To get the details out of the way first: Alisa Ganieva is a Russian writer of Avar/Dagestani extraction. She has been called “the first Dagestani author to have their [sic] work translated into English”, and her most recent translated novel, the 2015 Bride and Groom—which was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize—is set in the Muslim-majority and turbulent Caucasus region of Dagestan.
It would therefore be easy to read the novel as commentary on Russia’s political difficulties in the Caucasus, or the dangers of creeping islamization and the stresses this places on society. But this would be to pigeon-hole it. Bride and Groom is, like all good novels with a message, a novel first. It can, and should, be appreciated for its story-telling alone.
Ganieva can tell a good story and her writing is very visual.
This is, until the last few pages, a rather traditional love story. 20-somethings Marat and Patya hail from the same small town, and both have spent time in Moscow. Marat is a human rights lawyer (his current case bears a probably non-coincidental resemblance to that of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaia). Both are under family pressure to marry, so much so that Marat’s family has gone ahead and booked a hall for three weeks hence. Marat’s mother is busy matchmaking; Patya is being pursuing by a muscle-bound up-and-coming Islamist politician who claims that “facts come from the devil himself.” The path of true love is not particularly subtle: Ganieva telegraphs it in her structure of alternating chapters told from the two protagonists’ perspectives.
The family and social pressures are compounded by the tensions in the town. The local strongman, Khalilbek, has just been arrested. This is something of a shock, because he was considered untouchable:
Khalilbek … had no official position, but somehow controlled the entire real estate market in our hometown and in the big city, as well as all the government officials of every rank and role. He was everywhere at once, in every imaginable office; he authored and published books on public improvements and on the secrets of worldwide success, ruled over bureaucrats, hobnobbed — so it was said — with bandits, looked after sick children and babies in hospitals he endowed, and turned the heads of pop singers and entertainers.
Indeed, his stature is such that some in the town have come to believe he is a “Khidr”, or prophet. Khalilbek, or at least his baleful influence, is everywhere; he was even responsible for Marat’s half-brother’s death in an automobile accident.
The weakness that this portrays in the local institutions of law and order is compounded by religious rifts: an alternate mosque has been set up “across the tracks”; it is suspected of radicalizing the youth. “There’s no such thing as ‘just’ a girl in a niqab around here,” says one character. “They are all future terrorists.”
These elements, as well as Ganieva’s vivid, vibrant and often sly descriptions of mothers, grannies, aunties, Dagestani millennials, feckless fathers, engagement parties and political action meetings provide color as well as context to the budding courtship—until, that is, the last few pages, where they all of sudden combine to bring the story to an unexpectedly ambiguous end.
It’s hard not to root for Ganieva’s protagonists.
Ganieva can tell a good story. Her protagonists are sympathetic young people, fighting off the strictures that their elders and society would place on them; we end up caring. Ganieva is, admittedly, somewhat manipulative: the reader is lead through all the imperfect relationships of Patya’s female acquaintances and the misogyny of the men. Marat, who has decided to marry to get his mother off his back, and is resigned to settle for the least bad option from among his mother’s selections, arrives in Patya’s life like a breath of fresh air. Their first real talk is in a fly-blown and somewhat disreputable café:
“What are you looking at?” I completely lost my bearings.
“I’m happy,” he answered simply. “It makes me happy just to look at you.”
His words went straight to my heart and gripped it with joy.
Cliché, maybe, but somehow genuine. Ganieva and her characters know it, too. Marat texts her “I embrace you, my soul” (which undoubtedly comes across better in Russian).
“My soul,” he had written. If I had seen it somewhere else, I would have sneered, it was so trite. But now I melted at the mere recollection. I gazed with tear-blinded eyes into the letters gleaming on the telephone screen. “I embrace you, my soul.”
It’s hard not to root for them.
Carol Apollonio’s fluent translation manages to seem both effortless and diligent.
Ganieva’s writing is visual: the characters and settings come easily to the mind’s eye. If a film script is not in the offing, someone should consider it. (It has already been adapted for radio by the BBC.) Carol Apollonio’s fluent translation manages to seem both effortless and diligent. There is little to indicate the book was originally in a language other than English. Apollonio has cleverly left a few expressions and traditional terms in the original language: the sense is usually evident; looking them up is fun.
Ganieva can’t quite leave well enough alone, however. She ends with an ill-advised Afterword, the purpose of which is “to address a quiet but very important subtext of the novel that has to do with Sufism, an esoteric Muslim teaching.” A nod is often as good as a wink: Bride and Groom is a fine novel that stands on its own with any need for explicit reference to the religious—and ethno-political—considerations that may have informed it.