Thursday, 23 May 2013

'The Light and The Dark' by Mikhail Shishkin (Review)

After reading (and loving) Maidenhair a while back, I was keen to try more of Mikhail Shishkin's work, hoping that another book would appear in English.  I was pleasantly surprised then when the kind people at MacLehose (well, Quercus, actually) sent me a review copy of another of his novels, his most recent translation into English.  In some ways it's a very similar book to Maidenhair - however, in others it's very different...

The Light and the Dark (translated by Andrew Bromfield) is an epistolary novel (written in letters) between Sasha and Volodenka, a pair of young lovers who have been parted.  As Sasha talks about everyday life and reminisces about her childhood, Volodenka writes about his experiences in the army, on the march to China to help crush the Boxer Rebellion.  The Boxer Rebellion?  That happened at the turn of the twentieth century - hang on a minute...

That's right.  You see, unlike Australia Post (who can struggle to locate a sturdy letter box with a large number painted on it) the Russian postal service seems to be able to work in four dimensions.  Sasha appears to be living in modern times, and moves further on in life as each letter goes by.  On the other hand, Volodenka's side of the story takes place over a matter of hot, sticky, blood-drenched months.  Is there any hope for two people separated by space and time?  Well, I'm sure love will find a way ;)

Anyone expecting a story reminiscent of the Hollywood movie The Lake House is barking up the wrong tree though, and those who have already experienced Shishkin's work, in the form of Maidenhair, will have guessed that there is a lot more to The Light and The Dark than a cheesy tale of star-crossed lovers.  In fact, the two writers barely acknowledge each other's letters, leading us to suspect that their missives aren't really reaching their destination after all.  If we attempt to make sense of the story, it would be tempting to surmise that perhaps Sasha is pining after a lost love, a soldier who died long ago...

...but the plot, as you may already have suspected, is of little consequence here.  The story is merely a canvas upon which Shishkin can sketch out his theories on time and relationships.  It's a book of childhood memories and stories of the past in which the two protagonists open up about their formative years.  Both Sasha and Volodenka have a lot to say about their relationships with their parents and the effect that marriage break-ups had on their childhood.  However, a more prominent theme is a circular return to their parents, this time in the role of carers, later in life.  For Shishkin, dealing with death is an important part of life:
"It's very important for people when their dear ones leave them.  That's a gift too.  It's the only way they can understand anything about life.  The death of the people we love, people dear to us, is a gift that can help us understand the important reason why we are here."
p.243 (Quercus Books, 2013)
It's a lesson Sasha and Volodenka are to learn in different ways.

As much as the book talks about death though, the two main characters also grow to understand the importance of embracing life.  Caught in the middle of a horrific conflict, Volodenka discovers the joy of life and a desperate wish not to die.  What he is yet to realise (and what Sasha discovers over the course of the novel) is that it is your body which drags you down, pulling you closer to death:
"Do you know what made me feel afraid the first time?  When I was fourteen or fifteen - it was a realisation that suddenly hit me: My body is dragging me into the grave.  Every day, every moment.  Every time I breathe in and breathe out.
Isn't that alone already a good enough reason to hate it?" (p.183)
But then, the body is also used to enjoy life - as we see in other parts of the book...

Just as in Maidenhair, the writer uses his characters to discuss the nature of time, refuting the idea of linear progress.  One metaphor used is that of a book already written, meaning that life is little more than acting out what has already been put down in black and white.  However, other people may read those lines at different times, causing those caught in the action to experience a feeling of déjà vu (no, me neither...).  In any case, physical objects like coins or letters link everything together, present, future and past connected to a vanishing point in time...

I enjoyed The Light and The Dark, but I'd have to say that it's not as awe-inspiring as Maidenhair.  It took me a while to get into the book, especially as the first letters seemed to make up little more than a he-said, she-said work.  At one point, I found myself agreeing with Sasha:
"I'm lying here contemplating my own navel.
 What a wonderful occupation!" (p.52)
While it was all well written and interesting, over the first half of the book I didn't feel too inspired to rush back after finishing a section.  In a sense, the lack of a strong plot and the episodic nature of the structure meant that I was treating it more like a collection of short stories than a novel...  Eventually though, The Light and The Dark did win me over, especially as the two lovers drifted further apart.  The further you advance into Shishkin's deceptively-light prose, the more you understand what he is trying to do. 

Genius or merely a good writer?  I'm not quite convinced yet that Shishkin is the next-big-thing he's been touted as.  Which is not to say that he's a one-hit wonder, quite the contrary; this is definitely a writer you'll hear more of in the future.  If you haven't already, perhaps it's time to get on board the bandwagon :)

P.S. For anyone interested in sampling some of Shishkin's other work, Dwight, of A Common Reader, shared some links to online stories in the course of his posts on a Shishkin podcast.  In the Q&A session held at San Francisco's Center for the Art of Translation, Scott Esposito chatted to Shishkin and the American translator of Maidenhair, Marian Schwartz.  Anyone interested in Shishkin's work should check out the interview - and read the stories, of course ;)