On my scale of terrifying things, Splithead beats Baba Yaga, who lives in a hut perched on chicken legs. This Russian witch is sometimes helpful and good, which can’t be said of Splithead. “He doesn’t have a body”, my mother whispered to me …. “He’s invisible”…. “He’s just a huge floating head that hovers over people, and then he sucks them dry. If they aren’t careful.”
… “Isn’t there anything, anything at all you can do to stop him?” I whisper.
“Of course, Mischka, of course,” my mother says. “You have to see him. If you can see him, then he has no power over you.”
When Mischka’s family uproot themselves from St Petersburg to Vienna, Splithead has a field day. The Iron Curtain is still drawn to and so their dash to freedom comes with a heavy price. There is no way back and they are effectively exiled from their family – apart from Mischka’s uncle who emigrates to America. But as he is no longer on speaking terms with his mother, Mishka’s grandmother, who is now in Vienna with 7-year old Mischka and her parents. It’s complicated and becomes even more so when despite their fracturing marriage, Mischka’s parents have another daughter, who turns out to be autistic.
You can hear Mischka’s parents doubting the choices they have made and Splithead slurping up the tasty runny juices of that doubt.
7 year-old Mischka adapts quickly to the western lifestyle: she loves fruit yoghurt and is seduced by a new doll. Her father finds occupational success but not happiness. He misses core Russian values too much. Anti-semitism still casts a shadow on Viennese society. When the Iron Curtain does fall, he returns to Russia to die. As she grows older, Mischa becomes both rebellious and keenly aware of her Russian roots. This not knowing who she is or who she wants to be renders her adolescence a nightmare and so too her early adulthood. Following the end of her marriage, Mischka finally returns to Russia to face down Splithead ….
The novel is written predominately in Mischka’s 1st person narrative – given her age a non-omniscient voice. The worlds of her parents and grandmother and sister remain closed to her. To overcome this limited version of events, alternative viewpoints and experiences, both present and past, are presented in 3rd person texts and the success of the novel hings on the reader’s acceptance of these passages.
The youngest looks farthest.
The youngest knows the number.
Uncertain steps, confident glance.
She moves through a world that is always two dancing sidesteps from the other’s world. She pokes her head into their spaces, looks around, amazed, and carefully returns to her own domain.
She knows too much.
Which father’s daughter?
It’s a technique I have encountered before in crime novels that trace the actions of an unnamed criminal prior to the crime. I’m unconvinced of is effectiveness here. In fact I found these passages distinctly annoying. With each passage it’s necessary to work out who is being described. Then to work out when the experience is happening. Is it past or present in terms of the novel’s timeline? In addition there are a number of repetitive refrains, some of which are incomprehensible, all of which feel inauthentic and artificial. Would this family really chant in this artistic fashion? Igor, not Israil. or The number must remain the same, for the number is the word, and the word is knowledge and knowledge is power. I fathomed the meaning of the first but the meaning of the second, even on finishing the novel remains completely obscure. If only I could communicate with the youngest in the passage above. She’d be able to tell me.
This is, of course, personal preference. Others will no doubt find this artistry exhilarating for Rabinowich is undoubtedly a wordsmith who takes great pride in the precision of her prose. At one point Mischka voices what was once a personal ambition of the author. She determines that she will become the best German speaker in her peer group. Rabinowich certainly seems to have realised that ambition for, despite the confusions and frustrations I experienced, Splithead eloquently evokes the discord and disenchantment emigrants experience when the promised land of milk and honey delivers nothing but water and dry bread.