Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 23, 2018

Multiple Personalities, by Tatyana Shcherbina, translated by Melanie Moore

Warning: discussing this book involves using the author’s terms and expressions (in translation) to describe illnesses which may disrupt the functioning of the mind – and I acknowledge that these may not be the words that are culturally appropriate in Australia.

Multiple Personalities is an intriguing novella that uses the idea of ‘split personalities’ as a metaphor for not only life under the Soviets, but also for the confusion of contemporary life in post-Soviet Russia.  The central character is a woman introduced to the reader as Tanya, but whose narration also includes multiple other personalities notably that of Sylvaine Personne – whose surname in French means ‘nobody’ and whose initials turn out to represent many others:

‘Personne’ – in the original that means no-one,’ said the little girl, the words tumbling out, ‘or personality.  It’s the same word.  S for Samuel, Y for Ysabella/Isabella, L for Lyudmila, V for Viktor, A for Alexey or Anatoliy – it could be either, I for Iris, N for Nathalia, E for Elena/Helen.  SYLVAINE.’ (p.159)

These personalities (which are quite distinct) move in and out of time (including a future in 2030 when there are no humans as we know them).  The book begins with what Tanya tells us is a fantasy about Alexander Pushkin, who turns up outside her house in 2006.  He’s an angry Pushkin because his imminent wedding has been disrupted by this time travel, and he thinks he’s in Hell.  Tanya’s attempts to soothe him fail when she tries quoting a passage from his own Collected Works, but the lack of reaction suggests he still has time to write these particular lines.  And she soon realises that her credibility is at stake:

After that conversation [with Rosa], I think, ‘No-one will believe me.  I’ll say it’s a hallucination.  No, better still, a fantasy.’ (p.10)

The alert reader will remember that those were her words at the very beginning of her narrative in chapter one: I’ve got this persistent fantasy. 

So, the book progresses through all sorts of narrations which are deliberately disjointed and strange as they traverse aspects of Russia’s tragic history.  The great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa makes an appearance when Psycho (a hypnotist) takes Rosa through her Soviet childhood, and links Pessoa’s experience of a totalitarian state with the Soviet state:

‘I was studying Psychology at Leningrad State University,’ Psycho began.  ‘I finished my post-graduate studies that year but I didn’t submit a dissertation.  And all because of a Portuguese psychologist who had written a thesis about different personalities co-existing in one person.  He had come to the USSR in search of some of the materials he still needed.  He believed that all of us there suffered from split personalities.’

‘We’ve got three.  We’re split three ways,’ I put in. ‘As the joke says: Soviet people think one thing, say another, and do something else again’.

‘Precisely.  This Portuguese psychologist was writing a dissertation on the psychological state of people in totalitarian states, like Portugal in Pessoa’s lifetime. He had learned Russian specially and came up with a pretext to visit but when our department realised what the dissertation was about he was immediately expelled from the country.  Our brief friendship meant I had to move to Moscow.  There would be no more work for me in my specialist field in Leningrad.’ (p.39)

The text also mimics Hamlet, when Lyudmila links Alexander Litvinenko (the former Russian secret service agent who worked as a journalist in Britain and was poisoned by polonium) with a bard called Shakespeare Too, the shade of Hamlet’s father, who takes advantage of the long-held theories that plays written by Shakespeare were written by someone else such as Frances Bacon or Christopher Marlowe.  This strange play has 19 scenes, all the characters you recognise from the original, and lasts for 34 pages – but is set in Moscow and London.  In another chapter, there’s also a dialogue between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and there’s another reference to the three-way division of Soviet consciousness:

…think one thing, do something else, say something different again.  (p.131)

I don’t claim to have fully understood this book because I suspect that many allusions passed me by, and I’m not entirely comfortable with a book that uses the idea of split personalities because (as I understand it) there is no such phenomenon (see Busting the Myths about Dissociative Identity Disorder at SANE Australia) but I can see this poet’s technique of presenting multiple perspectives is a way of representing the ways in which people had to operate during the Soviet era, while also presenting a critique of contemporary Russia.

Other reviews are at Strange Horizons and at The Complete Review.

Author: Tatyana Shcherbina
Title: Multiple Personalities  
Translated by Melanie Moore
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2015
ISBN: 9781784379346
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

Available from Fishpond: Multiple Personalities


Responses

  1. […] read Changing Patterns as light relief while making my way through the more demanding Multiple Personalities.  It’s apparently a sequel to another family saga called Pattern of Shadows and […]

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  2. This sounds interesting (but my knowledge of Russian history is not great so wonder how much of the detail I’d miss?).
    You’re right, ‘split personalities’ is not a diagnostic term but unfortunately is one that ‘Hollywood’ won’t let go of (there was a major film last year -can’t remember the name – that perpetuated false information). Don’t know if you listen to podcasts but the ABC’s All in the Mind had one very informative episode on this topic.

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  3. Yes, I think I must have heard that episode of All in the Mind too, and I know the film you mean though I haven’t seen it… it’s called Split (and it’s referenced at that link to SANE Australia).
    But leaving aside the issue of what to call it, I’ve across similar ideas about the state of mind that oppressive regimes impose… there was one I read from China set during the Cultural Revolution (it might have been Educated Youth by Ye Xin) and it had a vivid portrait of an intellectual who didn’t dare ever express any thoughts for fear of reprisals. So this man (a former university professor) had a world of intelligent thought in his head while he performed menial tasks in his work and engaged in mundane conversations with people around him. And this went on for decades under Mao. The state of his mind must have been compartmentalised into different beings in order to survive.

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  4. This sounds like a complicated read! I get a little nervous reading books where mental illness isn’t portrayed entirely realistically, but it seems as the though ‘multiple personalities’ is more of an overarching theme in the story- and that aspect sounds really interesting. Thanks for sharing your review :-)

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    • It is complicated, and yes I had the same unease about using mental illness as a metaphor, I have a feeling that someone who had some experience of it might not like the way it’s been done.

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