I have not actually read any books by Mikhail Shishkin yet, but I have his novel Взятие Измаила and am very much looking forward to it—everything I’ve heard about him makes me sound like my kind of writer. And I’m further confirmed in that opinion by this essay (translated by the superb Marian Schwartz) about what it’s like writing in Zurich rather than Moscow, what’s been happening to the Russian language (“When everyone lives by prison camp laws, the mission of language is a cold war between everyone and his neighbour”), and how Russian literature developed (“It was a colony of European culture on the Russian plain – if, by European colonisation, we mean the softening of manners and defending the rights of the weak before the mighty, and not the importation of Prussian gunners”); I’ll quote the last few paragraphs here, but the whole thing should be read:
The language of Russian literature is an ark. A rescue attempt. A hedgehog defense. An island of words where human dignity might be preserved. [...]
There is a legend about a prisoner sentenced to a life of solitary confinement. He spent years scratching out the image of a boat on the wall with the handle of a prison spoon. One day, they brought him his water, bread and gruel as usual, but the cell was empty and the wall was blank. He had climbed into the boat on the wall and sailed away.
The novel is a boat. Words must be revived in order for the boat to be genuine, so that I may climb aboard and sail out of this solitary life to a place where they love us and are waiting for us all. Save myself. And take all of my characters with me. And the reader too.
(Apologies for the bandwidth problem that kept the site inaccessible for a while; it’s those blasted spammers. InsiderHosting.com handled it with their usual efficiency, and I’m as happy with them as I was when I started using them a decade ago.)