Maidenhair – Mikhail Shishkin

12 May 2014
To page 96 (of 506)
The set-up is an assessment centre, apparently in Switzerland, where asylum-seekers tell their stories to an unsympathetic official. For a few brief pages it’s easy to believe we know where we are, because a tale of cramped journeys by rail and truck, strange landscapes and lost documents is familiar enough to make it plausible. There are even reasonable-seeming translations of German terminology, so this feels like a real time, in a real place. Ok. Except… even before Shishkin pulls the rug from under our feet – there’s nothing realistic about the question-answer dialogues that fill most of the first 90 or so pages of the book – we’ve been bemused by its brief opening paragraph: ‘Darius and Parysatis had two sons, the elder Artaxerxes and the younger Cyrus.’ And after the few pages that make up the first session, we’re somewhere else again. Someone is responding to a letter from ‘My good Nebuchadnezzasaurus’ which must have been full of descriptions of an imaginary empire. The reply describes another empire, which also sounds imaginary but might just be the ‘skyscrapered’ capitalist West that everyone wants to enter.

The letter-writer is the interpreter, who fills in some details of the assessment centre where he works. These are both specific and archetypal: the man asking the questions is Peter, and he sees his job as rejecting all but a tiny handful of the applications. Later, it’s spelt out – I can’t remember by whom, because the narrative is constantly shifting – that the place they are trying to get into is ‘paradise’. And we’re in some unidentified metaphysical territory before the interpreter has finished writing, as he describes how the sob-stories are interchangeable. And after a coffee break, it’s ‘once again question-answer, question-answer. It’s like talking to yourself. You ask yourself the questions. And answer them.’

I mention this because by the time we’re properly into one man’s story – it isn’t until page 63 that we find out he is called Anatoly – he has become some sort of Everyman, trying to make sense of all that has ever happened to him. Highly specific details concerning his war experiences in Afghanistan and the corrupt behaviour of the Russian police – it hardly seems to matter whether it takes place before or after the fall of Communism – are mixed with philosophical musings from both men in the question-answer session about the meaning of life.

One of the ways both of them make sense of it is through story. Even before they start, even before we hear the story of the first asylum seeker, we’ve had the first glimpse into the book about Cyrus which, we later discover, is what the interpreter is reading. Then there are the stories invented (or not) in the exchange of letters, then four accounts, presented in quick succession by four different asylum-seekers, culminating in one that begins as a fairy-tale and ends with one of the novel’s many atrocities. ‘He ordered the building locked, surrounded with straw, and set on fire. And the fire was great, and all in it burned.’ So it goes.

The question-answer sessions are always presented in play-script form, with the interlocutors identified only as Question and Answer. Early in the novel this is clear enough, but once we’re into Anatoly’s session things begin to become ambiguous. It opens conventionally enough, as the questioner appears to begin his summing-up: ‘So you say you’re…’. But, for sixteen pages, the questioner presents a highly detailed version of the other’s innermost thoughts over many years. It’s here that we begin to realise that this is no ordinary asylum-seeking assessment, but something altogether more strange, more reliant on the idea of constructing a coherent narrative of a life. This man is an expert on stories, has heard every one of them before, and both now and after Anatoly begins to speak he unpicks what he’s hearing. It’s the story of a brave knight seeking to uncover evil. Or he’s Robin Hood or, especially once he’s become a cop, he’s in a detective novel. Or he’s in a gritty prison story, with the usual sordid details of pecking-orders and beatings and punishment rapes.

But, running like a thread through all these, is the story that seems to be confirming that he he isn’t the master of his own destiny at all. Anatoly mentions some Indian boys playing in the snow, and this becomes a cue: like the ten little Indians in the rhyme, everyone he knows meets his inevitable doom. (For instance, his corrupt boss is ‘hugged by a bear’ when a statue of that animal falls on him.) It’s the questioner who insists on returning to this story whenever he recognises a trope, and there’s nothing that Anatoly can do. His life really does seem to have been mapped out for him by fate.

I’m over-simplifying. Underlying the narrative games is the harrowing story of a man who is just trying to find happiness and fulfilment in a world where the odds are stacked against everyone but a tiny elite. He has a lover who, because of her own background, inevitably leaves. He meets someone else, with a son who is the product of another atrocity, but she falls ill and their unborn child dies in the womb. Preposterous plot developments lead to a prison sentence, an arbitrary release, and… and what? The proof of the evil that had been motivating him to do the right thing becomes another story the questioner has heard a hundred times before: he’s left the briefcase on the train.

I could go on, but think I’d better read some more.

13 May
To page 200
If it hadn’t been clear before, now it is: this is an old-school Modernist novel. (Sigh.) I was so bored and miserable while reading one section of it I almost gave up.

After Anatoly’s long question-answer sessions there’s a page or so of the Cyrus story, which segues into one of the interpreter’s letters. So far, so familiar. He describes how, as a young teacher, he thought he’d got some work writing the biography of a long-forgotten opera diva for a small-time publisher. Unfortunately, she’s close to death and suffering from dementia, so the project comes to nothing…. But then we’re into different territory. He had mentioned some haphazard diaries she’d written over the years, and we get a long section which might, or might not, be these. Probably not – Shishkin never likes to make it straightforward – because it sounds more like a memoir written by the woman many years later. We’re in pre-Revolution Rostov, in an well-off bourgeois family and, very occasionally, she wonders why she’s bothering to remember any of this. Who, aside from herself, could possibly be interested? This is a familiar question in this novel, but Shishkin leaves it hanging…. Otherwise this little rich girl memoir has little of interest to offer and I was glad when it ended, with the girl still too young to attend school. A new Question-Answer session begins…

…and it’s almost impenetrable. We assume it’s going to be a continuation of Anatoly’s story, but it’s terribly hard to tell as the characters identified only as Question and Answer take us into what appears to be a narrative archetype. The structure of what seems to be one man’s sad tale of love and betrayal makes constant references to Daphnis and Chloe, and I’ve no idea why Shishkin does this. As in many of the texts written in the Modernist form, it depends on prior knowledge by the reader of various cultural products of the past. Daphnis and Chloe? I know of them only through Ravel’s ballet suite, and then only vaguely. So, in order to understand its significance in this novel of modern life, I had to look up some details. I hate doing this. As I wrote on one of the grand-daddies of Modernism, Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘There are concordances for this novel, but if you can’t have a kind of working understanding of a novel without footnotes on every other line then it’s not working.’ There are no concordances for Maidenhair, and this is the section that made me want to give up.

Do I want to say any more about this section? There are names taken from Daphnis and Chloe and narrative tropes taken both from that story and (I think) Anatoly’s. In both of them there are experienced female lovers, idealised accounts of first love that goes wrong, a woman injured in the ankle and… and I made the mistake of pausing for a few days in the writing of this, and I can remember little else about it. Shishkin, as we know, is interested in the stories that people tell, and likes to undermine concepts of authenticity or verifiability. We all, he insists from the very start, tell the stories that everybody already knows. Ok. But where is he going with this? At the end of this question-answer session all I felt was confusion. I certainly didn’t feel that any new insights had been reached about how human beings make sense of the confused and often random events in their own lives.

Next. We’re back with Bella, the girl who will one day be an operatic star, and… are we nearly there yet? Aside from the self-important references to her own precocious singing talent, what I was reminded of more than anything else in this section was Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. Written in the first half of the 20th Century, this presents a far more interesting take both on a privileged childhood in pre-Revolutionary Russia and on the slipperiness and arbitrariness of memory. She’s reached a time of war – war’s never far away in this novel – but she’s also reached the moment when everybody in her class has crushes. There’s also a nasty story about some girls finding a love letter written by an unattractive, spinsterish teacher. Is this another take on the other human activity that’s never far away in this novel? I’ll come back to that, because that’s what Shishkin does.

Next. There’s a lot more on the story of Cyrus, including his eventual death. So it goes. And there’s another story concerning – please stop me if I’m boring you – love and betrayal. In another letter, the interpreter describes how he is spending time in Rome. Proust-like (or not), he is reminded of an earlier time, and he describes a visit he made with a woman we haven’t heard about before. We get to something approaching a conventional novelistic plot as he takes us through a troubled holiday that he took in the city with his new wife some years previously. She is a widow, and had visited Rome with her first husband, and… he becomes jealous almost to the point of obsession. We don’t know the interpreter’s name, but the dead man and his widow are – wait for it – Tristan and Isolde. What hope has the poor second husband against such a pair? I suppose – and I might be scraping the barrel here – that Shishkin is presenting us with the vexed issue of how we carry our own stories around with us. The woman might well be re-living a past happiness, and the sight really might have a poignant resonance for her. But it’s only the teller of this particular story who is putting this idea in our heads. His own obsession attributes motives to her which might be entirely imaginary… except he’s just discovered that she writes a computer diary about the unhappy moments – only the unhappy ones, the interpreter complains to himself – and the entries are addressed to Tristan.

It’s vaguely interesting, I suppose. But I see that the next section is in the form of diary entries. Isolde’s? Somebody else’s? Do I care?

18 May
To page 302
They’re Bella’s. The diary entries. And… they take us, in three bundles, from her silly girlhood as she tries to convince herself she is in love with one boy after another to a not much less silly young adulthood. Doesn’t she just love those exclamation marks?!

In fact it’s more earnest than that, and Shishkin allows her nearly 70 of the 100 or so pages I’ve just finished reading. (They are broken up by a fairly short follow-up to the interpreter’s disastrous ‘Tristan and Isolde’ story – it gets worse – and another hard-to-read question-answer section over dozens of pages. I’ll come back to both of those.) It’s the diary of a privileged girl’s experience of first love and of how she learns to grow into her own identity through both this and her chosen vocation of acting. Fine. So what, if anything, makes it more than a mere pastiche of immature outpourings from a society that was erased nearly a century ago? Previously I’d decided that this ‘little rich girl memoir’ had little to offer… so why has Shishkin allowed it to take up over a third of the novel so far?

In much of the rest of the novel he is confronting his Russian readers with highly uncomfortable truths about their own past. Anatoly’s experiences in Afghanistan and other things I’ll come back to make it seem highly likely that this is a role he embraces with enthusiasm and, out in the real world within which Bella’s little bubble of a life takes, place, ugly things happen. There are pogroms, political in-fighting of which she has no understanding and, eventually, her diary reaches 1915. Her fiancé goes off to fight in WW1, and I wonder whether in this, too, Shishkin is covering ground that is relatively untrodden in Russia today. A storyline that has become a cliché in British fiction of the past two decades – Brits have been mining its potential for decades – is no doubt far less so in a country in which later, more celebrated events might be expected to have pushed it from the collective memory.

Shishkin mines other concerns familiar to readers of Western bourgeois fiction. Like the rest, these might be seen as part of his determined effort to explore how human beings make sense of their lives. In the entries in which she first discovers in herself the potential to fall in love, her self-questioning is naively transparent. (‘But how do I know that I really love him?’ or words to that effect.) Later we see how she tries to be more truthful, but finds herself unable to lay out the facts even in this private diary. She simply stops writing for a month after the death of her fiancé, so we never witness her grief except in retrospect. Later, his memory has faded fast as another man comes on the scene – a man with whom she does things she can’t possibly describe. Stories, it seems, just won’t let themselves be fixed.

In the other sections Shishkin is dealing with more recent conflicts, ones that Russians must be even more uncomfortable with. The follow-up to the interpreter’s disastrous holiday with Isolde is a dinner-party in which, at first, he goes along with the opinion of one of the guests that Russia isn’t like the empires of old. Later he slyly mentions a controversial video he has of the conflict in Chechnya. It piques the guests’ interest, as he knew it would and, despite Isolde’s pleas, he shows it to them. It contains scenes of disgusting behaviour on the part of Russians, and Shishkin’s description of it includes lurid details of what a neck looks like after the head has been severed, amongst other atrocities. The guests leave the room one by one, and later Isolde goes to sleep in the nursery again. ‘Instead of “goodnight” she said “I hate you.”’ I’m not sure I need to comment further on the subject of the subject of speaking unpalatable truths to one’s fellow Russians.

(The interpreter makes another appearance, interrupting what must be his reading of one of Bella’s diary entries part-way through a sentence. His phone rings and he is asked, while in Rome, to translate some news for a ‘young man’ – in fact, a small boy – at the assessment centre. He does so, repeating the information that has just been blandly presented to him that the boy’s brother has fallen from the third floor of the refugee centre (‘Everything attests to him being drunk’) and that he has died of his injuries. The interpreter doesn’t miss a beat. He resumes reading the diary entry, and Shishkin makes no further comment.

The question-answer session is harder to get hold of. The speakers are still notionally in the roles they have always had, with the questioner in some way assessing the other man’s credentials. But the criteria long ago stopped being about whether an asylum-seeker might have a genuine case. We’ve had questions about the reliability of memory and, more than this, the existence of archetypes to which every story conforms. In this section the two speakers exchange and compare stories of their army training. No, that’s not quite it… but I’m not going to re-read it all now. The man in the answering role describes various, highly specific memories of his experiences and, as though to show what Shishkin has insisted from the start, the questioner knows about everything he says, even prompts him with details to help him. There is a bully in some kind of sergeant-major role, and the questioner’s memory of this man, called Gray, are as vivid as those of the other man.

There are descriptions of more atrocities, this time sometimes committed by one or other of the speakers (I forget which) or the routine casualties of war like the child whose head is split apart by, specifically, ‘a Russian sniper’s bullet’. In this universe – and it seems to be the same one inhabited by the interpreter – no one is blameless. Memories…. What about them? The man in the answering role remembers that Gray comes out all right in battle, taking care to protect his men. But this is just another archetype. The questioner confirms that he always knew this about Gray.

Am I struggling? Whatever else is going on in this novel, there are questions being asked about collective and individual responsibility. Maybe it’s time to read on, if I can bear it.

27 May
To page 414
The Cyrus story, which is now the story of Xenophon and the Hellenes, begins to do postmodern things as it collides with the story of an atrocity taking place in, I think, Chechnya. As it does, a trope from a story we’ve already heard reappears as innocent people are lured into what they think is a place of sanctuary, only for the straw to be laid all around the building and the fire kindled that will kill everyone inside. Shishkin loves these echoes, as we know.

After this it’s Bella – interpreter – Bella – interpreter – Q&A. Like any good Modernist, Shishkin plays games with style. Sometimes these feel envelope-pushing and experimental, and sometimes they don’t. I think the Bella sections take up more page space than any of the other threads, and there’s nothing envelope-pushing about the style of them. That’s the point, or so I assume. They’re placed side-by-side with sections that seem designed either to disorientate or – and I’m making assumptions again – to question the very point of trying to make sense of a chaotic century… whereas there’s a deadening familiarity to the style of Bella’s diaries and, in another section, of her unsent letters to her latest lover.

The technique for reading them is equally familiar, as we notice the things about her and her world that she is too self-centred to see. Hers is the egoism of the bourgeoisie, and Shishkin parades her blind individualism for all to see and mock. Cataclysmic events like the terrible civil war raging all around her in 1919 and the death of her brother in a reprisal execution get a short mention, and perhaps a few tears, before she is off again into stories of her own growing fame as a singer and the eternal love she is feeling for lover #4 or 5…. And, reader, she never learns. The section that consists of unsent letters to the married man who is clearly never going to leave his wife – Bella is well into her twenties by now – show her as naïve as when she first had a schoolgirl crush ten years before. The problem with individualism is that you have nobody to teach you anything.

But the sections purportedly written by Bella – aka Isabella, Belka, Isabelka and various other pet-names – are the easy parts. At other times it’s easy for the reader to get lost… although this isn’t so true of one of the interpreter’s sections here. Shishkin brings us back to the stubborn persistence of the individual in a much later, but equally indifferent world. The interpreter, becoming ever more cynical, might say that ‘it’s always the same story [and] his name is always Sergei Ivanov’, but the particular Sergei he encounters in this particular prison thrusts his unique self right into his face and that of the woman lawyer in attendance. It isn’t pretty and the lawyer, especially, is shaken. Maybe easy cynicism doesn’t hold all the answers.

There’s more to be said – I haven’t even started on the latest Q&A – but I think I’ll read on to the end now and come back to it. Less than 100 pages to go….

30 May
To the end
This novel still doesn’t make any conventional sense. Throughout, I’ve made attempts to guess at the author’s intentions because otherwise… what? Otherwise you’re left with confusion. In these last few sections, things become even more fragmentary than before, with one section seeming to consist of dozens of stories and memories randomly cut into two- or three-sentence bites which are then placed together as though they are continuous prose. What you get after sixteen unparagraphed pages is similar to a sound installation I remember at the Tate Modern: dozens of loudspeakers with the volume turned down placed all around the space, so that as the listener moves round, one speaker’s story disappears into the next. It isn’t about comprehensible meanings, but about something else. Perhaps it’s a variation on what Shishkin has been doing from the start, insisting that the meaning of innumerable individual stories is drowned out by their own noise. Nobody hears, either because they simply can’t or because they’re not listening.

Ok, so I’ve just done that thing I’ve been doing all along, which is making guesses. Does it get me anywhere? Does it make this an interesting novel, or just another postmodern fiction failing to overcome the century-old obstacle of reader boredom? How many readers will reach the end, if not compelled to do so because some academic has decided to include it on a course of study?

I don’t know, obviously, so I’ll concentrate on what Shishkin does in these final sections instead. And aren’t there a couple of sections I didn’t really cover last time? There was what turns out to be the final Q&A straddling the 400-page mark, in which all pretence of a conversation between strangers is abandoned. Essentially – and it’s some days since I read it now – memories of a shared life are exchanged between two speakers who appear to have been lovers. They talk about details of their lives and, as ever, there are echoes of stories we’ve heard before. But… that’s as much as I want to say about it. I had previously been thinking of this novel as a kind of collage of impressions of the 20th Century, containing the implied proposition that individual impressions and memories are not important in themselves. The stories of these lovers are not unique despite their efforts to make them so. One of them has a scar in a particular place, and they realise that it doesn’t matter because, as one of them says, perhaps everyone has. (I’m paraphrasing.)

As previously, the only conventional sections are Bella’s. Have I said enough about them? She continues to make mistakes in her personal and professional lives, continues to be the self-centred diva she’s always been while terrible things happen around her. There are two fairly long sections of chaotic, undated diary entries in which we get to hear of her marriage to somebody – she pretends to be ok about his affairs – and her first child as she’s forced to live in Paris for some years. And so on. Between these comes a section in which the interpreter is in Rome, in the company of a woman teacher he remembers from childhood, and whom we’ve met before, I think. Then come the sixteen cut-and-paste pages of chatter. Then we’re back with the interpreter, whose search for something unintelligible ends the novel as the teacher calls to him, ‘Follow me! I’ll show you the green, green grass!’

It’s an exasperating novel, but I’ve made that point already. The truth is, I’m not convinced that Shishkin’s cause is advanced by anything that happens after the first section I wrote about, i.e. the first 100 or so pages. And I’m going to stop writing about it, possibly for good.

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