s marriage and the reasons behind his ultimate separation from his child.  These pieces all take place not in Switzerland or Russia, but Italy.

Finally, the last plot thread involves the supposed diaries of the famous Russian gypsy singer Isabella Livikova (Yurieva), whom the unnamed narrator was at one time commissioned to write a biography of.

These four sections and what they encompass on the surface level aren’t what are most impressive about Maidenhair however.  It’s what is encountered at the sentence level where nearly every single line speaks some resounding truth about a big picture concept that keeps the reader turning the pages.  Religion, life, death, love, memory, war, longing, separation: no topic is too broad and nothing is taboo.  There are so many great lines in fact that keeping a backup highlighter handy for when your first one dies of exhaustion is a mighty fine idea.

There are moments within the novel’s 506 pages however where one can find themselves at a loss, almost struggling through certain sections in anticipation of the next nugget of brilliance.  In some ways Maidenhair reminded me of another complex novel I read this year, Will Self’s Umbrella.  But where Umbrella ultimately felt like a nearly impenetrable failure to me, Mikhail Shishkin’s novel offers the reader a clear entry point, a manageable structure, and a staggering number deeply affecting passages.  Where one could never forget what Umbrella was about because Self continually confronted the reader with his set agenda, Maidenhair’s plot is so ridiculously secondary to everything being discussed that it almost doesn’t even matter.

Over the course of his career Mikhail Shishkin has won all three major literary awards in Russia: The Big Book, The Russian Booker, and The National Bestseller.  The fact that he’s been writing since 1994 and this is the very first time one of his novels has been translated to the English language is frustrating because as soon as I completed Maidenhair I immediately wanted more.

Perhaps it is finally time for me to dive into the Russian classics.  Look out Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, here I come.

Maidenhair ★★★★½
By Mikhail Shishkin
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz

Open Letter Books
(2005) 2012
506 Pages
ISBN 9781934824368

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.