Volodenka is a soldier at war in northern China at the turn of the 20th century. His lifeline is a woman called Sasha, with one brown eye and one green, who lives in Russia in the near-present.
Ostensibly, the novel takes the form of correspondence between the two, as with Aidan Higgins’ Bornholm Night-Ferry, although in this case, actual meetings are absent, the letters interlinking only through the subtlety of shared imagery and allusions.
As much as this book is about simply being alive, it is also about memory and nostalgia. Suffering in sweltering heat, Volodenka thinks of winter in Russia, and longs to ‘gulp in the frosty air with my mouth. To hear my footsteps crunching across a crust of ice… to see the icy glacier under a drainpipe.’
Throughout, recollections overlay present events. As Volodenka tells Sasha, reality is multifaceted, like stars, which are visible to us, yet come from an earlier time, while we, seeing them, exist in another.
Although there is no clear narrative, the reader is presented with patterns: a mother, watching her child, remembers her own childhood. An ailing, ill parent becomes a child again. There are absent, dead or replaced fathers. There are love affairs, friendships. There is the body, its beauty and its ageing. Marriage and infidelities.
While Sasha and Volodenka live in different times, they share aspects of these human experiences.
Occasionally I found the book too bloodily savage. But while I found there were times long descriptions become tiring, the heightened, often poetic, language was a pleasure.
The book’s strength is in the particulars of individual recollections, particularly Sasha’s, and the minutiae of daily life that become more and more meaningful.
In the most emotionally powerful letter, she imagines the thoughts of the woman whose husband has left her, to live with Sasha. ‘How does he caress the other one?’ Volodenka’s letters reveal both a sensuality and a desperation. What drives him most of all, is recording everything: ‘Unless life is transformed into words, there will be nothing.’ The letters become our own, the stories of our existence: ‘There are no letters that are someone else’s.’
In spite of witnessing macabre scenes, Volodenka retains his humanity, understanding why soldiers keep rats as pets in their pockets: having something to care for keeps their compassion alive.
Shishkin’s greatest strength is in the lack of separation between self and world in his writing. Credit also has to go to the translator, Andrew Bromfield, for evoking the masculine and feminine so effectively in this ambitious book.
In particular, it is the way Shishkin creates a prism, refracting and re-combining the spectrum of human possibilities, that makes this book so exciting. He writes with a level of awareness that is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.
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