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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important, yes. Great ?, 7 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Maidenhair (Paperback)
This is an important book with pretensions to greatness. It tackles Russian history from before the 1917 Revolution almost to the present (though leaves out most politics). It recounts the life experiences of a woman, a child before the Revolution, who becomes a professional singer and ultimately outlives the Soviet state. It also tells stories derived from Shishkin's own experience working in Switzerland as an interpreter for Russian speaking asylum seekers. All is intermingled with tales from the Persian Wars, moving eventually to descriptions of modern Rome (which, of course, is in part also ancient Rome).

Why is the book important? Mikhail Shishkin is a prominent contemporary Russian novelist and Maidenhair in its original Russian won two major prizes. In this translation by Marian Schwartz (everything Marian translates is worthy of attention) it was shortlisted for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award. Maidenhair is serious literary fiction. It may not entirely qualify as 'experimental' (although somewhat unconventional in its story-telling, probably everything has been done before), and experiment is not entirely new to contemporary Russian fiction, but the novel may nevertheless serve as a pathfinder, encouraging other Russian authors to explore unconventional approaches.

The book opens with an intriguing account of the interview process for those seeking asylum in Switzerland. Entirely believably, Switzerland is not keen to take all comers and the interviews are designed to filter out all but the most clear-cut cases. That seems hard, but we soon learn that the stories told by some - perhaps many - would-be refugees, have been enhanced, borrowed, adapted, adopted from others, if they contain any truth at all. A young man claiming to have run away from an orphanage is found by forensic test to be well past the age for an orphanage; the 12 year old daughter of a family claiming to have been persecuted as Jews seeks to underline the veracity of what she says by crossing herself; a young man claiming to be Chechnyan and to have lost all documentation is in fact a Lithuanian holidaymaker who has run out of money. His passport was hidden in a place where, unfortunately for him, it was found and handed to the police. The Interpreter also assists the police with Russian-speaking criminal offenders. An interview with an aggressive young man who has decided he is going to be deported anyway is particularly memorable.

The story of the singer, Bella Demetrievna, only gets underway after the first 96 pages, but from then onwards mostly predominates. At first it is presented as diary entries, but later morphs into extended passages of monologue. At times, those monologues are reminiscent of Molly Bloom's soliloquy, the concluding chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, but there is more than one such passage, none of them conclude the book and, for me at least, they are over-extended.

It is largely because of the over-extension of some passages, and not just Bella Demetrievna's reminiscences, that I feel the novel falls short of greatness. I am dubious too of some sections of pure word-play. When the sentence 'Lid off a daffodil' appears, we realise that the apparently meaningless sentences surrounding it are also palindromes, or come close to being so. (How many hours of work does that page alone represent for the translator?) Still, it is good to recognise understated references such as that to Koshchey the Deathless*, the Russian folk tale in which a needle is concealed inside an egg inside a duck, inside a hare, inside a chest hidden at the top of a tall oak, and I am sure there will be many that I missed. That could be a reason to re-read the whole book, or the basis of a full academic study. The latter would be for those who disagree with me about the novel's ultimate greatness.

*The Frog Princess, derived from Koshchey the Deathless and also including the needle in an egg formula, is included in the excellent Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (2012), edited by Robert Chandler.
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