CW: Discussion of familial trauma, experiences of war, suicide
‘Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant.’ So writes Walter Benjamin in his essay on the Russian author Nikolai Leskov, recalling the words of his Frankfurt School contemporary Theodor Adorno, who observes from the rubble of the Second World War that ‘The recent past always presents itself as if destroyed by catastrophes’.
It’s a sentiment echoed also by Michael Shamanov, the narrator of Miles-Franklin-shortlisted author John Hughes’ new novel The Dogs, which begins with the confession that ‘It’s impossible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead’. For Shamanov, the middle-aged son of a nonagenarian woman still living in the triple penumbrae of the Russian Revolution and the two World Wars, the past is both close and distant. What is more, locked up in the mind of a woman dying with dementia, it is being destroyed even as it is being revealed.
As the novel opens, Shamanov finds himself compelled out of guilt to return for the first time to the nursing home where, two years ago, he had ‘interred’ his mother ‘against her will because [he] did not have the courage for anything else’. He watches a nurse as she goes about the daily work of bathing, feeding, and changing her, and shudders at the sight of the body diminished and made ghastly with age:
The room, even in the lamplight, is dim. But shame is not easily disguised. Beneath the fabric of her nightdress I can feel only bone. The smell that lifts from her when she shifts in the bed is the vase water smell of flowers long dead. The papery skin of her face their pressed petals.
There is already a ghostly quality to Anna Shamanov, a sense that she is defined less by her physical presence than by her absence – in the distance that naturally grows between her and her son, in the uncannily empty home she leaves behind, in the ghostly impressions she makes on her bedsheets and their dead-water smell. Like Roland Barthes, Shamanov pores obsessively over a childhood portrait of his mother, finding that the pressure of the past imbues it with a kind of uncanny, apocalyptic potency: ‘It is as if the photograph holds and then releases the world that is gone and the world that is to come.’ (For the German writer W. G. Sebald, photographs are like weirs, temporarily holding back the flow of the novel’s discourse, which is always rushing towards cataclysm). And yet, strangely, for Shamanov, the most compelling photograph of his mother is one that doesn’t seem to depict her at all:
In it a great crowd of people is fleeing down a road that shines as darkly as snakeskin. … I’ve searched endlessly over the years for my mother in this photograph. Why else did she give it to me? But whenever I seem to come upon her, like darkness in lamplight she slips away. The image does not belong to her, but she has crawled into it somehow like a hermit crab whose shell is not its own.
What accounts for this silent, spectral existence, which is really an absence? Wittgenstein concludes his Tractatus with the famous declaration that ‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen’ (‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent’), forbidding discussion of philosophical and aesthetical matters on the grounds that they have no sensible basis in reality. But when one lives a spectral life, slipping in and out of photographs and slipping in and out of history, everything is unreal. Hence Shamanov’s reflection, when musing upon his cold, distant upbringing, that it was as if, for his mother, ‘all language was an excess of language’. Here, then, is the central problem of the novel. How to make the unspeaking subject speak? What will be spoken? And what will come about when the past is finally given voice?
Through a series of recordings made during her rare moments of lucidity, Michael sets down the oral history of his mother’s life, ‘drawing out memories at the very moment her memory was falling apart’. Slowly, ‘shards’ of memory emerge, shattered remnants of a lost reality: ‘Destrezza di Mano, it was called. Before Napoleon. Mama told me it was his. Told me … what? Destrezza … close to …’. The reader is spared from having to decode many more of these obscurely aphasic remarks by the astonishingly felicitous intervention of Michael’s unctuous son Leo, a Gold Coast real estate bro, who sheepishly hands over a shoebox containing the first key to the cipher of Anna Shamanov’s past: the letters exchanged between her parents during the infant throes of the First World War.
These letters form the core of the novel’s second part, tracing the thread of intergenerational trauma back to its origin in the transcontinental fallout of a romance between Prince Mikhail Orlov, of the former Russian aristocracy, and the renowned Italian opera singer Ravenna da Spesa. (The latter is also briefly involved with Prince Orlov’s own father, prompting one to speculate whether at some point there were plans to include a scene depicting the younger Orlov travelling to Vienna to undergo intensive analysis with Freud.)
In a frame narrative which contains some of the novel’s most evocative scenes, an older and more cynical Prince Orlov holes up in his mouldering Venetian palazzo during the Second World War and rereads his letters of twenty years previous, with the corpse of his recently-expired father still sitting in his study. While Orlov, one of history’s abjects, spends his days sighing for his lost love and taking tea with endless lozenges of apricot jam, his estranged daughter – Michael’s mother – is serving as a military nurse with the Italian partisans, witnessing and participating in scenes of unspeakable horror. A memory that Shamanov reconstructs from his mother’s broken recollections of that period serves as a turning point in the narrative. She is standing up to her neck in swamp-water with thirty other partisans, holding a shrieking baby who, as the Germans draw closer, will not be quiet. It is somewhere around here that the meaning of the novel’s title becomes clear.
Shamanov is vexed and traumatised when his mother discloses this memory to him, but he was already a vexed and traumatised man. The novel had promised to attend to ‘the way family travelled through the flesh’, and it does so unflinchingly. Like variations on a theme, the doomed history of Prince Orlov’s affair with Ravenna da Spesa repeats itself in Anna’s joyless marriage (her husband died decades ago by suicide), in her son Michael’s divorce from his wife Sarah, and in the wistful liaison between Michael and his mother’s nurse, Catherine, which unfolds at length across the span of the novel.
Michael’s glaringly untreated neuroses – his fatalistic and unbearably ironical takes on everything from the Queensland Russian mafia to the political-economical complexities inherent in taking the moral high ground, and his eagerness to retreat into good old-fashioned intellectual obscurantism at the slightest hint of ego damage – make him a narrator with whom it is difficult to form anything approaching a traditional sympathetic bond, but this is part of the point. The novel ends where it began, with the mother on the bed who is not really there, but something has happened which cannot unhappen, and the memories are now being lost for good. This, too, is part of the point, for, as Elias Canetti remarks in the quotation that serves as the novel’s epigraph, ‘The story of a life is as secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.’