Tag Archives: Mikhail Shishkin

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 Izmail 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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Remember Famagusta (Помни о Фамагусте) by Alexander Goldstein

RememberFamagustaThe English-speaking audience might have heard first the name of Alexander Goldstein from one of the most important contemporary Russian writers Mikhail Shishkin. During his talk at the Harriman Institute, Columbia, he actually said the following:

For me now the top of Russian literature is Alexander Goldstein. […] I’m sure in fifty years here at Columbia University and other American universities all professors will consider our time, our epoch, the epoch of Alexander Goldstein. And we, writers, will be just contemporaries of Alexander Goldstein. We just shared with him the epoch. […] And if you asked me, “What Russian writers are important and genius nowadays?” I would say: “Read Alexander Goldstein”.

This is a very strong statement from a writer whose authority has been cemented by such impressive works as Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark (although, in my opinion, they are not a patch on his mind-bending tour-de-force The Capture of Izmail. I’m not sure that Goldstein is really the genius Shishkin would like him to be, but upon reading his first novel Remember Famagusta, I was totally sold on the idea that there had not been a better stylist writing in Russian in the past century, except maybe Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Sasha Sokolov.

Goldstein has created his own linguistic universe, a parallel dimension of words, in which the commonly accepted laws and conventions do not apply. Although appreciated by some, the novel in question remains poorly understood . It is impossible to find a single critical article on the novel throwing substantial light on its numerous mysteries.  Regretfully, I have to confess that I am no exception. I am not sure what I have just read. I had been utterly  baffled during the reading so many times that I started to get surprised each time I did understand something. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to consider  Remember Famagusta  ” a Russian version of Finnegans Wake” because Goldstein’s alchemy  rarely invades the word itself; that is to say, the reader has no problem understanding the meaning of isolated words, which is one of the challenges posed by Joyce’s text. It’s the way those words are woven into the texture of the novel, the unexpected lexical combinations and collisions, the baroque over-abundance of luscious imagery that are liable to leave even the most sophisticated reader high and dry.

Having made the necessary disclaimer, I will  share some thoughts on this extraordinary and, for the most part, impenetrable novel. I have my own explanation as to why the narrative is so chaotic and elusive, sending us on a wild chase of its various will-o’the-wisps. The novel is set both at the time of the creation and disintegration of the biggest empire on earth, the Soviet Union. Goldstein’s prose reflects and amplifies these tectonic shifts. The time and space are in a state of constant transformation, and consequently nobody is granted even a moment of respite. The jumps from one place or period to another are abrupt and can even remain unnoticed until later. Moreover, the city playing the central role in the novel is never called by its name, although it is not difficult to guess that it is Azerbaijan’s capital Baku in which the writer used to live until his emigration to Israel in 1990. And here we can confidently draw a parallel with Joyce, for Goldstein does to Baku something similar to what the great Irish writer did to Dublin in Ulysses.

In case of this particular book, it is much easier for me to talk about the characters than about the action. They are a motley and exotic crew. First of all there is the narrator, most probably an alter-ego of Goldstein himself, who describes his youth in Baku and recent life in Tel-Aviv. Then there is Yashar-muallim, a wise old man who is said to have the dowsing powers. Besides that, he copies sacred texts, acts as a spiritual mentor and has taken part in an expedition whose goal was to capture dybbuks, evil spirits of Jewish mythology. Seeking to revive the Sufi doctrine of hurufism, Yashar-muallim tries to recruit one of his students as an assistant and squire. We also get to know the Orthodox priest and polymath Father Paisius who is sent “under the tusks of the Solovetsky SLON”, the latter acronym being identical to the Russian word for “elephant”: hence the pun. SLON stands for  Solovetsky Lager’ Osobogo Naznachenia, i.e “Solovki Special Purpose Camp”. Father Paisius manages to survive the hardships of the GULAG and finds solace in writing the history of onomatodoxy, a religious movement that gained currency in the beginning of the 20th century on Mount Athos. Of particular interest to me proved Jalil-the editor, a character based on the Azerbaijani  writer Jalil Huseyngulu oglu Mammadguluzadeh who founded the once famous satirical magazine Molla Nasraddin and stayed in charge of it until its closure in 1931. The passages relating his obsession with early German cinema bring to memory Siegfried Kracauer’s renowned study From Caligari to Hitler. I don’t know if it was possible in the Soviet Baku of the 1930s  to watch Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse in the movie theatres, but there is something fascinating in recognising the masterpieces of expressionist cinema through descriptions of Jalil’s movie-watching sprees. And, most notably, there is the Armenian gladiator Mger-Claudius Mgoyan. In the fifteenth chapter of the novel that can regarded as a set-piece we read an engrossing story about the construction of a modern Colosseum in Baku in the 1920s. Here I am more confident about the time because at some point the funeral of Rudolph Valentino is mentioned.  Mgoyan handpicks the best fighters for the arena, and for three weeks, every day the public watches in awe retiarii, secutores, murmillones and other types of gladiators conjured up from the ancient times clash in combat. There are, of course, other memorable characters, and quite a few of them are real historical personages, such as the Ottoman military leader Enver Pasha and the French philosopher Michel Foucault, but those I have mentioned should be enough to give you at least an idea of what kind of book it is.

The Cypriot city of Famagusta lost to Turkey as a result of the 1974 invasion does not necessarily  invoke  Baku, which the narrator “loses”  after his immigration, but rather the overall sense of loss experienced by millions of people caught between the millstones of major geopolitical  transformations that shaped the 20th century. Both the formation and the dissolution of a great empire inevitably entail for some losing their homeland, language, culture and even identity. However, in such processes, there are also creative forces at work. Cultural symbiosis and cross-pollination that take place when different peoples come into contact quite often give birth to new artistic and literary forms, new ways of looking at the world; staggering achievements in  arts and sciences can come about as a consequence.  Goldstein’s narrative accommodates both destructive and creative aspects inherent in the very notion of the empire, and therefore it is no wonder that some passages might repel and fascinate the reader at the same time.

Now, suppose this beast gets translated some day and you will have a chance to enter Goldstein’s world. When you finish the book, some of you will instantly want to read it a second time. My advice: wait at least for a month, let what little you have grasped settle in, because it would be too much to rush immediately into this maelstrom again.

If I wanted to sound glib, trite and lazy when asked  what reading Remember Famagusta feels like, I would most probably come up with something painfully formulaic like “imagine Pavic writing like Joyce with a dash of classical Persian poetry, Sufi mysticism and automatic writing”. That wouldn’t do justice to the book, of course. In reality, Goldstein writes like nobody else, and that is why he is one of the greatest writers of the 21st century, still not duly recognised and not even widely-known. But it’s not news to us: remember Melville, remember Gaddis. 

Update: If you can read German, you are in luck as Denk an Famagusta is forthcoming this April from Matthes & Seitz Berlin.

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