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Mikhail Shishkin: He has plundered the whole of Russian literature for his novel

e've been waiting a while for the work of Mikhail Shishkin, who won the Russian Booker in 2000, to reach the English language. His publishers describe The Light and The Dark as a novel. Shishkin describes it as a novel, but I don't think the term adequately prepares most readers for the experience.

I don't have any Russian, so I have to rely on what is translated to keep tabs on Russian fiction and what I see suggests that the "literary" writers are in a playful mood. Dimitry Bykov, Viktor Pelevin and Shishkin don't do tranche de vie, or to be scrupulously fair, Shishkin does do tranche de vie, he does it a lot, there are more tranches than you can shake a stick at in The Light and The Dark, but not presented in the way Zola does.

No one can accuse Shishkin of lack of ambition. The Light and The Dark is about, well, everything: cosmology, philology, anthropology, epistemology, phytology, oology. Any ology you'd care to name really. But it's a mistake to seek the narrative and character development you'd expect from a "conventional" novel; here themes and ideas are as much the protagonists as the two narrators. In a series of love-letters between Sashenka and Volodenka, Shishkin races back and forth through time, and the history of philosophy and literature pepper his work. As Sashenka puts it:

It has been demonstrated experimentally that there's something funny going on with time. Events can take place in any sequence and happen to anybody at all. It is possible to play a comb and tissue paper in the kitchen so that it tickles your lips and at the same time, in an entirely different kitchen, read a letter from someone who no longer exists.

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January 25th, 2014
11:01 AM
"As a novel it's closer to Finnegans Wake than Crime and Punishment," I would disagree with that as there is little of Joyce in The Light and the Dark. Shishkin's most Jocean novel is the untranslated The Capture of Ismail. But the most Joycean Russian writer is Alexander Goldstein who has written the mind-boggling Remember Famagusta

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