13.11.2013 - mikhail shishkin

Mikhail Shishkin, Pismovnik (English translation: The Light and the Dark, Quercus)

On our second Read & Meet this season we meet up with Russian author Mikhail Shishkin to discuss his novel The Light and the Dark.

We kindly ask you to read the book in advance and also to highlight passages you find memorable. Since this epistolary novel doesn’t have chapters, you’d best note down the page numbers.

The Light and the Dark is an ambitious, kaleidoscopic novel, which quite literally deals with “everything”. From philosophy to cosmology, from phytology to anthropology. Our time with the author, however, is short. So we’ll focus on some of the main themes in the novel:

  • Death as an inalienable part of life is one of the major themes in Shishkin’s works and even more so in this novel. As Sasha notes in one of her first letters, concerning literary masterpieces: ‘They only pretend to be about love, so they’ll be interesting to read. But in actual fact, they’re about death. In books, love is a kind of shield or, rather, a blindfold. So you don’t see. So it’s not frightening.’
  • Mikhail Shishkin has stated in interviews that both Volodenka and Sasha are autobiographical: “All of my heroes are me. (…) All male heroes are a unified ‘I’, and all female heroes are my perception of a woman. So all of my books are intertwined, leaving only the boundary between man and woman.”
  • In The Light and the Dark, Shishkin often plays with the element of time. Time halts, time creeps along; and often time seems quite relative indeed.
  • The importance of the written word. In order to cope with the constant threat of death, Volodenka resorts to the written word. His letters to his loved one are his rescue, they connect him to her, they connect him to his life before the war, to life itself. As Volodenka sees it: the only letters that never arrive are the ones that are never written. What is important is the writing itself, not whether the written word ever reaches its recipient.

Please take these themes into account when reading and preparing for our Read & Meet? 

We’ve also collected some links that may be of interest:


  • Mikhail Shishkin on Cobra (English with Dutch subtitles). Recorded at Villa Hellebosch, where Shishkin is writer in residence on invitation of Passa Porta.


In The Guardian and Standpoint.


Report of the reading club

Our second Read & Meet @ Passa Porta once again brought together readers from various cultures. We saw German, Dutch and English translations and quite a few Russian editions too. Yet, there was no Babel-like confusion among the participants. Our desire to share interpretations and our hunger for new insights was simply too strong for misunderstandings to get in the way.

When asked about the meaning of the original title (Pismovnik) we did however stumble upon a something of a language barrier. The title, a disused word meaning “a guide for writing letters” proved untranslatable, which at first had surprised Shishkin. Hence the romantic title Onvoltooide liefdesbrieven (Unfinished Love Letters) in Dutch and the somewhat Tolstoy-esque The Light and The Dark in English. It is still the original title that best captures the essence of the book. It is not just an epistolary novel, it really is a guide: for the living, on death.

What begins with two young lovers writing each other letters, one from the battlefront, the other from the home front, slowly develops into a meditation on life and the acceptance of death. Volodya, a writer who no longer trusts words, goes off to war to see action, ‘to live’ and gain life experience. In the end he only has one victim (a dog), but he learns a lot about life and death. “It is probably this: the body fights death with pain, but the brain, the consciousness, with thinking. Ultimately, neither the one nor the other will save us.” Not long after the correspondence commences, Sasha receives a letter informing her of Volodya’s death. This message turns not only her life upside down, but also the whole novel.

The idea that this obsession with death might be something typically Russian was swiftly swept aside by Shishkin: “Everybody dies, not only Russians.” It’s a universal theme, in a classic structure: the epistolary novel.

Shishkin’s touch of genius, however, is to have the correspondence continue well beyond Volodya’s death. We keep reading Volodya’s war letters, interspersed with letters from Sasha, who tries to live on without her great love. This playing with time takes quite some ingenuity, a fact well noted by the readers. The letter informing us of Volodya's death also marks another frontier in the novel. Shishkin describes this boundary as one between two “spaces”. On the one side there’s the banal, what is written in newspapers about life and death, and on the other there’s the writer’s realm: where magic happens, where art happens; this is the only place where death is overcome.

As Volodya says in one of his letters: “If I do not write down what I have seen today, then nothing remains. As if it had never happened.” Writing to preserve, and also writing to survive. Shishkin: “Look at Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The horses he described, the coachmen, the soldiers, the houses, the trees, everything is gone. But open his novel and read it and suddenly they’re all there again, the horses and coachmen and the soldiers.” Volodya: “Why does one write? As long as we write, it means that we are still alive. When you read these lines, death has been postponed.” The novel gives leverage over death.

Mikhail Shishkin stated in interviews that both Sasha and Volodya are autobiographical characters: “All of my heroes are me. … All the male characters are a unified ‘I’, and all the female characters are my perception of women.” But the autobiographical aspect goes beyond that, we were told. The origin of the novel is to be found in the wartime stories of Shishkin’s father, who was a sailor on a submarine in WWII.

Why then did Shishkin opt for the Boxer Rebellion as backdrop for the story? “Because it’s a perfect metaphor for future wars. There will be no more global wars,” he says. “We will see more small-scale conflicts with international participants.”

There was much approval of the incredibly tight structure of the novel. The rhyming and rhythmic prose, with all its internal references and links to world literature, were praised so much the author almost had to blush. The evening ended with the insightful comment that Shishkin had possibly even managed to write ‘the perfect novel’. Didn’t Volodya write that “every book is a lie -- if only because it has a beginning and an end. It is not fair to write ‘the end’ and then not die.”

And that in a novel that doesn’t end but starts all over again. With quite a few questions still on our minds — the novel is endless, the night proved not to be — we said our goodbyes to Shishkin, determined to read the book again, or start recommending it to everyone.