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The Light and the Dark, By Mikhail Shishkin. Quercus, £16.99

 

Mikhail Shishkin is a contemporary Russian novelist whose style is remarkably solid and consistent across his oeuvre. His works could have been written any time between today and the late 19th century – and this is especially true when there are no obvious historical markers. In this epistolary novel, the love letters exchanged by Volodya and Sasha have to cross not only a great space, but also many years.

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Volodya writes from early 20th-century China, where he has been sent to fight against the Boxer Rebellion to get rid of Western influences. As for his beloved, she lives in peacetime Russia, probably half a century or more later. Their romance began in idyllic surroundings. Shortly after, Volodya went to war; the rest – the time, the regime – is irrelevant.

As the heroine says in a letter, all books are in fact not about love, but about death; or rather, "about eternity". This is one of the many clues to the book's meaning. It really does not matter if the lovers have ever met in person. The only witness who counts is the author – or, more precisely, his prose.

Having dismissed the plot, Shishkin is free to say what he wants: the descriptions of atrocities in China interchange with those of Sasha's daily existence. The main message is spelt out thus: "this railway halt, this lamp, the blows of the hammer on the axle boxes, the chirring of grasshoppers from the window of the telegraph office, the smell of smoke and the hot locomotive breathing steam and grease… it's all me."

For many in Britain, this book, in Andrew Bromfield's lucid translation, may be an introduction to Shishkin's work. If the hints dropped throughout were not enough to convince the reader that this is not a love story, another one is manifest in the original title: "Letter-book". A word rarely used now, it once meant a collection of standard letters for every occasion. The author provides just such a text, as if saying to the reader: take the right words, put them in the right order... Your plot may be obsolete; your writing never is.

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