For as arduous as Mikhail Shishkin's Maidenhair may have been to get into through the first hundred pages, its symphonic rewards are many. The Russian writer's 2005 epic is as unique as it is beautiful, and as elegantly composed as it is breathtakingly inclusive. Difficult it would be to offer any sort of succinct synopsis of the story's plot, let alone a summary of Shishkin's adept and enviable narrative structuring. Even though the novel's four plot threads share some thematic elements (and stylistic differences), Shishkin never forces them along nor deigns to make them interlink with one another.
There is nothing demanding or laborious about Maidenhair, and claims to the contrary betray the tendencies of so many Western readers to require a neat, tidy, cohesive, and linear storyline. There is beauty, there is horror, there is heartbreak, and there is hope, and Shishkin's talent lies in their seemingly effortless synthesis. Merging autobiographical elements (Shishkin formerly served as an interpreter for asylum-seeking refugees in Switzerland), historical accounts, mythological indulgences, and inventive storytelling, Shishkin's novel is intricate and gratifying. Maidenhair is an impressively animate work that inexplicably manages to contain all of the essential constituents of life. Recommended By Jeremy G., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter — the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise — and tell of the atrocities they've suffered, or that they've invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter's own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son "Nebuchadnezzasaurus," ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia's wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union's dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin's Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions — of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word — and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
"A kaleidoscopic blend of histories, letters, myths, and fairy tales courses through this novel from Shishkin (The Taking of Izmail). Embedded within this flood of extra-textual material and too often overwhelmed by it is the simple, sad story of an unnamed interpreter who works at a Swiss border patrol station where refugees from Africa, Asia, and Russia seek asylum. The interpreter reels from his exposure to tales of wartime atrocities and laments separating from his wife and son. For solace, he turns to books and to the passionate journals of Bella Dmitrievna, a popular Russian singer who lived from the 1910s through the late 20th century and whose biography the interpreter had at one time been chosen to write. Shishkin boldly manipulates his various materials: in one scene, the ancient Greek soldier/philosopher Xenophon and his men come upon an encampment of modern-day Chechen soldiers. In others, the tales of iconic lovers Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, and Daphnis and Chloe receive radical revisions to illustrate the idea that history is but an accumulation of texts, a series of recurring stories with interchangeable players. Despite this potentially dehumanizing perspective, Shishkin finds faith of sorts in the next iteration of the story. A curiously beguiling, if exhausting, novel. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Most of the critics agree that 2005 will go down in the history of Russian literature as the year when Maidenhair, the new novel by Mikhail Shishkin, was published."
"Maidenhair is a kind of book they give the Nobel prize for. The novel is majestic."
About the Author
Mikhail Shishkin has worked as a school teacher and a journalist. In 1995, he moved to Switzerland, where he worked as a Russian and German translator for asylum seekers. His novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. In addition to winning Le prix du meilleur livre étranger (2005), he has won the Russian Booker Prize (2000); following its publication in Russia in 2005, Maidenhair was awarded both the National Bestseller Prize and the Big Book prize, and in 2011 it was awarded the Preis des Hauses der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. His latest novel, Letter-Book, won the Russian Big Book prize in 2011. Shishkin splits his time between Moscow and Zurich.