Today’s Women in Translation Month post is of another book from Deep Vellum Press (the third woman in translation of theirs I’ve tried). There’s a first today, though, as the setting is one very new to me. Let’s take a journey to the east, where we’ll take a look at what can happen if instead of walls going down, they start to go up…
Alisa Ganieva’s The Mountain and the Wall (translated by Carol Apollonio, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is set in the Russian republic of Dagestan at some point in the recent past. Shamil, a young man looking to be a part-time reporter, returns from a trip to the countryside to find a city in chaos. In Dagestan’s capital of Makhachkala, rumours are spreading fast, and there’s only one topic of conversation:
“It’s something else. They say we’re being walled off from Russia. Border troops, you name it. Like the Berlin Wall.”
p.45 (Deep Vellum Press, 2015)
As incredible as it seems, confirmation slowly comes from various sources – the border is being sealed off…
Despite the lack of official confirmation, the locals soon find out that Mother Russia appears to have tired of her quarrelsome daughter republic. Funds are cut off, and officials vanish into thin air, fearing attacks now that their backers have disappeared. In the face of the resulting power vacuum, it’s inevitable that public life will descend into chaos. Sadly, in a volatile, ethnically diverse region like Dagestan, another thing that’s inevitable is bloodshed.
Ganieva is a native of Dagestan but was later educated in Moscow, and she won a prize for an earlier novel, her first work, after it was submitted under a male pseudonym (a fine story for #WITMonth…). She is, perhaps, the ideal person to examine her home country and the issues it faces, being able to examine the situation from within and without. Dagestan is home to many ethnic groups (Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgians…), and we see this in the protests and gatherings at the start of the novel. At times these scenes verge on the comical, each group letting off steam at alleged mistreatment and all wanting to march on the local government (almost at the same time…).
Gradually, though, we see that matters are far more serious than that. In a deeply corrupt society where bribes are required for everything from getting jobs to passing exams, the large Muslim population is restless, with a minority wanting a stricter, Sharia-type law. Part of the success of the book is seeing how this tension develops; once the Russians have withdrawn, religious intolerance grows. There are attacks on the street, women are forced to cover up, and clubs and bars are forcibly closed down.
In order to make sense of the overarching politics, Ganieva uses her main characters to examine the situation on the ground. Our main guide to the mean streets of Makhachkala is Shamil, a modern Muslim typical of many of the young men around:
“He began fumbling around in his desk drawers, angrily scooping out computer discs, brochures, and postcards with photographs of cars. One brochure was entitled The Meanings of the Koran; another The Criminal Code of the Russian Federation; a third The Art of the Pick Up; the title of a fourth was illegible.” (p.72)
While Shamil’s not averse to praying, Sharia law does not appeal. He spends his time on workouts, clubbing and checking out any women he notices in the street – and, like many young men in Makhachkala, he carries a gun, just in case.
There are two women in his life, each following a very different path. Asya is slightly different from the women Shamil is usually attracted to, someone unwilling to follow trends, but as the story develops, he begins to appreciate her personality and independence. In contrast, Shamil’s fiancée Madina sees the world rather differently. Influenced by a cousin, she turns to religion, pledging her support for the Muslim radicals and the hardline state they advocate:
“And our brothers aren’t terrorists, they are Muslims who want to live like Muslims. And soon everyone will live that same way.” (p.153)
Madina’s behaviour is indicative of the turn the region takes away from its uneasy secular coexistence, and both Shamil and the Dagestani people have a difficult choice to make.
The Mountain and the Wall is a novel of a city and country in turmoil, with Ganieva painting an excellent picture of a city struggling amidst rumours and a crippling lack of communication. Nothing is ever confirmed explicitly; the phones are out, the Internet is intermittent. Everything just seems to happen, suddenly:
“It turned out that none of their superiors had showed up to work. Not the director, not his deputy. Rumor had it that none of the other government offices and agencies were open either. After the Khanmagodemovs’ wedding yesterday, all the decision-makers had disappeared. Roza was yelling something about how they’d all been shot by the ‘goddamned beards’.” (p.144)
As much as people shout and cry, only one fact is clear – nobody knows what’s going on…
It all makes for a fascinating story, one a western reader will be intrigued by (the idea of what might happen in a Muslim takeover is a topic many will be interested in). It has a much wider application than just Dagestan, though, as the story shows how quickly a seemingly stable society can collapse when authority fails. The only quibble I had with the book is that there were far too many untranslated words in the text, not all of which were easy to guess from context. Yes, there’s a glossary at the end (again, not very useful on the Kindle), but it did get a little tiring at times.
Overall, though, The Mountain and the Wall is a book I’d recommend, as much for the exotic (?) setting as for the story. A well-written insight into a foreign land, Ganieva’s novel shows the western reader a completely different side of Russia, one few of us would have encountered before. It’s just another example of why we need translation – and more women in translation, of course…