Reading Roulette

Mikhail Shishkin

This is it, friends—the last round of our Reading Roulette series of contemporary Russian literature in translation, with one shot left in the chamber. But we’ve saved the best for last.

Photo credit: Evgeniya Frolkova.

It’s cheesy to save the best for last, we know, but this guy’s bullet is a triple threat.

Mikhail Shishkin is the only Russian author (ahem, that I know of) who has scored the hat trick—all three of Russia’s top literary laurels. He won the Russian Booker for The Taking of Izmail, the Big Book Award for Letter-Book, and the National Bestseller for Maidenhair, an excerpt from which you will find below.

Cheer too loudly and Shishkin will hush you: “No award has ever made a book better.” But don’t confuse this for aw-shucks modesty. Shishkin sees his critical accomplishment as “proof that I was right not to compromise.”

Read on for a lesson in pedagogical immaculate conception. And don’t skip the musings on good, evil, and bureaucracy that follow in the Q&A.



From Maidenhair, published by Open Letter, translation © Mariam Schwartz, 2012. Used with permission.

In the wee hours the interpreter woke up bathed in sweat and with a pounding heart: he had dreamed of Galina Petrovna—except the boys all called her Galpetra, out of sheer meanness—and it had all come back to him—the lesson, the blackboard, as if all these decades lived had never been. He lay there looking at the brightening ceiling and returned to himself, clutching at his heart. 

Why be afraid of her now?

And what exactly was in your dream? You forget right away and are left with just your schoolboy fear.

It’s a nasty feeling, too. You never know what empire you’re going to wake up in or who as.

The interpreter had switched off the computer but now he turned it back on to write down how he’d tossed and turned, unable to fall asleep, and how he’d remembered Galina Petrovna leading us on a field trip to Ostankino, to the Museum of Serf Art. It was still September, but the first snow had fallen, and the Apollo Belvedere was standing in the middle of a circular, snow-covered lawn. We were firing snowballs at him. Everyone wanted to hit where the leaf was, but no one could, and then Galpetra shouted at us and we started our field trip to the museum. I remember the echo in the cold dark rooms hung with time-blackened pictures. Reflections from the windows flowed over the waxed parquet like ice floes. We glided as if we were on a skating rink, in the oversized felt slippers we put on directly over our boots, and we stepped on each other’s heels, so whoever was walking ahead of you would fall. Galpetra hissed at us and doled out clips to the back of the head. I see her as if it were today, the dark mustache at the edges of her mouth, in her violet wool suit, white knit mohair cap, and winter boots with the zipper half down so that her feet wouldn’t get too funky, with museum slippers that resembled Lapp snowshoes over them. From the guide’s stories I remember that if a serf ballerina danced badly in the theater, then her skirt was ripped off and she was thrashed in the stables. Doubtless I remembered it because of that: her skirt was ripped off. I also remember how they did thunder. If they needed thunder during the play, they would sprinkle peas down the top of a huge wooden pipe. This attraction was part of the excursion, and someone invisible at the top sprinkled a packet of peas into the pipe. But I remember the field trip mainly because someone whispered to me that our Galpetra was pregnant. This seemed so impossible to me at the time, so unimaginable, that our ageless, mustachioed teacher could get pregnant. After all, for that to happen, what happened between a man and woman—a woman, not our Galpetra!—would have to happen. I looked closely at the stomach of the old maid, who fought so fervently in school against mascara and eye shadow, and noticed nothing. Galpetra was just as fat as ever. I didn’t want, simply couldn’t, believe it. After all, there’s no such thing as immaculate conception, but I was convinced by these words: “The whole school already knows she’s going on maternity leave.” So we were standing there listening to peas being transformed into peals of distant thunder, while something inexplicable was growing inside Galpetra, and out the window, through the snowfall, you could see the Ostankino television center, and the Apollo Belvedere was walking toward it through the snow without leaving tracks.

At first, he didn’t realize that something was wrong with this huge building, where it was always quiet. He only noticed that he never heard children’s voices. Then he noticed that there were only one-room apartments here and only old people lived in them. They seemed like decrepit walking stockings and socks.

This Tungus morning, the interpreter chanced to wake up as an interpreter in a one-room apartment across from the cemetery. Maybe that was why the rent was cheap. Green as green could be. Finely drawn, fizzy, feathery. And since morning, everywhere, not only in the next apartment, the radio reported the murders and robberies of the previous night in a brisk voice. You didn’t notice the crematorium right away. It looked like someone’s villa on the hillside. And there was never smoke, although they operated indefatigably, as everyone here was expected to. It was all in the filters. They were installed in the chimney to keep from sullying the rain.

I’ve already written about the squirrel running along the fence.

For a long time my neighbors were nowhere to be seen. Just their linen. They did their laundry in the basement, where there were several washing machines. The machines were almost always in use, and laundered socks, old ladies’ darned stockings, and prewar drawers awaited their bodies on lines in the drying rooms.

Until what war?

The interpreter thought there was something strange about this building when he came here the year before—no, it was a year and a half now. At first, he didn’t realize that something was wrong with this huge building, where it was always quiet. He only noticed that he never heard children’s voices. Then he noticed that there were only one-room apartments here and only old people lived in them. They seemed like decrepit walking stockings and socks.

The interpreter got a little apartment on the first floor, with a door that let out on the lawn, where there was always something lying on the ground. Right now the grass was stirring under the drops, and a tube of Colgate was getting wet under his window.

He could hear but not see his neighbors to the left and right. The one on the left kept whistling to his key so it would whistle back. The one on the right was talkative. He chirped to himself like a bird. He went around at night in long johns and a T-shirt, winter and summer. One day the interpreter was getting home very late, around two in the morning, and his neighbor was sweeping the path. 

The toothpaste was from the seventh floor. In the first few days after he moved in, various items started falling on the lawn right in front of his window—but it wasn’t garbage. One time a telephone fell, then sets of sheets, then a radio, food items, ladles, openers, office supplies, different notepads, a box of staples, envelopes. Not every day. Sometimes nothing would fly for a week and then you look—scissors. The interpreter collected it all in black garbage bags, and anything useful he simply pocketed. If it fell from the sky, it was lost. In his desk drawer lay those heaven-sent pencils, glue, and scissors. The interpreter simply could not understand who was throwing all this or why. Then one windy day the lawn was covered in dropped sheets of white paper, as if fall had come to a paper tree. They turned out to be ballots. After all, they had referendums here at the drop of a hat. And indicated on these ballots were a name and address. Where: to the best of all possible worlds, to whom: Frau Eggli. The interpreter went out to look at the list of residents’ names and everything fell into place. Frau Eggli lived directly above him on the seventh floor. He went upstairs and rang her doorbell. Who knew, there could just have been a draft and all her papers were blown off her windowsill. He just wanted to return them. No one opened for a long time. The interpreter was about to go away when he heard a shuffling inside. Finally the door cracked open. First his nose was struck by the smell, but then in the darkness the interpreter made out an 800-year-old lady. He was actually amazed that so much smell could come from such a wizened creature. He apologized and started explaining about the ballots, that they had fallen, he said, and he had brought them up. She was silent. He asked, checking the plaque by her doorbell one more time, “Sie sind ja Frau Eggli, oder?1 She mumbled, “Nein, das bin i nöd!"2 and she slammed the door. No is no. Maybe she was switched at birth. And from time to time something fell from above.

Before this the interpreter had lived in another building, and not alone, with his wife and son. And it came to pass that his wife was now someone else’s wife. This can happen in our empire, and in every other one, too. It’s nothing special.

Over the telephone the interpreter asked his son each time, “How’re you doing?”

And he always answered, “Fine.”

For Christmas, when the interpreter called to find out whether he liked the present he’d sent, a young magician’s set, his son said, “Everyone else only gets presents from one papa, but I get them from two! Isn’t that great?”

“Yes, it is,” the interpreter replied.

His son also sent him amusing letters from time to time with pictures included. One time he invented his own country and drew a map.

The interpreter pinned the map to his wall.


Elizabeth Kiem: The role of the interpreter is meant to be literal, yet Maidenhair is all about subverting the literal meaning of words to impart them with sub-meaning and motivation. You worked as an interpreter for Russian asylum-seekers yourself. Was it difficult for you, as a person who reads so deeply into individuals, to separate these “interpretations” in real time?

Mikhail Shishkin: The novel recounts some of my work as an interpreter. Asylum-seekers from the former Soviet Union arrive in Switzerland, and I translate their interrogations (or, to be politically correct, “interviews”). They tell only horror stories, and you are tossed from one fateful story to the next. Before your eyes, this fate is pronounced with words and is decided. Someone says something of importance, something from which hangs a life, and I translate—that is, I turn fate into words. I worked with a translator who resigned because, as she told me, when she came home at night she couldn’t escape the stories she had heard that day—stories about a plainclothes policeman pulling out a child’s fingernails. The story was probably made up. But the child’s mangled fingers were real. For a mother, it makes no difference whether her son was tortured because his father is a political dissident or an unlucky businessman. In Russia, if you do not pay the bribes your business partners don’t take you to court—they resolve it more directly. They might kill you as an example, or they might torture your child. These are people who flee to save their families, and they have to lie. Who’s not ready to lie to save their children? The Swiss say: Das Boot ist voll—the boat is full. And it’s true, the tiny country can’t take all comers. By law, you can only throw a line to political refugees, and the rest should drown. In the end, the quota system rules: only a certain number of applicants are accepted per year. In the novel, this dividing line becomes a metaphor: the bureaucrat Peter Fisher is met at the gates of Heaven by everyone who wants to bare their soul and tell their story of what has happened to them. But the gates are shut tight.

At the dawn of the third millennium, we can and should live everywhere.

EK: How did you come to live in Switzerland? Have you embraced it as your home, or is it a temporary resting place? Is it a good distance from which to reflect on Russia?

MS: I wound up in Switzerland because my former wife was Swiss. In Russia (and in all the world) Switzerland is considered a boring country. What can you write about a country without war, revolution, tyranny? But a true writer will always find something–particularly in a country that is considered a world leader in suicide. I think everyone should live abroad for some period of time for his own growth—writers particularly. It gives you the chance to see yourself from the periphery—to see your country, your people, your history, and culture—in short, to see yourself as if in the reflection of a mirror. Now I live between Moscow, Berlin, and Switzerland. At the dawn of the third millennium, we can and should live everywhere.

EK: Do you see yourself returning to Russia to live? Does the present political situation dissuade you?

MS: I’m often in Moscow—I lived there all of 2010. The new political situation is simultaneously depressing and encouraging. Everyone wants to have pride in his homeland. But what is there to be proud of in Russia? The fact that Russia has returned to the middle ages from the 21st century? But I feel that the protest movement is maturing, and I am sure that a huge change awaits us in the near future.

EK: The role of bureaucratic procedure is tangible in all of your work. Russia of course has an innate, often parodic emphasis on bureaucracy, while Switzerland has its own reputation for strict adherence to red tape. What is your level of comfort with institutional protocol, procedure, international law?

MS: A bureacrat’s lifestyle is particular in that the criteria for good and evil are embodied as instructions. Everything is formulated in advance, and the triumph of good over evil just requires following the rules. Yet a normal person knows in his heart what is good and what is bad, and that rarely corresponds with bureaucratic protocol. This confusion, in which good and evil does not accord with the proscripted good and bad, is what sets this novel on its course. In general, the riddle of good and evil has always been and will always be the fuel of literature.

EK: Maidenhair is a book as much about listening as it is about telling. Do you ever fear that the reader is not listening as closely to the voices in your story as you—the writer, interpreter, and transcriber—are?

MS: When I read I tell myself this: no compromises for the publisher, no compromises for the reader. I write for my ideal reader. This is the only condition that allows me to finish a book. Of course when you don’t compromise, at the end of the day you risk being left all alone with your ideal reader—just you and the guy in the mirror. But I’m lucky enough to have found my reader in reality. The reading process is like a blood transfusion. I am sharing the most important essence of life with my reader. But we need to have the same blood type.

The reading process is like a blood transfusion. I am sharing the most important essence of life with my reader. But we need to have the same blood type.

EK: You speak and read German and English fluently. Do you also read the translations of your work in these languages, and if so, is it a bit like listening to your recorded voice—you and yet not you?

MS: I truly got the essence of literary translation when the London publisher Quercus send me three sample translations of my novel The Dark and the Light. Three different translators tackled the same excerpt and didn’t use a single phrase in common! And not because one translator was better than another—just because three different people translated it from three different life experiences, tastes, world outlooks. If each of them had translated the novel in entirety, there would have been three different books. 

My work has been translated into 25 languages. My favorite are those that I have no familiarity with, like Japanese and Finnish. When I work directly with translators in German or English, I’m seized with a strange sensation: the words translate but my Russian reader doesn’t. I can help a translator by explaining how a Russian reader would understand certain things, but beyond tha boundaries of the Russian world, I need to leave the translator to battle his language mano a mano, just as I do. No one knows who will be the winner in this battle. 

EK: Questions about literary prizes are always a bit tacky, but could you tell us how scoring the first “hat trick”—all 3 of Russia’s major literary prizes—affected your writing?

MS: No award has ever made a book better or worse. I’ve already said that I write only for my ideal reader and an award is justification that I was correct not to compromise. A good print run is evidence that my book has found its ideal reader. I’m lucky because I’ve been able to find words that are important not for me alone. I think there are only two important prizes in the world, and you can’t recieve them from a jury: the first is when a novel first comes to you; the second is when you write that novel to its final period.


  1. Aren’t you Mrs. Eggli? (Ger.)
  2. No, that’s not me! (Swiss Ger.)

TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem