In “Language Saved,” one of eight short stories in Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, Russian author Mikhail Shishkin writes, “The experience of a language and the life lived through it turns languages with different pasts into non-communicating vessels.” Translation is mutation, he insists, which makes Deep Vellum’s release of the first English translation of the collection all the more interesting. Much of Calligraphy Lesson is a reflexive meditation on the function of language, writing and the difficulty of adequately translating experience. But Deep Vellum publisher Will Evans clearly wasn’t afraid to try, and for the task he enlisted a number of renowned translators including Marian Schwartz, who also produced the English translation of Shishkin’s novel Maidenhair, which won Russias’s Big Book Award and National Best-Seller Prize.
Shishkin is widely regarded as Russia’s greatest contemporary author, and Calligraphy Lesson marks yet another challenging and important release from Deep Vellum. It falls nicely in line with the rest of their first catalog, which has included a number of philosophical and experimental works that explore the act of writing and challenge ideas about what literature should do. These include The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol, a reflection on the Mexican writer’s life and influences; Sphinx by Oulipo member Anne Garréta, a genderless love story; and The Indian, the first of a raw and unusual three-part memoir by Icelandic politician and comedian Jon Gnarr.
The narrators of the somber and beautiful stories in Calligraphy Lesson have a lot in common with their author; many are male Russian writers, and several stories are set in Switzerland, where Shishkin currently lives. In the first, “The Half-Belt Overcoat,” we visit a narrator who contemplates his childhood growing up in the Soviet Union, a country without chewing gum that was “in the grip of a deadly word game,” causing people to fear their own past — say the wrong thing and you were punished. In another, “The Blind Musician,” the narrator says, "blindness is a seeing person’s concept. I live in a world where there is no light or dark, and that means there’s nothing awful about it.” Language does not convey truth, Shishkin argues. It is the means of our oppression, often creating the very concepts that enslave us.
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The story for which the collection is named speaks the most directly to that theme. However, “Calligraphy Lesson,” which in 1993 became Shishkin’s first published work, argues the opposite side of the point, illustrating language’s usefulness as a tool for interpreting and managing an often pain-filled human existence. The story follows a police investigator who finds relief in writing, which allows him to impose order on the senseless violence he encounters daily. When a woman is killed by her son, the investigator is able to reduce the act to a form, a bureaucratic process. Language allows connections to be drawn in an inherently orderless universe; it allows a comforting period to be put at the end of an unresolvable mess. The crux of this philosophy is expressed when Shishkin writes: "A sheet of ordinary paper breaks free and rises above events! Its perfection immediately yields an alienation, a hostility even, toward all that exists, toward nature itself, as if another, higher world, a world of harmony, had wrested this space from that kingdom of worms!"
In other stories language is revealed as having the power to raise people from the dead (when the narrator reads news of his long-missing uncle Borya in “Of Saucepans and Star-Showers”), or to create a false sense of closeness between two people who are far apart (letters exchanged between lovers in “The Bell Tower of San Marco”). Language creates our reality, for better or worse, Shishkin says, but in all cases but one it stands in contrast to nature.
The exception is literature, Calligraphy Lesson puts forward, which through its artfulness, can arrive at the exact right way of being “tongue-tied,” and make it possible for a truth to be grasped by the reader. In the collection’s final story, “In a Boat Scratched on a Wall,” Russian literature is described as having emerged along with the concept of human dignity: “...[it] squeezed through the crack between the shout and the moan … It used words to construct the great Russian wall between the state and the people.” In a world where language is often a hammer at worst and a coping mechanism at best, literature creates a space for beauty and truth.
As suggested, Russian literature is bound up inextricably with the country’s history, and that is no less true of this collection, which surely made the task of translating it formidable. But the artfulness of this translation helps it to surmount Shishkin’s own claim that languages cannot communicate with each other. And he makes no claim that communication within a single language is any easier, saying that, “Even speaking Russian, there is no understanding one another.” Though the stories in Calligraphy Lesson are steeped in Russian history and have a distinctly Russian tone, many of the philosophical quandaries they engage extend beyond language and borders — they are universal problems, and this translation boldly and successfully takes them on.