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Head versus hand

Mikhail Shishkin, one of Russian's greatest contemporary novelists, has been translated into German for the first time - by Andreas Tretner. They talk to Ekkehard Knörer about "Venushaar" which won this year's German International Literature Award.

Der Freitag: Mr. Shishkin, you are in a peculiar situation. In Russia as an author you are widely read, celebrated, and you have received all the top literary awards. But since 1995 you have been living in Switzerland, where very few people know your work. Only now with "Venushaar" – which was originally published in 2005 as "Venerin Volos" – are you being translated into German for the first time. How have you adjusted to this discrepancy in the public eye?

"Venushaar" by Mikhail Shishkin, published by DVA

Mikhail Shishkin
: It has indeed been quite strange. I write in Russian and of course I'm happy about my Russian readers and the appreciation for my books in Russia. But German is the language spoken where I live. My novels have been translated into many languages – but where I actually live there has been nothing. Which is why I'm so overjoyed that DVA has at last dared to bring out a translation. Before that there were lots and lots of rejections from German publishers, almost always with the explanation that my books were too demanding and therefore too risky. It makes me wonder, how stupid do publishers think their readers are?

And what about your relationship to Russian literature, how do you see that?

Shishkin: Unfortunately in the course of the 20th century, Russian literature has fallen by the wayside. If you put people in a cage, they cut themselves off, and this gives rise to a form of subculture that has its own language, its own jokes, and the people lose interest in what is happening outside. The orientation towards the outside world was prohibited for years. For decades Russian literature missed out on all narrative developments in world literature. It will have to work through all of this now, catch up, before it can find its way back to independent development. But now it's time to take a step forward. Which is why I think, yes, it's important for an author to live abroad for a while. If you don't, it's like living in a house without mirrors. And you need mirrors to understand yourself.

Mikhail Shishkin © Yvonne Böhler
Andreas Tretner: By the way, it's a lot more difficult to translate things that have been written from inside a mirrorless cage. You often have to explain things to the reader at great length, and in words that can never really be appropriate. Literature which is open to the world, and which is therefore able to move beyond the closed space it stems from, can be translated much more easily. And for me "Venushaar" exemplifies this sort of open literature.

Shishkin: So I was sitting in Zurich, in my little apartment opposite the Nordheim crematorium, and writing in Russian. And while doing this I always, without compromise, had my "ideal reader" in front of me.

What is your ideal reader like?

Shishkin: Well he stands beside me and likes everything  I like. And hates what I hate. The risk with this is that you are left alone with your ideal reader. But I was lucky enough to have lots of real readers in Russia, in my homeland. The prizes are great, so are the stage adaptations, but the most important thing for me was meeting my real readers in the provinces. A year ago I went on a reading tour through the small towns of the Vologda region, a hotbed of small-town mentality. It was a gathering for provincial intelligence: teachers, apothecaries, librarians. And they all had my books on them and were talking about how important they were for them. I found it very moving. The role and importance of literature in Russia is hard to compare with any other country in the world. Reading in Russia is a struggle for self-preservation, for maintaining human dignity in the face of degrading political reality.

Are you able to imagine your German readers?

Shishkin: It's difficult. I hope of course that there will be readers here for whom my book can be meaningful in some way. And of course it will not be my words, but Andreas' which will be to thank if it is. But things are different in Russia. Something happened there that I will never forget: I was sitting in a cafe in Moscow, and my novel "Wsjatie Ismaila" (the taking of Izmail) had just been published. A woman came up to me, who obviously recognised me and she spoke the tremendous  sentence: "You have saved Russian literature for me." In moments like this a man can die in peace.

Andreas Tretner

Herr Tretner, in one regard "Venushaar" was an unusual experience for you too. You had to translate an author who himself speaks, understands and reads German very well. Did this make things easier for you or more difficult?

Tretner: It was indeed the first time I found myself in such a situation. And I could certainly imagine it hampering a translator. In the beginning I was more nervous than I  would be otherwise, but it didn't take us long to find a common basis. We already knew one another, I knew his "voice", which I think is very important. So really it was not all that different from the usual situation. One thing, though, was that the author then became my first editor. We could always discuss subtleties that were particularly tricky. But he never tried to talk me into anything. All in all it was certainly more time consuming than usual, it was also a great way to work. But I think the situation was probably more difficult for Mikhail. After all, he had to live with what I was making out of his words, of his book.

Shishkin: I would compare the situation with the theatre – like a director, a translator must feel completely free. The translation is like an adaption for the stage, an interpretation. My job was simply to explain things which I can explain because of my Russian background. But very soon he was alone with the text, alone with the German language.

Tretner: I think that as a translator, I have to be something like the ideal reader you spoke of earlier, or at least I have to try to get as close to this as possible. "Venushaar" is a very special case. Even just on the basic plot level, one of the main characters is a translator – a colleague, so to speak. But this also applies on a far more fundamental level. Essentially the book is about the resurrection or the reconstitution of the world through language. Which is what translation is. Many of the things that are dealt with explicitly in this book come very close to this impossibility which is in the very nature of translation. You often have to tear things apart to allow an image of the original to reemerge.

Shishkin: But this is also the task of the author himself. It makes me think of a formative experience in my youth. I was in love for the first time and I wanted to declare my feelings to the other person. What could I say that would really express how I felt? This is something, I think, that always applies. The words, the sentences we have are long dead – hackneyed, exhausted, used a thousand times before. And yet it is the job of the writer to breathe life into these words again. To say something that is alive using words that are dead. And that can only succeed if you not only use the words, but also the space around them. Resurrection is a key word here. The motto of "Venushaare" is a quotation from the Syriac revelation of Baruch, an apocryphal Christian text. One sentence of the motto – you could almost call it the credo of the entire novel – goes: "Because the world was created through the word, and through the word we will be resurrected." I reread the revelation of Baruch. I found the rest of the motto – but this sentence doesn't exist in the revelation.

This is something the translators have picked up on more than anyone one else. I have to admit that I put the words into Baruch's mouth. I wanted to have this sentence in my motto. I searched and searched and I was convinced that something like this existed in the Bible. I didn't find it – so what could I do?

"Venushaar" is a book full of voices, materials, evidence, references, it is up there with world literature from Xenophon to Gogol, from Russian folktales to Poe. Which is an enormous challenge for the translator – this constant shifting in pitch, the voices, the swelling and subsiding of a vast choir. Herr Tretner, how did you manage?

Tretner: Yes, in the parts you are talking about – there are others too, particularly the accounts by the singer Isabella Yurieva – the voices shift and change, almost morph into one another at times, forcing me continually to readjust, refocus. The most difficult part was the crescendo at the end, where the characters and voices are layered almost to the point of indistinguishability. In passages like this the book, I think, can truly be described in musical metaphors: with tonal pitches, the exposition of themes and changes of key. This also shows, by the way, that certain questions about the book are not easy to answer. After all, what is a Pederecki symphony about? What do we experience there? It can be like this with "Venushaar" as well.

Shishkin: As far as I'm concerned, the book is built very simply. A very clear construction. In the beginning there are lots of voices, realities, truths, which are played off against one another. You could not get farther apart than an asylum seeker and the person refusing him entry. Then things move in the direction of mutual understanding. These voices, levels of consciousness move towards one another, interweave. It's as simple as that.

Tretner: But it's no way near that simple. At least as soon as you move in closer. There are repulsions, turmoil, conflicts, despite the clarity of the basic direction.

I must follow this up with a question to the author. How does this choir come into being, the turbulence in single strains, this rise and fall of voices? How does it start, how is it composed?

Shishkin: To be honest, I have no idea. It's always a battle between my head and my hand. I think something up, I work out a story line, I'm happy with it all – but my hand won't do it. It won't obey me. So I have to give up and wait until the hand writes by itself. There's a master and servant here. The master is the novel and I am its servant. Which is why I can never answer questions like: Why do you write that, why like this and not like that. I just write and at the end say: Yes, that's good.

But there must be times when the writing hand need a good slap and to be reprimanded for not getting it right.

Shishkin: Of course, always. Which is why I don't write a novel each year, I need five years every time. I never get any quicker, I cannot force anything. I simply have to wait until it's ready. And I never know beforehand when that will be. I never set the final full stop. Only the novel itself knows. It sets the full stop.



Mikhail Shishkin, born 1961 is regarded as Russia's greatest contemporary writer and has received all the leading literary awards. "Venushaar" is the first translation of his work into German. Shishkin left Russia for personal reasons in 1995 and moved to Zurich where he worked as a translator for the Swiss immigration office. He took an apartment in Moscow again last year and travels back and forth between Russia and Switzerland.

Andreas Tretner, born 1959, has been working as a literary translator from the Russian, Czech and Bulgarian since 1985. He is the German voice of authors such as Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin and Boris Akunin. In 2001 he was awarded the Paul Celan prize of the German Literature Fund.

It all begins in Kreuzlingen, on the Swiss border. An asylum seeker and an immigration officer sit facing one another. But quickly their dialogue opens into a choir of voices which sings sometimes as one, sometimes at cross purposes. The war in Chechnya is overlaid with the Persian war described in Xenophon's "Anabasis". An interpreter travels to Rome where he learns that in the eyes of his wife he is merely a bad copy of her late first husband. Descriptions of 20th century Russia are woven in as diary entries by the (real-life) singer Isabella Yuriyeva. Michael Shishkin calls into the vast echo chambers of world literature – from Poe to Gogol – and they call back.

Together Mikhail Shishkin and Andreas Tretner will receive the International Literature Award – House of World Cultures on 29 June.


This article was originally published in Der Freitag on 21 June, 2011.

Ekkehard Knörer is a film and crime fiction critic. He is the editor of the film magazine Cargo and writes regularly for perlentaucher, taz, Spex and countless other publications.

Translation: lp

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