Nov. 2009 WLT
Nov. 2009 WLT

Writer Mikhail Shishkin won Russia’s 2005 National Bestseller Prize and the 2006 Big Book Prize for his novel Maidenhair, whose narrator works in an immigration off ice in Switzerland interpreting the interviews of asylum seekers from war-torn former Soviet republics. In the following excerpt, the interpreter and his wife have gone to Massa Lubrense to give their family one last chance.

The house stood right on the shore of the tiny harbor of Massa Lubrense. In good weather Capri could be seen on the left; on the right—Vesuvius.

That day there hadn’t been any Capri or Vesuvius since morning, and there was nothing to do but take walks under the umbrella or read. Isolda went on a walk with their son, and the interpreter dragged in from the trunk two “Migro” paper bags full of books that he had picked up at the library of the Slavic seminar before their departure.

From the kitchen window you could see how small the woman and child were on the shore, and what great paws the tide had.

The interpreter wiped the raindrops off the cover of the top book, which turned out to be the Lives of the Russian Saints. He flipped through the pages and came upon the hagiography of Anthony the Roman and lost himself in the history of the Italian who became a Novgorod miracle worker.

“Venerable Anthony the Roman was born in Rome in 1067 to wealthy parents, and was raised by them in piety. He lost his parents early in life, and, giving away his entire inheritance to the poor, began to roam in search of a virtuous life, but everywhere found only lies, lust, and injustice. He was searching for love and could not find it.”

The woman and the child had become even smaller, the size of a raindrop on the glass.

“One day he lay on the ground amid the flowers, and watched how a white cross on red petunias called a column of ants to rush their ants’ Jerusalem. Hearing a clock chime, Anthony shuddered—half his life had passed by. The same way God can curl up in some object or creature, or the sound of a bell—like milk turns to cottage cheese.

“And then, in desperation and with mourning in his heart,” the author of the Lives continued, “Anthony left the town. He walked without turning back—day and night, until he reached the seashore. He could go no further, so he scrambled up on a huge rock that was sticking up from the sea. He stood on this rock an entire day, with his back to the town he’d left, and looked out to sea. Then night fell, but he remained on the rock and didn’t turn around. And so he stood another day and another night. And a week. And two weeks. And a month. And then the rock suddenly tore itself away from the shore and floated off.”

Further on, legend has it that the current drove the rock and Anthony all around Europe and cast him up on the shores of the Volkhov River. After that, the Life acquires a banal quality with miracles of healing and incorruptible remains that disappeared together with a silver shell in 1933. Only a sedge branch was left, one that Anthony had brought from Rome, holding it in his hand.

Then Isolda returned and said that tomorrow she and the boy would leave, because it was impossible to live this way anymore.

Isolda and the interpreter had decided to take their vacation in this particular place in order to try and save their family.

But truth be told, there was no longer any family. They simply lived in one apartment, becoming embittered. Isolda put the child to sleep every night between them. The interpreter’s mother had done the same thing once upon a time, taking him with her onto the couch in the basement apartment on Starokoniushenny, so that the child, who was supposed to unite them, served as a barrier, a wall, a border.

They decided to come here, to Massa Lubrense, because they had spent their holidays here a few years before this rain.

Then everything was different. Capri was visible on the left every day, and Vesuvius on the right. The fishermen’s launches could be seen right out the bedroom window. Every night the local fishermen went out to sea and in the morning brought them fresh fish and “fruits de mer,” frutti di mare, which so frightened their son because they were alive and moved around.

The sea swayed gently, hung on the horizon as though on a laundry line.

There was rain occasionally, but it was short and hot, and afterward everything sparkled and steamed. One time their son was digging around in a flowerbed that was wet after a downpour and suddenly said that rain worms were the guts of the earth.

They swam every day. Sometimes a cloudy mud of seaweed and slimy peelings floated to shore, but if you swam out a bit further, something entirely different greeted you—there transparency lived in the water and sky, and you could see how the wind on shore stirred the grapevines and how the gold acorn of the church sparkled in the sun. The interpreter and Isolda dined in a restaurant on the shore where every evening the child sucked long spaghettini into himself. He was so tired from the day that he fell asleep right in the child’s chair pushed up to the table in the restaurant, and they would sit for a long time, drinking “Lachryma Christi” wine from the slopes of Vesuvius, listening to the snuffling of the sleeping child, and the plashing of the waves.

They had their own tree, a plane tree, and before going to sleep, they would run their fingers over its smooth skin—the air grew fresher in the dark, but the skin remained warm.

At night lights were visible in the direction of Naples; it seemed that there was an enormous nest of flickering fireflies behind the sea, beyond the black water.

The stars were huge, angular, irregular, coarsely ground.

Probably the interpreter and Isolda shouldn’t have come to Massa Lubrense again.

They had decided, as Isolda put it, to give their family a last chance. That the whole enterprise was in vain was clear from the very beginning: they fought again—because of an open window—while stuck in a traffic jam outside the Saint Gothard Tunnel, and then rode the whole rest of the way in silence.

That night they stayed up talking until three: the same old thing, meaningless words that no one needed, and then the interpreter tried to fall asleep in the dining room on the uncomfortable sofa, covering his head with a pillow so he wouldn’t hear Isolda’s sobs.

In the morning they had no strength to talk about anything anymore. The child felt that his world was falling apart, and sat in the corner quietly hiding, drawing something. The water in his jar spilled and he spread the muddy streams over the wet, wrinkled paper with his finger.

After breakfast Isolda went walking with him, and the interpreter read about miraculous healings and incorruptible remains.

And then they returned from the shore. The son turned on the television and started watching cartoons, and Isolda said that she and the child would leave tomorrow, because it was impossible to live this way anymore, and she asked the interpreter to go off somewhere right this minute because she could no longer be in the same house with him, couldn’t be in the same space.

The interpreter replied, all right, it really isn’t possible to live like this and they’d all leave tomorrow morning, and that he also couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her. At that point the son, who was sitting curled up in the armchair in front of the television, whimpered quietly. The interpreter wanted to tell Isolda that they had agreed not to say anything more in front of the child, but he refrained, because it was all pointless. And in order not to say anything more, he quickly went outside, trying with all his might to close the door behind him slowly and softly. The interpreter didn’t know where to go; the rain would alternately drizzle or stop for a while. People looked at him from the windows of houses and he wanted to be somewhere where there was no one and no one would come.

Breakers crossed the sea, and the low sky was covered in muddy streams, as though someone had spread the clouds around with a finger.

The interpreter made it to the parking lot, got into the car, and drove toward Sorrento. Halfway there was a certain place where the cliffs went far into the sea, and you could walk out on them. In this weather there would surely be no one there. He had to drive through the village. Sometimes the doors of houses opened straight onto the street, and the interpreter would put on the brakes and watch how the Italians lived—no foyers at all, the door opens and the family begins. Right there an old woman in black with terrible hands deformed by work sits watching a passing car, and beyond her a television flickers. Children’s voices can be heard through the open windows. A dark-haired, dumpy little fellow in a white T-shirt and tracksuit pants runs across the street in slippers, holding a casserole spewing steam at the rain.

In every house there is a family, and sometimes several. How do they manage to live together?

Well they don’t! And behind every window, someone sooner or later said, or will say, to the other: We can’t go on living this way, we should part because I can no longer stand to be in the same room with you. And the other answered or will answer: Okay, that’s all right, it’s true, it’s impossible to live like this. And nearby in an armchair their child will curl up in a ball, will want to become very, very small, blind, and deaf, like a pillow, so that he won’t see or hear anything.

When the interpreter descended the wet, slippery pathway to the sea, cut right into the stone in places, he suddenly saw that someone was standing there right where the surf hit. Some short-legged, portly woman in a pink polyester raincoat with a hood. She looked back with displeasure, you could tell she wanted to stand there alone, and he was getting in her way.

Her face seemed familiar to him.

“Buona sera!” said the interpreter. Without answering, she turned away.

The interpreter wandered a bit along the cliffs, but the woman wouldn’t leave, and her awkward pink figure stuck out from the water, annoyingly catching the eye.

She could have at least nodded in reply.

I came here to calm down, and here I am getting in someone’s way again!

Then the interpreter decided that it wasn’t he who was bothering her, but she him, and he told himself: I’m going to stand here on principle until the pink raincoat leaves.

He stood, leaning against the cliff so it wouldn’t be quite so windy, and thought about who this woman reminded him of. He’d already had the experience of meeting doubles of his Moscow acquaintances in different countries. The same person simply lived in a parallel world. And the interpreter himself was wandering the streets of different cities this very moment.

The wind and the surf blocked up his ears. It began to grow dark.

Suddenly the interpreter realized who the woman in the pink coat reminded him of. Only many years had passed. That was why he hadn’t recognized her.

She resembled the girl who always slept in a certain pose, as though she were swimming somewhere doing the crawl. The girl was also embarrassed about her breasts. She had a chest covered in frog skin. As though there weren’t enough human skin and they’d stuck on whatever was around. The Frog Princess.

That girl cut her veins once, locking herself away from him in the bathroom and swallowing a lot of pills, when they were both nineteen. When he called the ambulance, they asked him: “What’ve you got, another sleeping beauty?” He didn’t understand because he didn’t know that was the ambulance workers’ name for girls who swallowed sleeping pills. The doctor who bandaged her arms said, with a smirk: “In the future, if you seriously want to take your own life, you don’t cut across, but along the vein.” The floor in the bathroom and hallway had to be washed, blood had dripped everywhere, and the orderlies had dragged in a lot of dirt as well, since it was right in the middle of the spring thaw. Then, many years later, the Frog Princess cut herself open the way you’re supposed to, along the vein.

The wind became stronger and stronger. It began to rain again. The interpreter was completely soaked and shivering. The dark was falling rapidly before his very eyes, as it does only in the south. The awkward pink raincoat glowed against the background of the sea from that very same rock, fighting the storm.

Suddenly, the interpreter wanted to get back home as soon as possible in order to tell the whole story, about the Frog Princess, and about how he stood there and watched the beginning of the storm. He also wanted to play something with his son. After all, they’d brought a whole box of various table games with them. He so wanted to be warm, cozy, home.

He felt like going back, embracing, forgetting everything bad that had happened. To lie there holding each other tightly at night, listening to the storm.

And in the morning the sun would shine again, like it did back then, and the sea would sway slightly on the tautly stretched horizon. The interpreter began to clamber up the wet, slippery ladder hammered into the cliff. As he climbed, it grew completely dark, but the glinting raincoat kept on waiting for something.

The path turned, and the interpreter looked back for the last time at the sea. The rock with the pink spot had pulled away from the shore and floated off.


Translation from the Russian
By Jamey Gambrell