Maidenhair, by Mikhail Shishkin

This book has been a long-term project.  It's a Russian modernist novel that made a big splash a few years ago.  I've been reading it, slowly, since...January?  It's not that it was incredibly difficult; it's weird but if you let it wash over you it's not overwhelming.  But taking it slowly worked pretty well for me.

There are several strands in the braid that make up Maidenhair:
  • A translator at a Swiss border post interprets for Russian people seeking asylum.  They tell long, elaborate stories (often untrue) and Peter sometimes does too.  In fact, sometimes you wonder which is which.
  • He writes letters to his son, "Nebuchadnezzarsaurus," about the boy's imaginary kingdom.
  • There are sections of the diary of a Russian singer who was a young teen in 1914 and who lived to see the USSR crumble.
  • The interpreter re-lives his affair with his son's mother (his wife?) and his obsession with her former lover, calling them Tristan and Isolde.
  • Ancient history, Persian and Greek
All of these things bleed into one another, so that allusions to the interpreter's life show up in the singer's diary and so on.  Time is not exactly a real thing and events actually happen on top of each other, layering and running into each other.  As you get closer to the end, the narrative turns more and more into a stream-of-consciousness thing that rambles everywhere, in and out and around.

Pretty strange, and a good reading experience for me.  Shishkin writes in that Russian tradition where plot is maybe not as important as the ideas discussed in the novel; there's a lot about life and death and love and such.  Definitely worth trying out.


  1. Oh, I'm intrigued! It does indeed sound strange, but in a good way.

  2. Hopped over from the Chunkster Challenge.

    This does sound intriguing. I just finished my first chunkster of the year and it took me months to complete, too.

    Joy's Book Blog


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