Maidenhair

Mikhail Shishkin, trans. from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. Univ. of Rochester/Open Letter Books, $17.95 (506p) ISBN 978-1-934824-36-8
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.)
Reviewed on: 08/20/2012
Release date: 10/01/2012
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