Mikhail Shishkin: Венерин Волос (Maidenhair)


The latest addition to my website is Mikhail Shishkin‘s Венерин Волос (Maidenhair). This is a very complex novel that romps through Russian history, primarily of the past hundred years but also dips into earlier history, including Xenophon. An unnamed Russian-German interpreter is the link between the various stories. He works for the Swiss authority dealing with asylum seekers and his job is to interpret for Russian-speaking applicants, many of whom come up with very fanciful stories, which are all too often untrue. He also writes to his son – the interpreter and his wife are divorced – and also recounts his early life and his time in Italy, and how he met her. One job he almost got, in his early days, was writing a biography of a singer and actress, Bella Dmitrievna, but this fell through. Despite this, we get a very detailed biography of her, from her childhood in Rostov, the Russian Revolution and the period afterwards, to her success in Soviet Russia. However, plot is not the key to this novel. It is about giving a kaleidoscopic view of Russia, warts and all (and there are a lot of warts, including a lot of violence, both because of Russia’s various wars and internal issues), though also showing that, somewhere, deep down, it has not all been bad. This a novel that cannot be described in a short or even long review but one that needs to be read and experienced. We should be grateful that it is now available in English.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Tony

    I loved this one, and ‘The Light and the Dark’ wasn’t bad either. I’m looking forward to the Shishkin story collection coming out from Deep Vellum at some point this year 🙂

    1. tmn

      Reading The Light and Dark now, and then I will read one of his earlier works which has been translated into French but not English. I love Deep Vellum, not least because they publish Carmen Boullosa, one of my favorite authors. I do not think I will read Calligraphy Lesson, mainly because I tend to avoid short stories but I shall look forward to your review of it.

  2. The Untranslated

    It’s great you’ve enjoyed it. Does the English translation come with explanatory notes? Shishkin is particularly extravagant with this one, weaving together numerous references to Russian and world literature classics. It was quite a challenge even for a Russian speaker to get all of them.

    1. tmn

      Yes, it does have some notes though quite a few are translations from the many passages where he uses German, which I did not need! Fortunately, I was near a computer to be able to frequently Google some of the references I was unsure of.

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