It is someone’s job to listen to the atrocities suffered and witnessed by refugees and decide whether or not that person is lying. Whether that person will be granted amnesty, or whether that person will be sent back into the landscape they had just escaped. In Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, this is Peter’s job. He took over after the woman who held the job before him became too credulous, believing every horrible story of torture, rape, and murder, lying awake at night unable to stop picturing them all, and granting asylum to everyone.
So now Peter must listen to these tales, even as they grow more and more fantastical, and suss out through tiny details the frauds from the genuine victims. The stories blend in Peter’s mind with stories he reads about ancient Persian wars, and the stories he writes to his absent son.
I spoke with Shishkin as he traveled around Europe – first from Berlin, then from France, then from Helsinki, then back in Berlin – as we discussed frauds and crooks, the benefits of living in exile, and why the liars will win in the end.
The interviews about the atrocities suffered and the refugees who were making their stories up reminded me so much of the phenomenon of faked Holocaust memoirs, and how credulous we all are about them. Raised by wolves during the Holocaust? Sure, why not. Definitely probably happened. But then which of the two interviewers is more moral? The woman who accepts every story she hears, and has to quit her job because she can't stop thinking about all of the pain and suffering her subjects went through? Or the man who keeps trying to trip up the storyteller and find the lies in the story?
Dealing with people asking for asylum is a very difficult subject. Sure, not all of them are political refugees. In Russia if you don’t pay your debts you could easily be shot down by your business partners. Or your children will be tortured. Such people and their families are really in danger, but to get the asylum they have to lie and pretend that they were politically persecuted. Wouldn’t you lie to save your children?
The problem is that it is impossible to help all people. The Swiss say about their country: The boat is full. As a good Christian you must throw the life preserver to all drowning people. But as an official representative of a legal state you must throw the saving life preserver only to the political refugees and let others drown. Anyway, in reality the quota decides everything: just a limited number of applications is to be approved every year.
How did the stories that the refugees told in your novel grow to be so fantastical, incorporating children’s stories and legends and fairy tales?
That is actually the crucial point of art. The records with all true and fake stories will disappear in the archives of the “Defense Ministry of Paradise.” All these people will disappear together with their stories as all real things will disappear. Our reality is just the exterminating machine for feelings, said words, objects, human bodies.
But the author could stop this eliminating by transforming our mortal reality into another one where there is no death. This created “fantastical” reality has more chances to survive than three of us: you asking these questions, me answering them and our reader.
The bureaucrat seems like an unlikely protagonist for great literature, and yet others have certainly used him before. Peter seems like a natural protagonist. He, after all, is deciding what the true story is, what the real history of an event was. Which stories need to be discarded.
I wouldn’t agree that bureaucrats are not fit for great protagonists. In Russian literature we have some bureaucrats who could be our literary Founding Fathers. Take, for example, Akaky Akakievich, the famous clerk from Gogol’s “Overcoat.” Bureaucratic way of thinking means that the regulations and instructions distinguish the good from the evil. But a human being distinguishes this with the heart. This contradiction reinforces the narrative.
Switzerland is such a metaphorically heavy country, given its history of neutrality, but also its darker history of profiting from the conflict that surrounded it. Was the setting of the novel in Switzerland coincidental, because of your own experience there, or did the nation come to represent something else to you in the story?
I didn’t choose Switzerland. It so happened that my former wife turned out to be Swiss. We married in Moscow and lived there some years, but then she became pregnant and it was difficult for her to be with the baby in the middle of Russian exoticism. So we went to Switzerland, but it was not emigration, just a family matter.
I think every person must one day leave his or her country and spend some years abroad because this is the best way to understand yourself and the country where you were born. And appreciate your own language, that is very important if you are damned to be a writer, which means you are imprisoned by the words of your native language and you never know what exactly will be lost in translation.
Compared to Russia, Switzerland is a very boring country. No war wounds, no bloodsheds. But people still die everywhere, even in Switzerland. It makes the mutual understanding of all people on the earth possible.
You are living in Berlin, is that correct? And currently in Helsinki. What is the peculiar experience of living as a writer in a foreign tongue, when you are creating a fictional world in one language but living your day-to-day life in another language?
I live between Moscow, Switzerland and Berlin. The Finnish translation of my recent novel Pismovnik came out in Helsinki, so I spent there just two days filled with interviews and book presentations. This book will appear in March in an English translation by Quercus in Great Britain under the almost “Tolstoyan” title The Light and the Dark.
Living abroad is the best way to understand yourself and your background. If a Russian author lives in Switzerland, he can see Switzerland and his own reflection. How can you live your whole life without once looking in the mirror? Observing from a different perspective helps you understand your own country and yourself.
The everyday language in Russia has been changing very quickly in the last years as the everyday life has. But what sounds fresh today will stink rotten tomorrow. As a writer you must make a choice: try to catch up with the slang or create your own language that will be fresh and alive always, even after you pass. My “exile” helped me to realize that I should make the right choice. I think my experience living outside Russia somehow makes my books more readily accessible to non-Russians. Several Russian generations in the 20th century spent their lifetime in jail. They developed their own way of thinking and speaking. The leakproof prison reality gave birth to a very special subculture. And Western readers cannot identify themselves with Russian exotica. It is time not to rummage in exotic Russian problems but rather writing about the “human being” to bring Russia back to the world. Russian literature is worth it.