“We have to ferret out what really happened. But how can you if people become the stories they tell? You just can’t. That means it’s all very simple. Since you can’t clarify the truth, you at least need to clarify the lie.” (21)
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is a beautifully complex novel that both inspires and frustrates with multiple edges of the same pen. The inspiration of its beauty arises through its delicate and thoughtful phrasing that is articulated with a balance of narration that mirrors the all encompassing complexity of life. The frustration is weighed down by its many-sided, always shifting structure that abruptly and frequently transitions from meandering and confusing transcripts from a question-answer dialogue, to epic stories of ancient Greece, to the early 20th century diary of a famous Russian singer, to the modern-day story of an unnamed interpreter’s fragile and tragic love life.
All of the narrative turns revolve around the thoughts and occupations of the Russian-German interpreter living in both Rome and Zurich. The question-answer transcripts annotate his services as an interpreter for Russian expatriates seeking asylum in Switzerland, the ancient Grecian stories and the diaries are his reading material, and the modern-day stories of his love life depict his daily struggles with a woman with whom he has lost confidence in. As the interpreter’s role in the transcriptions develop, it is apparent that his grecian and diary reading materials influence his interaction with the subjects of his interpretation inquiries. As the diary entries begin as innocent school-girl thoughts about love interest and later develop into tragic reflections upon friends and lovers lost in the first world war and the Bolshevik revolution, the transcripts of the question-answer dialogues cover everything from the Russo-Afghani war, to the fall of the Soviet empire, and later morph into strange blend of philosophical digression and accusational derivations that apply theories about ancient Greece to the present day.
The interpreter’s readings influence his interactions with his subjects of interpretation, as notably depicted in this passage between the interpreter and a lawyer that was unsettled by the gruesome and offensive accusations of an expatriate seeking asylum:
“If you and your mama are doing well, then you have to rejoice in that. And if there’s a war somewhere, you need to live and rejoice even more that you aren’t there. And if someone is loved, there will always be someone whom no one loves. And if the world is unfair, you still have to live and rejoice that you’re not sitting in a stinking cell but are going to a wedding! Rejoice! Enjoy yourself!” (380)
These many sided narratives present a lot to reflect upon, and in reading the passages such as the one above I found myself often reflecting upon my own life with introspective satisfaction. However, reading the book as a novelistic whole the many distinct narratives frustrate because they don’t mesh together smoothly. Despite this frustration, an astute reader will recognize that there is artistic purpose to the frustration inherent in the novel’s structure, for life in itself is not perfectly smooth. The many voices written upon the page depict the many struggles and triumphs of life. There are stories of revolution and conquest, brutal depictions of tortures and rape, innocent reflections on love and family, as well as deep rooted suspicions of mistrust and betrayal. All of these narratives are the mutli-layered fabric of life, and despite the tragedies that weigh the novel down, the novel presents much to celebrate:
“She said you can only fall out of love if you didn’t love, and that you would go on to love your beloved through many others… she also said that it was only the distance between points A and B that was measured in kilometers, whereas life was measured in people, and you needed to absorb people into yourself and no one you loved would go anywhere, they would live in you, you would comprise them. That’s how you measure life.” (408)
From beginning to end Maidenhair demonstrates itself as a unique and lyrical artistic expression of the multiplicity of life’s offerings. I cannot say that I loved every page of this book, but in reflection it is a book worth loving.
“Amazingly, I did understand it all then. Now that I’m old and have lived my life, now I don’t understand anything. It turns out that life is living from understanding to not.” (120)