Suspend Your Disbelief

The Value of Naïveté: Shishkin’s Maidenhair in Russian and English
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The Value of Naïveté: Shishkin’s Maidenhair in Russian and English

"There is an experience it implies, a weary worldliness with which many writers aspire to imbue their characters."

Innocence and Experience

In a fancy San Francisco hotel, Mikhail Shishkin reads from his novel Венерин волос (Venerin volos), composed of the stories of Russian-speaking Gesuchstellers, refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland, about the horrors they’ve left behind. After Shishkin has read a passage in Russian, the translator of Maidenhair, Marian Schwartz, reads her English rendering. The Russian delivery sounded more sarcastic and jaded than the English, but maybe that was only a bit of posturing on Shishkin’s part, a slight tone of defiance and touch of cynicism in his voice—affectation for the American audience.

A Russian review of Maidenhair is even more sardonic: “In Switzerland, it’s not acceptable to rape men with a metal rod in the anus, drive a broken bottle into a woman’s vagina, so it’s not at all surprising that those whose lives consist of neverending violence and suffering make a mad dash there.”[1] This is the characteristic gallows humor of a culture with a history of suffering as vast as its motherland. The review describes the Russian character of the Gesuchstellers’ interpreter, who “has a Swiss passport, but his language is Russian; this circumstance as well as personal reminiscences, genetic memory, and knowledge of national history prevent the main character of the novel—and, probably, the author—from serenely enjoying any distance and safety.”

In her review of Maidenhair, Jessica Michalofsky chooses to define the novel as “the global, pan-historical, and intertextual collective conscious of a civilization.”[2] While it certainly has all of these qualities, the attribute that attracted me, in my innocence, to Shishkin’s novel, its characters, and to the Russian experience in general, was that cynicism. There is an experience it implies, a weary worldliness with which many writers aspire to imbue their characters.

In Maidenhair, the haunting trauma of a Russian background, exotic to most Americans, shapes characters’ lives, whether they are victims or perpetrators of violence. In contrast, Westerners in the novel make naïve attempt to “have” such experiences. Despite the suffering depicted in it, through this juxtaposition of cynicism and naïveté, experience and innocence, Maidenhair achieves a poignant beauty.

Torture Porn  

In Maidenhair much of the Gesuchstellers’ stories, told in Russian and translated into German for interviews with Swiss immigration authorities, is already lost in translation to any ear beyond the interpreter’s. Stuck with nowhere further to go, the refugee stories turn in on themselves and blend together, relating to one another like an inner dialogue: “Question: The story is the hand, and you’re the mitt. Stories change you, like mitts.” Through what Michalofsky defined as an intertextual comparison and threading of different voices and stories, those of today’s Gesuchstellers and those of the legion of history’s victims, the novel unifies and amplifies the experiences of its characters. The narrative indirectly compares persecuted Chechen villagers with the peasant victims of Vlad the Impaler, so that our concern for more recent Chechen victims extends pan-historically to include the peasants of the 15th century. Inversely, this concern transcends ethnic borders by including Muslims (20th century Chechens) as well as Christians (the peasant victims of Vlad the Impaler, lionized for protecting Europe from Muslim invaders). Perhaps Shishkin draws global parallels between oppressive regimes—be they voivodeships, Communist dictatorships, or even ancient democracies—in order to give insight leading to the prevention of future atrocities.

But if Maidenhair has humanitarian aims, why not depict violence directly with a more journalistic perspective? Instead the novel takes an oblique angle. Here is a dinner party scene in Zurich, where the host, the Russian interpreter, mentions a video of Chechen torture to his guests, Westerners who have the choice of whether to give their attention to the violence abroad. He does so because one guest, a Swiss dental technician, has attempted to define the Russia-Chechnya conflict, naïvely comparing Chechnya to Switzerland, since they’re both small countries. The dental tech asks to watch the video:

Their guests started insisting.

“Show us!”

The interpreter started pleading that it was really better not to because these frames had not been shown on television anywhere, even in Russia.

“All the more reason! Show us!”

The person who especially wanted to see what he shouldn’t was the dental tech. […]

After the first frames one of the guests stood up […]

Another one of the guests got up and silently left the room.

An old man calmly crossed himself for the camera and said, “They’re going to kill me now, and I want to say that I love you very much, Zhenechka, and you, Alyosha, and you, Vitenka!” […]

“Enough,” the dental tech said. “Turn it off!” (221-23).

I have elided descriptions of the horrors Danilkin ironically listed, those unacceptable in Switzerland, and left the depiction of how the guests have failed to witness the violence they so wanted to see. The Swiss dental tech’s eagerness betrays a desire to look, to peep, gawk, perhaps to possess knowledge of the violence—“to see what he shouldn’t,” as if he expected to watch torture porn.

This juxtaposition of the fortunate innocence of a Westerner against the brutal experience of a Russian defamiliarizes an American reader, a Westerner like the Swiss, with a plain or realistic depiction of torture, instead using an ekphrasis of it. The American reader may find himself reacting the way the Swiss dental tech does, witnessing a real instance of what Americans usually only experience as fiction in the torture porn of the movies. The desire involved with torture porn is the same—the viewer wants to see that which he is not supposed to in order to understand it, he believes. Once he sees it, he can feel that he has “had” that experience. He can be as jaded in his experience as the Russian. But the Swiss dental tech fails to watch what he shouldn’t. And even if he watched the whole video until the credits, he would not have had the experience he so craves. This “maturation” from naïveté to cynicism would not be the improvement he seeks.

Maidenhair later shows how a cynical attitude, gained through first-hand exposure to violence, can perpetuate the violence that invoked it. In another interview, a Russian soldier who served in Chechnya is asked whether he fired at children:

Answer: There’s no forgiving this. There he was standing wiping his snotty nose; his coat sleeve shiny to the elbow from snot. Just a kid still, but he knew it was us, the Russians, who’d killed his father. He’d grow up and take revenge. He wasn’t going to forgive us. He had nowhere to go. He had no choice. So we grabbed him, and in his pockets we found ten cartridges—all the bullets had filed tips. When a bullet like that hits a body, it acts like an explosive. This kid with the snot-shiny sleeves wasn’t going to grow up and fire at my son (279).

There’s no forgiving this. Defying easy moral judgment on the part of his questioner, the soldier justifies his act of murder. Inversely, the reason he gives for the child victim’s/killer’s motive is the death of that child’s father at the hands of Russian soldiers like himself. In the process of dehumanizing the child, the soldier enlists the human desire for revenge, betraying his own fears of the future of this cycle of violence. He then contributes to the cycle by preemptively killing the child to protect his own unborn son.

A charitable—perhaps naïve and probably English-language—reading may take the soldier’s there’s no forgiving this as an acknowledgment of guilt. A cynical reading—especially one shocked, and perhaps intrigued, by the soldier’s audacity—may accept his justification of the killing. Such a character may be the easier road for a writer: the soldier acts on impulse, his depth lies in the extent of his experience and the shock from what he has witnessed, rather than his inner life.

1072But the Russian original provides a more nuanced view of the soldier’s wavering conscience. The word translated as kid (“just a kid still”), пацан (patsan), has a more negative connotation than English accommodates. The difference is very slight, and kid is likely the closest translation. In a similar way to how American mainstream English has co-opted slang terms with older gangster connotations, пацан has a friendlier side to it in contemporary Russian, and the soldier might use it to address his comrades or those equal to him, not a boy but one of the boys. It would be interesting to ask the soldier whether he would refer to his own son as a пацан, the way an English-speaking parent might refer to his kid. This пацан is both equal to the soldier as a killer and just a boy, and the Russian word highlights the young soldier’s ambivalence. Пацан is probably too derogatory an epithet for the soldier’s unborn son, perhaps more than kid alone can connote. He is a sniveling kid, a snot-nosed little punk, a thug, labels that help the soldier to distance himself from the fact that he killed a child.

“Slipping By”

If only the soldier would think of the child as innocent—but he would dismiss such hope as naïve, something that only happens in fantasies, in novels. This is the value of naïveté: it would allow the soldier to rehumanize the child and to escape the cycle of violence. Such a sea change in one’s personality is difficult to undertake, even with a fictional character. Once he has taken the path the soldier has, it’s difficult to redevelop him as naïvely hopeful. Izabella Yur’eva, the real Russian chanteuse whose fictionalized diary makes up large sections of Maidenhair, recounts a cynical character explaining why he loves the ancient Greek author Xenophon: “Imagine, how many people have slipped by (that’s what he said, slipped by, it has an unpleasant ring!), and these Greeks held on because he wrote them down” (294). If only those who “slipped by,” murdered by mercenaries or soldiers, could have been characters in a text written by Xenophon, they would have become immortal. The naïve attitude behind this cavalier thought could be the pinnacle of cynicism. It’s in the very phrase slipping by that the cynic uses to describe the fates of history’s victims.

As if taking this metanarrative comment for a suggestion, Maidenhair itself moves into a pastiche of Xenophon’s writing, in which the ancient Greek author describes the Soviets’ roundup of Chechen villagers accused of collaboration with the Fascists. The Soviets corral the villagers into a stable and set fire to it. When those inside panic and try to escape, the soldiers machine-gun them and eventually throw grenades to “put a speedy end to it.” To disclaim any sympathy from the reader, Xenophon introduces and immediately dismisses a list of those burned: “Here are the names, but you don’t have to read them. Just turn the page.” The list, in epic fashion, goes on for two full pages and includes names and ages from a few days to 110 years old (305). He highlights the list’s failure to immortalize the victims, while the list itself stands as stark contrast to contemporary reckonings of this kind. By giving the names and ages of the victims, Xenophon’s fictional list gives more recognition to those who have “slipped by” than today’s journalism provides in its statistics, an answer to the infamous quip often attributed to Joseph Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions—a statistic.”

In Maidenhair such a singular tragedy punctuates this list of the dead in a poignant description of one individual: “Also perishing—Xenophon continues his story—was Pailakha Alimkhodzhayeva. I don’t know how old she was; she too was killed in Khaibakh. When the soldiers left, the local residents who had escaped to the mountains recognized her body from her unburned braid. Her sister kept the braid all these years. Even now it lies somewhere, that braid” (308). The memory of this human being remains—for those who knew her, at least—because of an object, her braid. But even with the braid, without the story of what happened to Pailakha and others like her, the memory will slip by.

The surviving Chechen villagers come down from the mountain and warm themselves by the Greek soldiers’ fire. They too have come to the Sea of Thalassa, the sea of immortality (294), instead of slipping by. The more recent suffering of the Chechens, at the hands of soldiers, has traveled through time and space to unite with perpetrators from a text so old that no contemporary reader will have any living memory of the atrocities it contains, or the victims of those atrocities. Maybe collective memory has to return to a naïve state of ignorant innocence, in which nobody needs revenge, since nobody remembers what or whom they’ve lost.

If this is so, then writing novels works in the opposite direction. Maidenhair begins to let its own air out. Shishkin reminds the reader that all of this is still nothing but words, a function of language, limited and inanimate: “And you can’t go there, beyond the words” (441-2). The irony of reading this in a novel itself is not lost on Maidenhair’s narrator: “Here I am writing this line, and my life is longer by these letters, but the life of whoever is now reading them is shorter” (442). The great task of an author to immortalize poor ordinary human beings, those who are slipping by, becomes reduced to a writer’s ego trip, a preservation of nothing more than the author’s words at the reader’s expense.

The Bungler

Such cynicism on the part of the writer can turn into a withdrawal from the world. The Russian interpreter leaves his interviews in Zurich to vacation in Rome, where he meets his former teacher, Galpetra[3]. To the interpreter’s question, “Why did [you] love us while we hated you?” Galpetra’s response demonstrates a weathered teacher’s wisdom: “You loved me, too, you just didn’t know” (485). The little Russians thought they were tough guys, but this false sense of cynicism was naïve. The cynic’s reconciliation with naïveté is really only a revelation about himself.

In an interview in Russia Beyond the Headlines, Shishkin said, “From Tolstoy I learned not to be afraid of being naïve.” Maybe it’s really an exposure to naïveté in the West that has inspired him[4] to tell the stories of those who might otherwise have slipped by. If naïveté has checked his Russian cynicism, it’s through the character of Galpetra that Shishkin checks himself. Galpetra takes red ink to Maidenhair’s verbal mischief and myriad references, connections, and interweavings: “You always mixed everything up! You’re a bungler. The Laocoön is one thing, and Korczak something completely different. An emperor can’t be a philosopher, and a philosopher can’t be an emperor. […] The ancient Greeks are one, the Chechens another” (486). This baroque list of references is a partial summing up of the content of the novel, a reductive paraphrase of the beautiful “mix-up” that Shishkin has accomplished with Maidenhair. And Galpetra is commenting on the novel itself, addressing the interpreter as if he were its author.

Despite all her cynicism, Galpetra is able to do what the interpreter is not: she’s able to forgive. She knew her naïve pupils used to put signs on her back—she let them do so. About the interpreter’s wife, from whom he became estranged after the torture-porn dinner party, Galpetra says, “…in the Vatican, […] they were collecting money for lepers and all around were posters with photographs of children and adults without fingers and toes […] She turned away, too, so as not to look” (486). Galpetra tells us that nobody is exempt and that not only must you look, but you must forgive yourself for not looking. Not only must you admit, with cynicism, that this world is not good, but you must forgive your own naïveté, as well as that of others, for hoping that it was.

Running of the Jews


Mikhail Shishkin

If anything remains of those who have slipped by, it’s in Russian’s vast wealth of folk sayings. Coming to the end of the novel, the narrative has become a solid block of these, including several palindromes (453). Here Marian Schwartz truly took on a superhuman task, and her work shines. Among the folk sayings are anti-Semitic slurs, which lead into the folk pastime of a “running of the Jews” in medieval Rome. A lone Jew, also an Oroch, a member of the indigenous Tungusic peoples of distant Eastern Siberia, whose “ransom” no one in the crowd will pay, stands stripped before his family. His family members have the same Russian names called out by one of the victims in the Chechen torture video from earlier in Maidenhair. His persecutors beat the Oroch as he runs, until he falls and sees somebody else running, as if in his place, another who is “kaput.” He asks who the Other is, no Jew he’s ever seen in Rome, to which the Other answers: “You cannot know me because I died long ago, whereas you are still alive. I seem familiar to you because we are all made in his image and likeness: hands, feet, and pickle, but the soul, like the body, smells like itself and its food…” When the Oroch says, “But you aren’t a Jew!”[5]  the Other responds, “Don’t you know that in the kingdom of King Mateusz there is no Hellene, there is no Jew?” (501-2)

The Jew is Oroch and Russian and Roman. Mateusz—the Polish version of Matthew—refers to the children’s book King Matthew the First by Janusz Korczak, the writer and pediatrician and victim of the Nazis[6]. The novel mentions Korczak earlier alongside the hero Laocoön, who died with his sons. It’s possible to read the Other standing in for the Jew as a child’s naïve fantasy in the face of humanity’s failure. A cynical adult can say that the victim is still a victim, dead already. Imagining that one can stand in for another, that all are one and the same, is naïve and requires the naïveté of childhood. A cynical perpetrator of violence like the soldier in Chechnya will deny naïve childhood and claim he must stand his ground, use cynicism as reason to commit more atrocities. It’s easier to forgive a child’s naïve hope than a cynic’s reductive violence.

Shishkin entertains this naïve, child’s illusion of the power of literature in Maidenhair, perhaps not simply to “raise awareness” of but to lend a voice to those who have slipped by, to compare and broadcast their stories, and even try to forgive and understand perpetrators of violence. At least, that’s what an American reader can take away from the book. A Russian reader may have a different outlook. Hopefully, the Russian can forgive the American his naïveté.


[1] Danilkin, Lev. «Венерин волос». My translation. Афиша. July 13, 2005. Section “Книга”. Accessed August 13, 2013.

[2] Michalofsky, Jessica. “Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin”. Bookslut. January 1, 2013. Section “Fiction”. Accessed July 25, 2013.

[3] Her name has been agglutinated from Galina Petrovna behind her back by the interpreter and other little terrors like him.

[4] Whether it served as inspiration or not, Shishkin’s time living abroad was the reason Russian authorities gave to explain his unpatriotic refusal to represent his fatherland in the US Book Expo.

[5] An interesting biographical parallel may inform this passage. Through documents from a Nazi prison camp during World War II, Shishkin discovered that the Gestapo, mistaking him for a Jew, killed the writer’s uncle, Boris (see Kholmogorova interview).

[6] Janusz Korczak was the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, who despite several opportunities to escape the Nazi concentration camp remained with the Jewish orphans under his care in the Warsaw ghetto and perished with them at Treblinka.

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