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Leading Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin to appear at Hallwalls tonight

Out of nothingness, out of the void, out of white plaster, out of a dense fog, out of a snowy field, out of a sheet of paper there suddenly will appear people, living bodies, they rise up to remain forever, because they can’t vanish, disappearing is simply not an option; death has already come and gone. First the contour, outlines, edges. Period, period, comma makes a crooked little face. Cross-out. The man stretches from this crack in the wall to that spot of sun. Stretches from nail to nail.--from "Maidenhair" (2005) by Mikhail Shishkin

Leading Russian expatriate fiction writer Mikhail Pavlovich Shishkin, widely considered the greatest writer of his Cold War era generation and the most important Russian-language novelist of the post-Soviet era, is slated to visit Buffalo tonight for a University at Buffalo Exhibit X Fiction Series reading at 7 p.m. at Hallwalls Cinema, 341 Delaware Ave. (near Tupper St.).   The event is free and open to the public.

Already a major figure in international literature, Shishkin's recognition in the English-speaking literary world has tracked significantly behind his reputation in Europe, owing primarily to the unavailability of his work in translation.  Last October, Rochester, NY-based Open Letter Books began to address that disparity by publishing Marian Schwartz's much-praised translation of Shishkin's best-known novel "Maidenhair" (2005), winner of Russia’s Big Book Award and National Best-Seller Prize, both in 2006, and Germany's Preis des Hauses der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin that same year.  Later this year, his most recent novel “Pismovnik” or "Letter Book" (2010, winner of Russia’s Big Book Award in 2011) is slated for its U.S. release.

Shishkin's other books include “The Taking of Izmail” (1999, recipient of the so-called "Russian Booker Prize" in 2000), “In the Steps of Byron and Tolstoy” (2002), an essay collection that received France’s  Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in 2005, a second essay collection written in German, and two collections of short stories in Russian. His work has been translated into over two dozen other languages.

Born in 1961 in Moscow, Shishkin studied English and German at Moscow State Pedagogical Institute, and was employed as a road laborer, journalist, school teacher, and translator prior to making his literary debut with the short story "Calligraphy Lesson" published in Znamya magazine in 1993.  In 1995 he has emigrated to Zurich, Switzerland, where he worked as a translator for Russian-speaking asylum seekers, a job not unlike that held by the unnamed protagonist of "Maidenhair".  More recently, he has lived in Berlin and, for the current month of April, in New York City, where he is a visiting professor at Columbia University.

So, what kind of a novelist is Shishkin?  Based solely on their reading of "Maidenhair," American readers will find him to be a writer of panoramic scale and ambition, a novelist with a sweeping social vision and sense of history reminiscent of 19th century Russian realism, but one who employs the narrative techniques of postmodernism and 21st century modernism to stunning effect, interweaving no less than four distinct narratives into kind of space-time continuum of  simultaneity that resonates with the continuous present of our globalized media culture and the lucid feverishness of our nightmares.

He has been compared to James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, and even "Cloud Atlas" author David Mitchell, but all these comparisons do little to give one an actual sense of how his narratives read--their inherent difficulty, but also the sense in which the separate narrative strands play off of and sometimes against each other in a process that is clarifying rather than confusing:

...You just have to understand destiny's language and its cooing.  We're blind from birth.  We don't see anything and don't pick up on the connection between events, the oneness of things, like a mole digging its tunnel and bumping into thick roots, and for the mole these are just insurmountable obstacles and he can't imagine the crown these roots nourish...

Perhaps the most straightforward and harrowing thread of the book consists of the narrator's translations of the question and answer sessions with Russian asylum seekers (most of them from Chechnya, and some of them from the Chernobyl area), attempting through the desperation of their storytelling (since few have actual physical proof of their suffering) to gain permanent residency status in Switzerland.

A second strand invokes scenes from trip the narrator took to Rome and Italy with his now estranged wife and son, a trip in which the classical world  of myth and history came alive for him and became a running commentary on his own consciousness, engendering a third strand, a set of letters written to his young son (addressed  as "Dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!”), in which he imagines the boy as the emperor of a distant, imaginary childhood empire with Persian mythological features. 

The fourth distinct strand is a series of diary entries written by a famous 20th century female Russian singer named Isabella (Yurieva), who the narrator was once commissioned to write a biography of.  While nothing came of the project, her papers remain in his possession and her voice provides counterpoint and historical context, as her life encompasses much of triumph and failure of the Soviet era.  It is the distant echo of a past that is ever present, ever available, but the source code of the translator-narrator's unresolvable alienation.

Shishkin's title Maidenhair derives from the multi-stranded fern the narrator and his wife found growing abundantly in Rome--the Eternal City of  their timeless love--but which could not endure the harsh climate of their homeland: 

For us, this is a house plant, otherwise it wouldn’t survive, without human warmth, but here it’s a weed. So you see, this is in a dead language, signifying something alive: Adiantum capillus veneris. Venus hair, genus Adiantum. Maidenhair. God of life. The wind barely stirs. As if nodding, yes yes, that’s true: this is my temple, my land, my wind, my life. The greenest of grasses. It grew here before your Eternal City and will grow here after.

The sense in the novel that everything is connected is more than a slogan.  For Shishkin, it is way of seeing in thought and memory the way consciousness reveals itself to us in language.  "Truth lies only where it is concealed," he writes in one exchange between the Swiss interrogator and his interpreter.  "...We become what gets written in the transcript.  The words.  You have to understand.  The divine idea of the river is the river itself."

Even more colored with the bittersweet idealism of Shishkin's truth-in-art is an entry from Isabella's diary dated 6 August 1919:

This is what I believe: If somewhere on earth the wounded are finished off with rifle butts, that means somewhere else people have to be singing and rejoicing in life! The more death there is around, the more important to counter it with life, love, and beauty!

It's that sense of cosmic simultaneity that gives Shishkin's writing its epic scale: the sense that everything that ever has been or will ever be inhabits the same possibility of  consciousness and is fettered by the same contingency of language. "It’s a matter of time zones," he writes, "Steps of the dial. Everything is happening simultaneously, it’s just that the hands have gone every which way on all the clocks."

--R.D. Pohl
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