Reading Mikhail Shishkin’s “Maidenhair” will make you sad

Elizabeth Williams

The new translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s novel “Maidenhair” is 506 pages of a bizarre stream-of-consciousness between three fictional narrative viewpoints: interviews with Russian refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland from the Chechen wars, the Russian interpreter’s memories and letters he writes to his son and the diary entries of an aspiring Russian singer in the early 20th century. 

“Maidenhair” is not a book to pick up on the weekend and expect to be finished by Monday. Packed with Russian and Persian historical references, reading this book deserves time and a bit of effort on the reader’s part. 

Shishkin writes in a torrential stream-of-consciousness that carries the reader through these intermingling narratives. At first, it’s off-putting to read the tragic stories of the refugees right after reading a comical anecdotal letter from the interpreter to his son. But once the three narratives are established, it’s easier to discern which one you’re reading.

Extracting meaning from these interwoven stories can be difficult — Shishkin is anything but explicit. Yet these narratives, as they mix with each other and are told side-by-side, form a cohesive storyline as they all touch on the inherently human subjects of love, death and truth.   

Through a string of beginnings and endings, the reader pieces together the universality of human life. New love is discovered and old love decays. Those around us die while new beings are brought into the world. We’re reminded that one thing doesn’t have to end for a new thing to begin. 

Shishkin is a great success in putting his reader through as many different types of pain as possible. There are the cringe-inducing tales of the refugees, who get their finger nails ripped off and watch as their families are raped, beaten and burned to death. Then there’s the anger in knowing that Peter, the Swiss officer guarding the so-called gates to paradise, only cares about finding the refugees that might be lying about these horrifying experiences in an effort to escape Russia. There’s also the pitiful existence of the interpreter, writing to a young son that has little interest in him after his ex-wife remarried. 

Finally, the most stinging pains are courtesy of the diary entries, spanning a singer’s youth and adulthood as she experiences the early wars and revolutions and the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union. This story of a young woman pursuing her passions in the midst of a country in turmoil is easily the most affecting part of the book. Her resilience despite the utter destruction around her reminds the reader that the human spirit is a hard thing to break. 

“Maidenhair” uses the setting of a country locked in a constant state of chaos to communicate the frustrations and triumphs of the human experience. How do we find happiness in our existence if when we’re not even sure we’ll survive through the day? Shishkin’s answer is only to keep living.