From Russia, With Erudition

Mikhail Shishkin's new novel — the first to arrive in English — is ambitious, complicated and protean. And brilliant

Tibor Fischer

e’ve been waiting a while for the work of Mikhail Shishkin, who won the Russian Booker in 2000, to reach the English language. His publishers describe The Light and The Dark as a novel. Shishkin describes it as a novel, but I don’t think the term adequately prepares most readers for the experience.

I don’t have any Russian, so I have to rely on what is translated to keep tabs on Russian fiction and what I see suggests that the “literary” writers are in a playful mood. Dimitry Bykov, Viktor Pelevin and Shishkin don’t do tranche de vie, or to be scrupulously fair, Shishkin does do tranche de vie, he does it a lot, there are more tranches than you can shake a stick at in The Light and The Dark, but not presented in the way Zola does.

No one can accuse Shishkin of lack of ambition. The Light and The Dark is about, well, everything: cosmology, philology, anthropology, epistemology, phytology, oology. Any ology you’d care to name really. But it’s a mistake to seek the narrative and character development you’d expect from a “conventional” novel; here themes and ideas are as much the protagonists as the two narrators. In a series of love-letters between Sashenka and Volodenka, Shishkin races back and forth through time, and the history of philosophy and literature pepper his work. As Sashenka puts it:

It has been demonstrated experimentally that there’s something funny going on with time. Events can take place in any sequence and happen to anybody at all. It is possible to play a comb and tissue paper in the kitchen so that it tickles your lips and at the same time, in an entirely different kitchen, read a letter from someone who no longer exists.

So the epistolary novel, which is one of the cornerstones of literary realism and the novel in our tradition and also the French and Russian (check out the lesser-known Fyodor, Fyodor Emin), is upended and mashed up by Shishkin. There is a lyrical, poetic quality to much of Shishkin’s writing (some of which I suspect hasn’t made it through to English). My Russian friends tell me the whole of Russian literature has been plundered by Shishkin and redistributed in the pages of The Light and The Dark. As a novel it’s closer to Finnegans Wake than Crime and Punishment, with its disregard for conventional narrative, except that there is not the blur of Joycean language but everyday vocabulary, and although Shishkin throws the reader around wildly in time and space, there are many respites where, suddenly, you get a page or two of straightforward, no-nonsense, 19th-century storytelling. The most substantial sequence in the book is Volodenka taking part in a Russian expeditionary force during the Boxer rebellion, a grim and vivid account of the brutal fighting, with an eye for detail:

There are Japanese flags on the houses and shops. The prudent Japanese had laid in a huge supply of flags and, on taking Tientsin, they handed them out to the inhabitants straight-away.

This is certainly the most complicated, protean book I’ve ever reviewed and one jammed with cultural allusions and ideas. It’s like a compendium of flash-fiction on the themes of love, death, travel-writing and Prester John, with passing reflections on why dogs like shoes and the Bosporan King Rhescuporis.

I only had time to read The Light and The Dark once and a half and I’m well aware that I haven’t unpicked all the threads. The Russian title translates literally as “letter-book” and I can understand why the publishers wanted a more marketable title. But I’d have gone for the last part of my favourite sentence from the book:

A snow woman laments, wondering why everyone pities the Titanic and no one pities the iceberg.

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