Letters, Lovers and Time Travel
Review by Kathy Freise
The Light and the Dark
Mikhail Shishkin, trans. by Andrew BromfieldQuercus
Mikhail Shiskin’s The Light and the Dark is an epistolary novel, a series of letters exchanged between two lovers. But it’s more innovative than such a traditional form suggests. It’s a surprisingly sentimental study of some of the most universal themes in all of art: life, death, permanence, loss.
Having won each of three major Russian literary awards, Shiskin is considered that country’s greatest living novelist. The Light and the Dark may not be as long as some of the Russian classics, but it is as large in its scope. It’s by turns engaging, confusing and erudite.
The young man writing, Vovka, is a soldier, fighting in a war that sounds like the Boxer Rebellion. The young woman, Sasha, writes of daily life from an unnamed city. Their letters begin as expected, celebrating their passion and recounting their time together. Gradually, it becomes clear that their letters are time traveling. Vovka is stuck in an endless conflict at the turn of the 20th century, while Sasha shares details that are clearly from the latter part of the century. This device allows Shiskin essentially to abandon a plot and let the letters serve as devices that explore the cryptic nature of time as it impresses itself upon everything: endless wars, relationships across generations and love.
Each letter becomes a discrete study of experience. Time and place cease to matter. After a certain point, one could read the book in almost any order. The texture of Shiskin’s writing makes up for the occasional frustration that his experimentation produces. He is sensual: “The smells from open windows—freshly ground coffee. Here they are frying fish. And there the milk has boiled over. Someone has taken a seat on a windowsill and is peeling an orange.” He is philosophical: “The most important point is that reality doesn’t fit into any words. Reality strikes you dumb. Everything important that happens in life is beyond words.”
Because language is more central than narrative in the novel, it’s hard to get attached to the characters. But due to Shiskin’s linguistic dexterity, it’s difficult not to relate to their reflections and their struggle to parse life’s mysteries.
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