Book review: The Light and the Dark, by Mikhail Shishkin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 4:51pm

The Light and the Dark
by Mikhail Shishkin (translated by Andrew Blomfield)
4 stars

Phoebe Taplin

Mikhail Shishkin is arguably Russia's greatest living novelist and the only writer so far to win all three major Russian book prizes. He recently refused to take part in an official delegation to an American book fair on the grounds that he did not want to represent a country where "power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime".

Shishkin's writing is richly textured and innovative, and his themes are universal: love and death, pain and happiness, war and peace.

His British publishers have called his latest novel The Light and the Dark. The Russian title, Pismovnik, means something like "Letter-book". The novel comprises a series of letters between a man and a woman: the man, Vovka, is fighting a distant, brutal war; the woman, Sasha, writes from the home front. Her engaging tales of childhood, love and work are poignant snapshots of life in a Soviet city that are anything but random.

Vovka's letters also recall the past, but often he is mired in the unignorable present, involving soldiers of many nationalities marching through drought, disease and bloodshed in northern China. One of Shishkin's recurrent themes is the endlessness of conflict. The letters, variously tender and brutal, are subtly interlinked through shared imagery and allusions.

Sasha's life involves the trams and aerodromes of the later 20th century, but Vovka's gruesome military accounts suggest the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Towards the end, he rephrases Hamlet - "The time will be back in joint when we meet again and I put my head on your knees" - and she refers to scientific discoveries about the unstable nature of time, "heaped up like thick porridge".

Both sets of letters converge on the legends of Prester John, the mythical eastern king. His fantastical kingdom of "mute cicadas and imperishable people" was part of the medieval tradition of a mirror in which the whole world was reflected. Shishkin's novels are an extension of this tradition.

Guardian News & Media


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