Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Reading: Maidenhair/ Mikhail Shishkin

What is maidenhair? 

On page 452 of the 506-page eponymous novel, you get its first mention. "We roamed among the ruins, and she broke a fernlike twig:What's this? Maidenhair." But you get a clearer picture on page 500: "For us, this is a house plant; otherwise it wouldn't survive, without human warmth, but here it's a weed. So, you see, this is in dead language, signifying something alive: Adiantum capillus veneries,Venus hair, Genus Adiantum. Maidenhair. God of life."

I mention this because this is the key to understanding the novel. Of course, it's a difficult novel - for me at least - and I found it hard to grasp and appreciate.

I got to reading the novel with enthusiasm as ever. The interpreter who was interviewing hordes of hapless Russian asylum-seekers to locate the genuine among them seemed to be the protagonist of the novel. His accounts and insights about varied people and their awful conditions were quite fascinating. Then the 'soliloqui' began, and I was lost. Parts of it being inaccessible to me. I could not figure out where the novel was heading..

Then you get access to a singer's diary as if for a distraction. This portion is a light read: the artist's days of struggle, her love, her stardom, her beyond-glory days. You enjoy reading them up to a point, then it begins to suck. I had problem linking it with the interpreter's narrative.

A bit disappointed, I kept the novel aside for a couple of weeks, then, on a rainy evening when I stayed at home, I took it up again. Read it all through in one sitting. Loved the last pages of the book - even the soliloqui incorporated in this part.

So what's Maidenhair about? It is about civilization, history, religion, philosophy, art, music, war, brutality, depravity, dehumanization, but it's first and foremost about human conditions in different times and spaces down the ages.

It's a modern classic.

I recommend it - for the right reader, that is.

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