JULY 5, 2018
ALISA GANIEVA’S APPEARANCE in the world of Russian literature took everyone by surprise, in the literal sense. A critic by training, she published her first work of fiction, the novella Salam, Dalgat! (Salam tebe, Dalgat!), when she was 25, under a male pseudonym; when the novella received the Debut Prize in 2009, Ganieva outed herself as a woman at the awards ceremony. Two novels written under her own name followed, enjoying similar critical success: The Mountain and the Wall (Prazdnichnaia gora, 2012) was longlisted for Russia’s National Bestseller award, while Bride and Groom (Zhenikh i nevesta, 2015) made the shortlist for the Russian Booker. What sets Ganieva apart from most other contemporary Russian writers has to do with what being a “Russian writer” actually means. Her background is culturally and linguistically hybrid. She was born in Moscow but is ethnically Avar, the Avars being the largest ethnic group in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority republic of the Russian Federation located in the North Caucasus. (It neighbors the more sadly famous Chechnya.) Although Ganieva later returned to Moscow, she grew up in Dagestan. As she explains in an interview, her first language was Avar, but she writes in Russian, with which she also grew up, as it is Dagestan’s lingua franca.
This movement between places, cultures, and languages is characteristic of Bride and Groom. Like her previous works, the novel is set in Dagestan, in the small village where Patya and Marat — the bride and the groom — are from and to which they have come back to visit their families. Marat works as a defense lawyer in Moscow, where Patya has just spent a year working in a courthouse copying documents. They are both intimately familiar with village culture and comfortable with Moscow’s modern ways. Intermingling in the novel also occurs on the linguistic level: while Ganieva writes in standard Russian, she injects many words and expressions from Avar and Arabic, making hers a specifically Dagestani Russian variant. In Ganieva’s original texts, these words and expressions are translated into Russian in footnotes, which presents her English-language translator, Carol Apollonio, with the question of how best to handle them in translation. Apollonio opts for two different approaches: in The Mountain and the Wall, she puts these terms in a glossary at the end, whereas in Bride and Groom, possibly because there are fewer of them, she italicizes them to mark their foreignness but leaves them untranslated, asking readers to rely on context for a general understanding of their meaning.
Literature by Dagestani writers is virtually unknown in the West. The press release by Ganieva’s United States publisher, Deep Vellum, notes that The Mountain and the Wall is the first novel by a Dagestani writer to be translated into English (making Bride and Groom the second). Yet even those living in the Russian Federation are poorly versed in writing from Dagestan, having been raised, as was Ganieva herself, on a Russian literary canon overwhelmingly made up of writers of European descent. The rise of a Dagestani author with Dagestani-themed works challenges this hegemony and alters the way the Caucasus, which occupies a prominent place in Russian writing, has been traditionally represented.
As part of its colonial expansion during the 19th century, the Russian Empire sought to bring the region under its control through a series of military campaigns, a conflict that resumed in the late 20th century, as Russia attempted to suppress separatism in Chechnya. Before he became a pacifist and insufferable moralist, the young profligate Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) went to the Caucasus and joined the army after piling up gambling debts. Several writers were exiled to the remote region for displeasing tsarist authorities — notably Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), who fought in the military there. Indeed, the Caucasus as a literary setting is most often associated with Russian Romanticism and Lermontov, its most famous practitioner. His novel A Hero of Our Time (1840), whose Byronic protagonist finds himself stationed in the Caucasus like his creator, serves as a foundational text of the Russian novelistic tradition. This work highlights the way many European Russian authors exoticized the Caucasus as the polar opposite of European Russia: warm, lush, romantic, and full of adventure, yet also a foreign, non-Christian space of savagery and violence.
If the Caucasus has for the most part been written about from the point of view of Russocentric outsiders, Ganieva represents it as an insider focusing on Dagestani people and events, while sending up Russians who have no cultural understanding of the region. In the novel’s opening chapter — the only one set in Moscow — Patya becomes the object of fascination for a group of Russians when she goes to an acquaintance’s dacha for a party. When one of the guests begins describing his time in the Caucasus while serving in the army, she laughs at him — “You must be mixing up the nineteen-nineties with the nineteenth century” — and subsequently decides that it is easier not to argue when he asks whether she has to undergo a “gynecological exam every month” to ensure that she is still a virgin.
Ganieva’s works show a society that is much more nuanced than these Russian stereotypes suggest. Dagestan is a place where tradition vies with modernization. Those with hardline religious views chat up prospective partners on the internet: for example, Timur, a fundamentalist political youth organizer and denier of evolution, insists that he and Patya are meant to marry because they have been corresponding for several months. Crucially, Ganieva depicts a range of characters’ Islamic practices. Patya and Marat are modern secular Muslims. Patya tells Timur, “I don’t pray. That’s not happening,” while Marat refuses to consider marrying a woman who wears a headscarf and throws a proselytizer out of a cafe in which he and Patya are on a date — itself a modern concept. Marat’s friend, Rusik-the-Nail, eccentric by his society’s standards, walks out into the street with a placard declaring, “I am an agnostic,” for which he unsurprisingly suffers immense consequences. While most of the society is religious, there is a definitive split between families like Patya’s and Marat’s, who practice a conventional form of Islam, and those like Timur and his friends, who represent the Wahhabi fundamentalism encroaching on the region, which many of the other characters find abhorrent. This split is embodied in the two warring mosques in the village: the regular “mosque on the avenue” and the extremist one “across the tracks” that radicalizes its attendees. While fundamentalism is spreading — more women are wearing hijabs and there are violent clashes between the mosques — it has not completely taken hold. Ganieva has stated that she sees the tendency toward hardline practices as a problem in the region, and her works capture Dagestan in a moment of flux, the path it will head down still unfinalized.
Moreover, as a woman writer, Ganieva injects a different gender dynamic into the Caucasus narrative. The Russians who wrote about the region were largely men writing about male protagonists; Ganieva’s own Salam, Dalgat! and The Mountain and the Wall also feature male protagonists, with the latter especially depicting women as secondary characters in largely clichéd terms. But she takes a different approach in Bride and Groom, alternating the chapters between Patya’s and Marat’s points of view. Arguably, Patya’s point of view predominates, at least until the very end, since her chapters are in first person, while Marat’s are in third person. As a character, Patya is independent and headstrong, with ideas that conflict with the traditional mores of her society, which brand women sluts for sleeping with their boyfriends, as happens to her friend, and even prohibit them from wearing pants in public. She questions the narrowly domestic roles women are expected to assume in a society obsessed with marriage; as she wryly observes when she goes into town, “A wedding salon on every block […] Weddings, weddings, weddings. As though there was nothing else to do.”
To be sure, this society insists on marriage for men as well as women. Marat comes home to his village because his parents have rented out the banquet hall for his wedding and a bride must be found in short order. His mother personally escorts him to meet the women on the list she has compiled for this purpose. Yet marriage demands affect women’s lives more. While his parents will lose their deposit on the banquet hall if a wife is not found, Marat can return to his job in Moscow. In contrast, Patya’s mother refuses to let her go back to Moscow, insisting that she must stay in the village and find a husband; at 25, she is reminded at every turn that she is “[a] little long in the tooth for a bride.” While she eventually becomes engaged to Marat, she does so on her own terms. Even though everyone strongly encourages her to marry Timur, she rejects him because he treats her like an object, and although her family ultimately agrees with her choice of groom, it initially goes against their wishes. At the same time, Ganieva does not always depict Patya consistently. In the scene of their declaring their love for each other, which occurs toward the end of the novel, Patya’s responses to Marat — for example, she assures him, “Go ahead and tell me. I will understand,” when she clearly doesn’t — seem as though Ganieva is relying on cultural clichés of how women in love should talk to the men they are in love with. (In Apollonio’s translation the scene reads more neutrally than in Russian.)
Patya and Marat’s courtship unfolds against the social and political tensions around them, which form the backbone of the story and ultimately determine its outcome. The central event occupying everyone as the two arrive in the village is the arrest and imprisonment of Khalilbek, a man whose status in the community is nothing short of mythic:
Khalilbek was omnipotent, omnipresent, and more […] He had a finger in every pie and knew the details of the most minor matters; at the same time, he was behind all major shifts in power, missing persons cases, and fateful decisions.
Because of his epic powers, many believe he is “Khidr, a prophet,” a man of God and divine wisdom. At the same time, he is imprisoned on charges of corruption and murder and is directly responsible for the death of Adik, Marat’s half-brother and his father’s illegitimate son, whom Khalilbek ran over in his car several years previously. Although Khalilbek’s highly ambiguous nature is never fully resolved, the surprising reason behind Adik’s murder and Khalilbek’s role in the closing scene of the novel does suggest a particular reading. It is the confluence of external circumstances — Adik’s past actions, the jealousy of Marat’s ex-lover, the unscrupulousness of the local police in their efforts to root out fundamentalism — that ultimately decides the private fates of Patya and Marat, underscoring individuals’ precarious position in a world largely out of their control.
The novel’s ambiguous ending, while not entirely satisfying, works well enough. What works markedly less well is Ganieva’s decision to include an afterword in the English version, whose aim, as she explains, “is to address a quiet but very important subtext of the novel that has to do with Sufism, an esoteric Muslim teaching.” To be sure, Sufism is not a topic with which most of her English-speaking readership will be familiar, and it is understandable why she feels the need to elaborate (although she seems not to have felt this need with her Russian audience, most of whom would be equally unfamiliar with it). Looking back at the novel with this subtext in mind does change one’s perception, including the interpretation of the ending, which is Ganieva’s goal. However, adding an afterword in which an author instructs her readers how to read her novel is decidedly an overreach. This misstep aside, Bride and Groom is an intelligent and interesting read that brings into focus a little-known part of the world while challenging cultural and literary clichés that have clustered around it. The fact that this corrective is the work of a woman author and a woman translator may be coincidental, but it is hardly surprising.