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Over 100,000 copies sold

English, French, German translations available

Maidenhair is a kind of book they give Nobel prize for. This novel is majestic ...” — this quote from Bookshelf Magazine is just a small fraction of praise the book has received in Russia, and rightly so. It is a brilliant novel that unquestionably belongs with the greatest works of Russian literature. It’s universal at its core — and not only because the action takes place across countries and historical epochs, virtually destroying boundaries. The whole novel is a metaphor of a resurrection of the soul — through the word. And through love.

The story begins in Switzerland — the narrator works at the local immigration office interpreting interviews with Russian refugees seeking asylum. They all tell stories — some came to Zurich from Chechnya, others from orphanages, some lost their houses in the war, or had parents murdered in front of their eyes, or were raped in prison with a mop handle, tortured, persecuted... They tell these stories for one reason, to stay. One horrid story follows another, in a chain of endless questions and answers,. We don’t know what’s true and what’s not any more but at the end it really doesn’t matter whether it’s really happened to them or not — it’s enough to know that the stories are true. Now they have a chance to re-write their lives, to get a new beginning, to find their new true selves. The interpreter becomes the only link between the two worlds, the gatekeeper to the better life. Their lives will lead to their deaths. Unless he redeems them. Once again, with a word.

Between the interviews the interpreter writes letters to his son addressing him as Emperor Navuhodonozaur — letters that will never be sent, describing his life as a servant of the “Swiss Paradise Ministry of Defense.” He remembers his past, reviving and reliving the story of his doomed love, which resonates with other great love stories of world literature — Daphnis and Chloe, Tristan and Isolde.

In the meantime he reads Anabasis by Xenophon about the Persian expedition. And since the written word has the power to revivify the past, it is today that the Greek mercenaries retreat to the sea, march though the deserts and towns, cross over rivers — and meet a group of Chechenian refugees who come down from the mountains, having sworn that they’d rather die than surrender to the Russians. Time becomes irrelevant, their meeting seems only natural, and so the Greeks and the Chechenians continue their journey together.

Interviews, letters, memories, love stories, Greeks, Chechenians are linked in a single chain of events and human destinies, interwoven, resonating with one another, outside of time. Another distinctive voice in this chorus of voices is a fictional diary of Bella, or Isabella Yurjeva, a Russian romance singer, notorious beauty and socialite that the main character uses to write her biography — or to bring her back to life as he interprets his task. It’s nothing more than a girl’s private diary where she describes her childhood, her love affairs, her success, her ups and downs — but somehow it manages to depict a hole era from the pre-Soviet times till this day through the events of her 100-year long life.

In Maidenhair Shishkin demonstrates utter proficiency in various styles and manners of speech. The main character’s line of work is by no means accidental — his interpreting skills are a metaphor for omniscience — and the real meaning of a Word — thus his almost obsessive desire to find the tomb of Saint Cyril, the creator of the Cyrillic alphabet, while in Rome. This is the alphabet of which his universe is made. The world is magic only because its story can be told. It’s unpredictable and erratic, but what once existed will exist for ever. In the word.

Maidenhair is in many ways an autobiographical novel. Just like his main character, Mikhail Shishkin worked as an interpreter at an immigration agency.

A beautiful, powerful and fascinating book which will become a milestone not only in the history of Russian literature but in the development of Russian self-awareness. 

— Bakhyt Kenzheyev, Nezavisimaya gazeta

The first reading of Maidenhair is like tipping the pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw out of the box and turning them all picture-side up . . .

— Slightly Booklist

In short, Maidenhair is the best post-Soviet Russian novel I have read. Simply put, it is true literature, a phenomenon we encounter too rarely in any language.

— Daniel Kalder, The Dallas Morning News

Maidenhair is a great novel about a word and a language that becomes soft and obedient in the hands of a Master. It can create any other reality which will be more stunning and credible that the real world. The gap between a word and a fact, between reality and its translation to the human language is a real hotbed of internal tension in the novel.

— Maya Kucherskaya,

Maidenhair is likely a work of genius. . . . If Shishkin is right about the power of words to resurrect the dead, Maidenhair has all but secured his immortality.

— Christopher Tauchen, Words Without Borders

Meanwhile, Shishkin’s work is not at all a philological novel for a literary coterie or a boring high brow read that reminds one of lapped milk. Although very different from Pavic’s works, it could become just as famous.

— Time Out

Maidenhair is a kind of book they give the Nobel prize for. The novel is majestic.

— Knizhnaya Vitrina

Book details

Vagrius, 2005

Elena Shubina Publishing (AST), 2011

Novel, 479 pp

Rights sold

  • English US Open Letter

  • English UK Quercus Books

  • Danish Batzer & Co

  • Swedish Ersatz

  • Estonian Varrak

  • Norwegian Forlaget Oktober

  • Greek Metaichmio

  • Slovenian DSP

  • German DVA

  • French Fayard

  • Italian Voland Edizione

  • Serbian Paideia

  • Bulgarian Fakel

  • Simplified Chinese People’s Literature 

  • Lithuanian Vaga

  • Polish Noir sur Blanc

  • Romanian Curtea Veche

  • Arabic Al Mada

  • Albanian Dituria

  • Spanish Impedimenta

Literary awards

  • Halpérine-Kaminski Prize for the Best Translation 2007 (France)

  • Shortlisted for Giuseppe Berto Prize 2007 (Italy)

  • Grinzane Cavour Prize 2007

  • The Big Book Award 2006

  • Shortlisted for Bunin Literary Award 2006

  • Shortlisted for Andrei Belyi Literary Award 2006

  • The National Bestseller Prize 2005

  • The Best Foreign Book of the Year of the 21st Century (China)

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