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Born 1961 in Moscow, Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin spent the first thirty years of his life in an environment characterized by “Communist lies”. Like many of his countrymen, at an early age he discovered literary as a more truthful alternative world, and first began feeling like a “proud citizen of his country responsible for its future” since the beginning of perestroika. After completing his German and English studies at the Moscow State Pedagogical University, he worked as a journalist and schoolteacher – not least for having participated in the large-scale project of social change – until he moved to Switzerland, for love and not for politics, in 1995. By then the young writer had been honoured for writing the best Russian debut. Shishkin’s fear of running out of literary material in tranquil Switzerland was quickly proved unfounded (quote: “The Russian writer needs Russian tension”). During his nearly ten years of service as translator and interpreter for the Migration Office of the Canton of Zurich and other authorities, he learned more about war, torture and expulsion from so-called applicants from all parts of the former Soviet Union than in his Russian homeland.
The thousands of authentic case histories significantly inspired his third novel, “Maiden’s Hair”, which first appeared in German five years after the publication of its original edition. Five years was how long publishers in Germany hesitated, unlike in France and Italy. Yet Mikhail Shishkin, who speaks eloquently in German and researched the portrayal of the Germans in Russian literature, has long been among the most respected writers in Russia, where he enjoys a readership in the hundreds of thousands and also received every prestigious literary award granted there, including the Russian Booker Prize for his second novel, “Vzyatie Izmaila” (The Taking of Izmail, 1999). Nevertheless, in the German-speaking world, there was a reluctance to contend with complex, narrative constructions demanding the reader’s full attention, and for which one is later rewarded – with an inexhaustible wealth of stories which eavesdrop on reality and lead into the world of poetry, myths, and fantasy. Shishkin insists that nothing he describes is invented; everything he writes has been personally experienced, read, or overheard: as a writer he is not only a creator, but a collector and guardian as well. This applies as much to the horrifying fate of the asylum seekers the interpreter – Shishkin’s alter ego and the main character of the novel “Maiden’s Hair” – has to translate as it does to the fictional but exceedingly realistic diary of romance singer Bella, whose life spans the entire “cursed Russian” twentieth century – from the 1905/1917 Revolution to the Second Chechen War. Regardless of which side they are on, all the victims are evoked in the novel.

“Maiden’s Hair”, the species of fern from which the novel derives its title – in cold Russia, a popular houseplant which dies without human warmth, but which also spreads like ivy over old walls in Rome – corresponds with the many branching storylines of the novel, which is deeply rooted in the present and past, in the mythology before Christ and biblical tradition, and which likewise depicts war and art as constants of human culture, and celebrates the word as being something imperishable. The narrator bears witness like the Evangelists, offering in several voices a testimony embracing the whole of our existence on a material and spiritual level. In doing so, he artistically intertwines time periods and motives, playfully juggles the ambivalence of handed down wisdoms and the facts, and draws from the example of church founder, fisher of men, and gate keeper Saint Peter, who takes the form of civil servant Peter Fischer in the novel and who is requested to stop as many applicants as possible of passing through the gates of paradise into Switzerland. Later, among other locations, the narration leads to Petersburg/Petrograd and to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Eternal City, where the novel programmatically fades out.

Meanwhile the novel has appeared in German, exquisitely translated by Andreas Tretner, who decrypts the collected allusions and even carries over the most audacious palindromes, as well as captures the original’s richness of tone and imagery. This explains why the novel’s reception in Germany, despite the many hesitations of publishers, has been so overwhelming: soon after the publication of “Maiden’s Hair”, the author and the translator were honoured with the International Literary Award of the House of World Cultures in Berlin. The jury paid tribute to Shishkin as “a literary artist of the highest order” who has “developed a unique form for the novel” in which is combined “a chronicle of violence, a love story, an artist’s diary, and interrogation protocol that likewise moves within an intertextual fabric, which – above and beyond its outstanding quality – christens this novel world literature.” In addition, in the newspaper Die Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Ulrich M. Schmid declared “Maiden’s Hair” one of the “most important novels in modern Russian literature. Together, the stylistically inventive literature, psychologically astute viewpoint, and sense of composition form the basis for a masterly text, which redefines the novel as a genre. Mikhail Shishkin has a remarkably keen ear for the self-deceptions of his protagonists (the novel’s narrator included), and connects their stories in a shrewd construction capable of making even a Vladmir Nabokov green with envy.”

Text: Patricia Klobusiczky / English translation: Karl Edward Johnson

Montreux-Missolunghi-Astapowo. Auf den Spuren von Byron und Tolstoj: eine literarische Wanderung vom Genfer See ins Berner Oberland. (Montreux-Missolunghi-Astapowo. In the Steps of Byron and Tolstoy: A Literary Hike from Lake Geneva into the Bernese Highlands) Translated from Russian by Franziska Stöcklin. Limmat Verlag, Zurich, 2002 Die russische Schweiz. Ein literarisch-historischer Reiseführer. (Russian Switzerland. A Literary-Historical Guidebook) Translated from Russian by Franziska Stöcklin. Limmat Verlag, Zurich, 2003 Venushaar (Maiden’s Hair). Novel. Translated from Russian by Andreas Tretner. DVA, Munich, 2011
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