Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 1, 2019

Zuleikha, a novel, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C Hayden

It’s always worthwhile keeping an eye on the Asian Review of Books, and it is thanks to them that I discovered Zuleikha, a big, bold, beautiful historical novel from Russian author Guzel Yakhina.  The book was the winner of the Big Book literary prize and the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award, and it’s starting to get attention in the English speaking world now that there is a superb translation by Lisa C Hayden (who blogs about classic and contemporary Russian fiction here).

Beginning in the Stalinist era of dekulakisation (1929-1932, according to Wikipedia) and continuing to the aftermath of WW2, the novel tells the story of a brow-beaten woman whose life is transformed by this brutal policy.  Zuleikha is a Muslim Tatar who also believes in ghosts and spirits, performing both the Islamic religious rituals under the guidance of the local mullah while also placating the malevolent local ghosts and spirits with sacrifices of food and other offerings.  She is terrorised by her despotic mother-in-law, who though deaf and blind, still rules the roost and has systematically destroyed Zuleikha’s self-confidence, taunting her about the loss of her four baby daughters and foretelling nothing but doom.  Zuleikha calls her the Vampire Hag, but never to her face…

Ironically, given that he was responsible for millions of deaths, it is Stalin and his policy of collectivisation that rescue Zuleikha from Murtaza her brute of a husband and this dreadful life.  In order to take state control of agriculture, Stalin declared the kulaks, who were independent and comparatively wealthy peasants, as class enemies. As the story opens the ‘Red Hordesmen’ were making their way through rural areas, deporting the kulaks and arresting or summarily executing any who resisted.  Murtaza who is stupid as well as brutal meets his end, and Zuleikha along with thousands of others, is put on a train for a nightmare journey to Siberia. (The author’s own grandmother made a similar journey, which probably accounts for the authenticity of the details).

This brutal experience is confronting to Zuleikha’s entire identity.  Although married, she is used to sleeping in separate quarters, and she would not normally venture out of her house in the company of any man not her kin.  She feels naked without her headscarf when it has to be used for other purposes, and even the way she is forced to speak is alien to her.

“Zuleikha Valieva!”
“I’m here!”
In Zuleikha’s whole life, she’s never uttered the word “I” as many times as she has during this month in prison.  Modesty is a virtue so it doesn’t befit a decent woman to say “I” a lot without reason.  The Tatar language is even constructed so you could live your whole life without once saying “I”.  No matter what tense you use to speak about yourself, the verb will go into the necessary form and the ending will change, making the use of that vain little word superfluous.  It’s not like that in Russian, where everybody goes out of their way to put in “I” and “me” and then “I” again. (p.146)

In charge of the train is Ignatov, bitterly resentful at being sent out into the wilderness instead of serving the new state apparatus in a more dashing fashion that befits his military status.  What he doesn’t realise, though the careful reader will notice, is that his friend Bakiev is getting him out of harm’s way before an imminent purge.  Yet even Ignatov, who starts the journey with an amoral view of Stalin’s death toll, comes to feel remorse about the shocking number of people who die on the journey: what begins as a faceless list of names becomes individual people as the numbers drop over the months – on a journey that should only have taken days.  By the time they are despatched onto an overloaded barge, his charges are have names and faces that he recognises, and much to his own astonishment he cares enough about one of them to risk his life for her.

But for Zuleikha, Ignatov is the fearsome man who shot her husband, and once they are abandoned on the pitiless taiga, the struggle for survival takes precedence over everything else anyway.  If you’ve read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich then you too will probably read about their arrival with the same sense of approaching doom as I did: winter is on its way and these thirty people have been abandoned to build a settlement with nothing more than the clothes they stand up in and some rudimentary tools.  They have no food supplies and only Ignatov has a gun for hunting with.

But they do survive, and Zuleikha who was characterised as a ‘pitiful hen’ in the opening chapters, makes an extraordinary personal transition.  Murtaza had raped her on the night before his death, and in the frigid conditions she brings the baby to term. A doctor who had survived the loss of his position at the university by retreating into a fantasy world makes a personal transition too, as do the diverse cast of other characters.

Although the novel shows these people making the best of things, there’s no romanticising the situation.  There are droll moments, as for example, when the artist painting what is meant to be ‘inspiring’ soviet art in the community centre (that no one uses because they’re all working long hours to achieve impossible quotas), gets away with nostalgic images of Paris because Ignatov and his supervisor Kuznets are too ignorant to recognise them.  But the reality of the deaths from extreme cold and malnutrition and the poverty of their lives is a constant.  And more importantly, none of these people are free to live as they please and certainly not to leave.  Yet despite that there comes a time when Zuleikha can reflect on her fortunes, and she comes to the conclusion that it hasn’t all been bad:

During her years as an unrestricted hunter, she has recalled her entire life and taken it apart, piece by piece.  She’s recently and suddenly grasped that it’s good that fate has cast her here.  She’s taking shelter in a cubbyhole in a state-owned infirmary, living among people who aren’t blood relatives, speaking a language not native to her, hunting like a man, working enough for three, and she’s doing fine.  Not that she’s happy, no.  But she’s fine.  (p.380)

One can only assume that the author has based some of these surprising attitudes on her own grandmother’s experience.

Highly recommended.

PS There’s an excellent interview with the author at the Calvert Journal.

PPS Claire at Word by Word was impressed too.

Author: Guzel Yakhina
Title: Zuleikha, a novel
Translated by Lisa C Hayden
Publisher: Oneworld, 2019, first published in in Russian in 2015
ISBN: 9781786073495
Source: Personal library, purchased from FIshpond $31.15 AUD

 


Responses

  1. The story sounds brutal and grim. Sadly such books reflect the reality of what actually happened.

    The quote that you posted is so interesting. Human resilience is amazing. That is something else that good literature sometimes reflects.

    Like

    • Some parts of it are, but there are also moments of beauty and joy, as when the child is born. I think what the book achieves is both the reality of what happened and also the way people made the best of it, because that’s what people do.

      Like

  2. Wonderful review, Lisa! Makes we want to read the book! Love the cover too – so beautiful! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    • The author mentions Zuleikha’s striking green eyes many times as her most attractive feature. But the other thing is, the Russian title is Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes…i.e. and sees a different world and different opportunities. In that interview I’ve mentioned, the author says that when her mother went back to her original village all the women were uneducated peasants all still doing what they were told. Whereas she had seen a bit of the world, had a job, could speak another language, and was respected for being an equal in society. I think what this shows is that communism wasn’t all bad for women.

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  3. […] Review: Check out Lisa Hill’s review at ANZLitLovers […]

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  4. A wonderful, thoughtful book that was indeed inspired by memories of her grandmother, who went on a similar journey by horseback and train into exile from the age of 7 until 17. They arrive on the shores of the Angara and are told to build a village.

    It’s fascinating to read a story like this through the eyes of a young woman, especially one who had such a dire home life before being exiled.

    Like

    • Yes, that was the amazing thing. I’m sure there would be people who would dismiss as fanciful the idea that there could be anything good about the gulags – except that this is what the author’s own grandmother thought, and it’s based on that woman’s memories. I loved reading your review too. I’m going to link to it from mine right now:)

      Liked by 1 person


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