Mikhail Shishkin: A revolution for Russia's words
As it creates reality, language judges: it punishes and it pardons. Language is its own verdict. There is nowhere to appeal. All higher courts are non-verbal. Even before he has begun writing, the writer is like Laocoön, pinioned by the language snake. If he is to explain anything, the writer must be freed from language.
It was quite a while after my move from Pushka to the canton of Zurich before the bizarre sense of the unreal, the carnival quality of what was happening to me, was gradually replaced by the tentative and amazed confidence that, indeed, this was no illusion. The trains were not toys, the landscape not painted, the people not planted.
Immediately following the change of scenery, I tried to finish writing the novel I had begun in Moscow, but I got nowhere. The letters I had traced out there had an utterly different density here. In the end, the novel was about something else. Every word is a high step for you to trip over.
Borders, distance and air do wonders with words. A combination of Russian sounds that was so obvious and natural on Malaya Dmitrovka Street, with the Chekhov Casino raging outside my window, won’t make it through customs here. Words stripped of all independent existence there acquire residency permits here and become not a means but a subject of verbal law. Here, any Russian word sounds completely wrong and means something completely different. Just as, in a theatre, the meaning of a phrase shifts when uttered after a change in scenery.
It is as if there were a different centre of gravity on the banks of the Limmat, and any word coming out of a Russian inkwell weighs far more here than in its country of origin. What in Russia suffuses the atmosphere, is strewn in sediments and across human snouts, in “the cadet Grushnitsky”, in the war in Chechnya and in “Christ has risen from the dead”, here it is all concentrated in every word of Cyrillic script – pressed, crammed into every last bI.
As it slips further from reality with each passing day, the fatherland seeks out new carriers and finds them in the squiggles of an exotic alphabet. Russia has gathered all its belongings and taken up residence in a font. Letters have been consolidated, just as apartments once were, to accommodate new residents.
My departure from the language, the loss of Russian murmuring in my ears, forced me to stop, to be silent. On the rare occasions when we meet, writers from Russia are amazed. “How can you write in this boring Switzerland? Without the language, without the tension?”
They are right – the atmospheric pressure in Russian letters is heightened. And the language is changing rapidly. My exit from Russian speech forced me to turn around and face it. Work on my text came to a halt. Just as there are rests in music, so are there silences in a text. Perhaps they are its most important part.
What is the language I left behind? What did I take with me? Where do the words go from here? A labour of silence. If I was to go further, I had to understand where the essence of writing in Russian actually lay. Being at once creator and creature of the fatherland’s reality, the Russian language is a form of existence, the body of a totalitarian consciousness. Daily life has always muddled through without words: with bellowing, interjections, and gag lines from film comedies. It is the state and literature that require coherent words.