Mikhail Shishkin, Maidenhair

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For a lot of people, Russian literature died with Tolstoy and Chekhov, more than a century ago. In fact, pretty well all of the country’s best-known works—your Anna Kareninas, your Crime and Punishments, your Dead Soulses—were written during one ludicrously fertile 50-year period in the mid- to late-19th century. A few titles that were suppressed during the Soviet era have also made it out, but almost nothing since then.

This has been my understanding of the situation. But it was nice to hear it confirmed on a recent episode of the Three Percent podcast, which provides an invigorating look at issues in world literature (along with the occasional tirade about baseball). As a potential solution to the Russia dilemma, co-host and publisher Chad W. Post pointed to a book that has since been released by his Open Letter Press: Mikhail Shishkin’s sidewinding 500-page opus Maidenhair.

Post calls it “the best, the most literary book that we’ve ever published,” and endorses Shishkin as Russia’s best bet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

If you’re anything like me, your ears just perked up.

Of course, asking any single book to carry the burden of an entire nation is a rather tall order. So the first thing to understand is that Maidenhair doesn’t even take place in Russia. Instead, we hover somewhere along the eastern Swiss border, as a series of asylum-seekers try to beg, plead, and lie their way to sanctuary. Roughly one third of the novel is transcripts from such interviews. Another third is dedicated to the Swiss border official’s interpreter, who writes long, fanciful letters to his estranged child. And the final third is a series of diary entries written by a forgotten Russian singer, whom the interpreter has been assigned to write a biography of.

If that sounds messy, well, you don’t know the half of it. Maidenhair is the most gleefully cut-to-ribbons novel I’ve read since Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It also taps into a vein of storytelling so uncompromising, and so relentlessly pure, that I can’t tell whether I’ll re-read the book ten times, or never look at it again.

The novel’s plot is intelligible sentence by sentence, but defies any larger coherence. Both the letters and the transcripts keep cannonballing into the absurd, sometimes within a few words. One transcript opens with a bravura 16-page summary of a ridiculously convoluted story about why an asylum seeker has no identification with him—which concludes with him forgetting his briefcase on a train. Everything that precedes this one last lie is so blatantly unnecessary that I laughed out loud. Plus, the reader has already been told that the border official denies everyone entry anyway. For Shishkin, imagination is everything.

His characters will tell you the same thing. “We, you—what’s the difference,” one says to the border official. “After all, everyone’s been switched anyway. You aren’t you. I’m not me. We’re not us. You said yourself that we’re just mitts for stories to put on in winter to keep warm in the cold.”

Elsewhere, the interpreter writes, “What difference does it make who it happened to? It’s always a sure thing. The people here are irrelevant. It’s the stories that can be authentic or not.”

He concludes, “We are what we say.”

The novel’s three sections are only loosely threaded together, but inform one another all the same. There are recurring symbols and imagery, scenes of quiet heartbreak, and brilliant, newly coined curse words (for which equal praise must go to translator Marian Schwartz). Everything bleeds into everything else. It’s rarely less than compelling. The word maidenhair also refers to a genus of ferns, while in the novel God is referred to more than once as “green, green grass”; this one fact threw me into a lengthy—and unsuccessful—online mission to find a connection.

Shishkin himself used to work as an interpreter at the Swiss border, and still lives in Zurich part-time. Yet his presence is hard to find on the page. There’s so much I’d love to ask him about the novel, which won several big prizes in Russia when it was first published in 2005.

My first question: how did you do all this in only three years?

Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. Open Letter, 507 pp, $17.95, paperback

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, November 2, 2012)