The Capture of Izmail (Взятие Измаила) by Mikhail Shishkin

CaptureOfIsmailIf you can read French or Italian, grab your copy of Mikhail Shishkin’s The Capture of Izmail immediately because it’s his best and most difficult novel so far.  If you thought Maidenhair was a challenge, you’re in for an overwhelmingly perplexing ride. Even most of the Russian critics were lost in this labyrinth of styles, voices and chronotopes. The novel is disorienting, frustrating and even outrageous. It requires multiple readings along with a notepad or an array of differently coloured highlighters to keep track of the characters and the events. Although a completely different beast, William Gaddis’s JR provoked in me a similar sense of confusion when time and again  I suddenly realised that I was no longer sure of who was talking to whom.

Shishkin’s novel is an elaborate exploration of a certain theme through the media of masterly imitated styles and registers. Letters, diaries, lectures, law-court speeches, witness statements, criminology textbooks, ancient fables and chronicles, you name it. Out of these snatches and snippets, the writer gradually erects a horrifying monument to his major and perhaps only preoccupation: how to live with the knowledge of your inevitable death. That’s how Shishkin himself refers to the main agenda of his writing in an  interview:

– For me, writing is like an attempt to answer the questions that I asked myself as a child. Once I was walking along with my grandmother, and on the side of the road we saw a dead cat. And my grandmother went home, got a shovel and returned. And when she buried it on the side of the road, I suddenly realized that I too will someday die… And grandmother will die, and all the people that I love and that love me will die some day. And what can one do about this? And ever since I have been asking myself: is it possible to fight death?

While walking through the atrocity exhibition unfolding on the pages of The Capture of Izmail, one stumbles over and over on this question and its derivatives. How to come to terms with death, injustice, suffering, disease, stench and putrefaction? The beauty of the language quite effectively brings home the sheer enormity of the subject matter. This contrast has become an immediately recognizable staple of Shishkin’s prose.  The central motif is no less than suffering and death of a child. And you will find quite a few tormented children in this novel. There is even a defense speech in which an attorney tries to justify a woman who killed her own baby by invoking some primitive cultures practising infanticide as well as famous philosophers condoning it in certain cases. This passage appears to me a kind of A Modest Proposal with its satirical sting clinically removed. Shishkin is too serious to be grotesque.

Contemporary people like us, having just a different skin colour, smother, cut, strangle, drown, burn their babies, which is not considered a crime. On the Fiji Islands they still devour their children — read Bode or, at least Kohler. […] Plato in his philosophical state without any hesitation destroys all the children conceived out of wedlock or by women older than forty. Moreover, he allows not only weak babies to be killed, but also those well developed, if the number of the newly born exceeds a certain limit.

Is it one of the main characters, the attorney Alexander Vasilyevich, defending just another client of his? I cannot confirm this with any degree of certainty since the novel is chock-full with interrupted plotlines that will not be necessarily resumed. The story of little boy Sasha who grows up to become the attorney Alexander Vasilyevich is one of the several developments that provide the reader with illusory stability in the chaotic environment of the novel. The atmosphere of a trial is asserted from the very beginning when we are introduced to the judge, prosecutor, attorney and  defendant bearing the names of Slavic pagan gods. A woman referred to as Mokosh (goddess of fertility)  is tried for murdering her blind mother. She is believed to have left her mother outside the house to freeze to death. The prosecutor in his speech mentions the Roman law according to which matricides were drowned in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a snake and a monkey.  The attorney reminisces about a woman who shoved her supposedly stillborn baby into the burning oven, after which the doctor established that there was air in its lungs; hence, the baby had been alive. Mokosh is separated from her child. She fakes madness not to be sent to Siberia by smearing herself with her own excrement. When exposed, she strangles herself on the eve of the transportation. That’s it. And there will be more stories like that.

Most of the characters in the novel are pure nodes of suffering. There is very little hope all the way  up to the semi-autobiographical Epilogue. One unhappy family replaces another until the author himself becomes a character in his novel. He does seem to be better-off than his fictitious predecessors, although there is enough misery in his own story to jerk a tear or two from an overly sensitive reader. Mind you, not necessarily everything is true, for Shishkin seems to throw in a good share of invention into his story. The more or less coherent plot-oriented parts of the novel tell us about people who are beset by death, disease and betrayal to such an extent that you cannot help but get rather desensitised by the time the book is finished. But what I find fascinating about this novel is actually everything besides these islands of traditional story-telling. That turbulent textual element which tends to break the narrative, and, out of the blue, overwhelm the reader with a ghastly historical testimony or a ludicrously salacious folk tale seguing into a cento of unattributed quotations. A postmodern symphony in prose, The Capture of Izmail is definitely one of the most impressive literary achievements by a Russian author in recent years. Shishkin’s approach in this novel is more radical and uncompromising than in his later two works available in English (Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark).  One of my favourite episodes is the one in which a Russian medic arrives in Tundra to inoculate the Samoyedic peoples.  A seemingly realistic story  transforms half-way into a nightmarish journey to ancient Egypt which bears some resemblance to Russia at different moments in its history. A series of Biblical plagues is visited on the country, but, just like in the Bible, each time the heart of the King gets even more callous as large-scale iniquities are committed with renewed ardour.

Those who are familiar with Russian history will know that Ismail is the Turkish fortress captured by Russian troops at the end of the eighteenth century during the Russo-Turkish War. In charge of the storming was the legendary commander Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov. In the novel, what is left of this historic event besides the title is the hapless attorney’s name which coincides with that of the great military leader. Actually, The Capture of Izmail crops up once in the narrative itself as the title of a circus routine a little boy wants to stage some day after watching a performance with trained animals. It will feature mice storming a cardboard fortress. The irony levelled at the impersonal grand history of the state is quite obvious here. Shishkin  is more interested in individuals: humiliated, oppressed, hopeless and helpless. Being in their company is not the most pleasant way of spending your time, but that’s what you will have to resign yourself to if you wish to experience the best that contemporary Russian writing has to offer.  I hope that the English translation of this novel will eventually appear and create a splash among readers of serious literature. 

Update: Great news. Andrew Bromfield’s translation of the novel will be available in the UK this summer under the title Taking Izmail.

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