BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

MAIDENHAIR, the latest novel by the Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin (translated by Marian Schwartz), is an extraordinary literary achievement. Dizzingly intricate, packed with complex, fascinating characters, the book creates its own world, its own universe really.

It begins in a deceptively simple and straightforward way, with the book's protagonist, a Russian working as a translator for the Swiss authorities interviewing a small army of asylum-seekers and reporting on the ongoing bureaucratic wranglings. Then the story's focus shifts to the translator's personal life: his failed marriage back in Russia and strained relationship with his son. Then, abruptly, the narrative switches to Rome, where the protagonist and his ex-wife once were happy. The search for that lost Eden is one of MAIDENHAIR'S many themes; the others include an investigation of Western cultural values, the invention of an ancient, mythical civilization, ruminations on history, wars, love and death.

Also prominent in the novel are the memoirs of a young, fetching Russian singer, one who becomes a diva during the last days of Czarism and manages to hold on to her popularity in the Soviet Union, surviving not just the revolution but the Stalinist purges and repression that followed it.

Past and present are intertwined in MAIDENHAIR; the real and the invented as well. Shishkin does not delineate the separate worlds of his book: they simply wrap themselves around each other, with no warning signs to alert the reader. This makes MAIDENHAIR a challenging book to read, but if one stays with it, the rewards are profoundly satisfying.

It helps that Shiskin's prose is alive, wise and tender. MAIDENHAIR is five hunded pages long, but it still manages to hold you in its magical spell from start to finish.

(Published by Open Letter, the University of Rochester's nonprofit, literary translation press.