Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) tr. Lisa Hayden

Last year my favourite read Kintu, by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Nakumbi was published by OneWorld Publications. This year, I enjoyed another of their award winning titles The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al-Rawi (Iraq) (tr. Luke Leafgren) and now I am adding to that list, this wonderful historical fiction epic, Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) translated by Lisa Hayden.

The Russian Gulag – Labour Camps

April 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulags in Russia. Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, they were a system of forced labour camp, a kind of re-education in a prison-like environment.

The Gulag was first established in 1919, and by 1921 the Gulag system had 84 camps. But it wasn’t until Stalin’s rule that the prison population reached significant numbers. From 1929 until Stalin’s death, the Gulag went through a period of rapid expansion.

At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people each. Conditions at the Gulag were brutal: Prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in extreme weather. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion— others were simply executed. The atrocities of the Gulag system have had a long-lasting impact that still permeates Russian society today.

Kulaks and Dekulakization

The first people to be interned in these camps were known as kulaks (literal translation – fist, as in tight-fisted) meaning affluent peasants – originally the term referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged from the peasantry and became wealthy, but the definition broadened in 1918 to include any peasant who resisted handing over their grain to authorities and under Joseph Stalin’s leadership it came to refer to peasants with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors and eventually any intellectual who offended him.

Portrayed as class enemies of the USSR, the process of re-education was dekulakization the campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations, and executions of millions of prosperous peasants and their families. It is these people, decreed kulaks in the 1930’s, that are the subject of this novel.

Book Review – Zuleikha

As soon as I read premise of this novel, I wanted to get it, one of my favourite books The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was set in a Russian gulag, though these are very different books. And there is nothing quite like being swept away by those wonderful character-lead novels such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina and the provocative poetry of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin that have entertained us and demonstrated important aspects of creating characters in literature, and who could forget one of the highest grossing films of all time, Doctor Zhivago.

While we may not quite reach the heights of the masters, we are offered a refreshing and unique perspective in this compelling novel about a Tartar Muslim woman named Zuleikha, whose independent farmer husband has been accused of not having collectivised his property, resulting in her being sent away to be dekulakized.

They encounter the Red Army and their leader Comrade Ignatov as they return from hiding provisions, a meeting that will forever be etched in the minds of both Zuleikha and Ignatov, the latter becoming an equally important protagonist in the novel, which charts the journey and evolution of both characters.

They travel the same paths in opposite roles, one of the ironies of the novel to see how imprisonment in many ways improves the life of Zuleika, and control of the camp significantly diminishes the life of her captor.  Effectively she is rescued from a tyrannical husband and mother-in-law, having been married off at the age of fifteen (he 30 years her senior) where she was little more than a slave in their household, having also given birth and lost all her babies in that period.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Unlike some gulag stories, the people in this novel who are sent to be dekulakized are not sent to an existing facility. They spend months on a long train journey, where many will die, some escape, getting to know each other and then just as winter sets in they’re put on a barge, travel up a river and are dumped there. In order to survive, they must build shelter and find food, so their fate also extends to the leader who oversees them, Ignatov.

Although Zuleikha arrives in an emaciated state, she soon attains strong motivation to remain healthy, she finds solace in her role in the kitchen and ultimately strength in her eventual role as a hunter, venturing into the forest every day to set traps and capture wildlife to keep them all from starving.

Whereas Ignatov, who has enjoyed relative freedom and even privilege in his previous role, riding across the country rounding up suspected kulaks, is unhappy with orders to take on the role of Commandant to accompany these people to an unknown destination. His transformation is more of a decline from his lofty position of power, he loses faith and no longer commands the same respect he had, even for himself.

On the cover of the book and mentioned throughout the text, are Zuleikha’s intense green eyes, other versions of the novel are entitled “Zuleikha Opens her Eyes“, this transformation of character through having her eyes opened is one of the themes of the novel, she sees beauty as well as suffering, she will experience true love and profound heartbreak. It’s about a woman who comes out from having been defined and used by men, into finding new strength and her own role. It is a form of emancipation, albeit it a preliminary one.

Yusef runs away from Zulaikha

One aspect of the novel I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the significance of the names, Zuleikha and Yuzuf. I had a sense that those names somehow went together and I discovered an epic poem of the same name written in 1483 AD by the Sufi poet Jami.

It is an allegorical poem about the pursuit of love and of God, which also covers the allure and the suppression of love, the suffering of slavery and in aspects of this poem, I find aspects of three characters in the novel, Zuleikha, Ignatov and Yuzuf and I end my review with an ambiguous extract that may refer to a lover or a son, from the poem that reminds me of the closing pages of the novel.

The novel is unique in that it is written (and translated) by a woman who makes a young woman the centre of such an epic story, in part inspired by the actual memories of her own grandmother. She hasn’t set out to recreate the dire, conditions and cruelty of the camps, we witness a tale of survival, and through the eyes of a woman who already had a dire life, despite being the wife of an affluent peasant.

Guzel Yakhina’s grandmother was arrested in the 1930’s, taken by horseback to Kazan and then on a long railway journey (over 2,000 miles) to Siberia. She was exiled from the age of 7 until 17 years, returning to her native village in 1947. It was these formative childhood years that were in a large part responsible for her formidable character.

Upon her death at the age of 85 years, the author realised the importance of her early life and thus began her research and determination to understand how her grandmother operated, bringing her back in part through the inspired creation of the extraordinary character Zuleikha.

“I realised it would be impossible to remember the things she said as her stories were not recorded,” Yakhina says. “There was a feeling of guilt.”

A thought-provoking, interesting story and reflection, not at all brutal or hard to read, the author writes with compassion for her characters and brings out something very different from what we have come to expect from stories set in prison-like environments.

Highly Recommended.

 Zuleikha and Yusuf – extract from the epic poem

“The one sole wish of my heart,” she replied,
“Is still to be near thee, to sit by thy side;
To have thee by day in my happy sight,
And to lay my cheek on thy foot at night;
To lie in the shade of the cypress and sip
The sugar that lies on thy ruby lip;
To my wounded heart this soft balm to lay;
For naught beyond this can I wish or pray.
The streams of thy love will new life bestow
On the dry thirsty field where its sweet waters flow.”

Jami, Sufi poet (tr. Charles Francis Horne)

Further Reading

Review: Check out Lisa Hill’s review at ANZLitLovers

Article, The Calvert Journal: “Learn to live with it, even forgive.” Guzel Yakhina on the traumas of Soviet history

Article, Peninsula, Qatar: Russian novel tells story of survival, love in Stalin’s camp

Buy a Copy of Zuleikha via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me with an advance reader’s copy of this novel.

Eugene Onegin – Chapters 7 & 8 Alexander Pushkin

Moscow, loved daughter of Russia,

where can we find your equal?

DMITRIEV

Eugene Onegin 7 8Chapter Seven

The beginning of Chapter 7 contains numerous quotes and I have noticed all through my reading of Eugene Onegin that the epigrams are a kind of clue to what will follow. So on reading the four quotes that adorn the first page of this chapter, it is clear that the action is going to take us to that great, revered city, Moscow.

A forlorn Tatyana remains in the countryside, nursing the remnant emotions of an unrequited love, like weeds that grow over the unvisited grave of the poet Lensky.

Dear Tatyana, lover of illusion:

Though there he’s no more to be found,

He’s left sad footprints on the ground.

We learn of the swift healing heart of Olga, wooed by another and whisked down the aisle, her tears dried up and replaced by a smile, abandoning her sister and confidant with not much of a glance behind. Tatyana bereft, walks unbidden, finds herself arriving at the country home of Eugene Onegin, his staff invite her in and show her round like a tourist visiting a noble home, the rooms where our hero entertained his solitary self.

At once Anisia came to greet her,

the doorway opened wide to meet her,

she went inside the empty shell,

in which our hero used to dwell.

Spying a collection of strange books she asks if she can return to read them, opening a window into his soul, one she is less sure of, the marks on the page don’t lie, revealing the thoughts of another reader. She comes to understand him via the page, though they are nothing like those she prefers to lose herself in.

The locals are not happy with her loveless state with no plans to marry, they advise her family to take her to Moscow, after a week of travelling they arrive to stay with family, where Tatyana will meet her cousins and slowly become drawn into their ways.

Moscow’s the place, the marriage-fair!

There’s vacancies in plenty there.

They make subtle changes to prepare her for the social activities and try to pry the secrets of her heart, she resists and even while attending the dance, thinks only of the woods, her flower garden and books .

But while she roams in thought, not caring

for dance, and din, and worldly ways,

a general of majestic bearing

has fixed on her a steady gaze.

Chapter Eight

The narrator expounds his poetic verse, carrying us forward, oft-times veering off course as if he were driving an open air carriage then taking his eye off the road to watch the clouds form or listen to birds and admire the wildflowers, then suddenly we are back in the ballroom, the driver his eyes back on the road and the events as we come to know them gradually unfold.

Tatyana is escorted to a ball and sitting quietly to the side, after all this time who does she spot but Eugene, just returned from travels and roaming, he arrives in the midst of this social whirlabout. Recognising her from a distance, though not sure, he asks the prince next to him, who she is:

Eugene Opera‘Can you say,

Prince, who in that dark-red beret,

just there, is talking to the Spanish

ambassador?’ In some surprise

the prince looks at him, and replies:

‘Wait, I’ll present you – but you banish

yourself too long from social life.’

‘But tell me who she is.’ ‘My wife.’

Two years have passed and time has not stood still, he is introduced to the princess and she is unmoved, he sees no trace of the Tatyana he knew and really isn’t sure if it is the same girl. The prince invites him to a soirée and uncharacteristically he responds in haste, eager to see Tatyana once more and is impatient for the evening to arrive. Tatyana playing the dutiful hostess is serene, Eugene falls for all that he has previously scorned, the madness of love. He finds no solace and surprise, surprise, what does he do, this lovesick fop, but write a letter!

Eugene 8No answer comes. Another letter

he sends, a second, then a third.

No answer comes. He goes, for better

or worse, to a soirée. Unheard

she appears before him, grim and frozen.

No look, no word for him: she’s chosen

to encase herself inside a layer

of Twelfth Night’s chilliest, iciest air.

He turns to his books and finds no reason and then as the seasons pass, one spring day he ventures out to see her, is given an audience with the women he can’t get out of his mind and finds the roles have switched, it is she who now lectures him, reminding him of his own behaviour in reprimanding her, she speaks of her love, but that she now belongs to another, to whom she will be true. She leaves the room and Eugene is thunder-struck – the husband arrives – and now we must leave them, this chase has gone on long enough.

The Verdict

Wow. I made it. A brilliant read-along and an entertaining read, although I am a somewhat cynical reader, in that I find it difficult to believe that Eugene Onegin could have become the man he ends up being, not just because of his character so firmly established, but surely after two years travelling he should have gained a kind of maturity that would have provoked a different outcome than this. Perhaps I should have read it 10 years ago when it was given to me!

Thanks to Marian at Tanglewood for organising the challenge, it’s been fabulous. I totally recommend you all give this classic epic poem a try!

Eugene Onegin Chapters Five & Six Alexander Pushkin

O, never know these frightful dreams,

thou, my Svetlana!

VASILY ZHUKOVSKY

Eugene Onegin5

Reading the epigram above and looking into its source, I discover how little I really know about this poem, because of my ignorance of Russian poets and folklore, for Vasily Zhukovsky, a prominent figure in Russian literature in the 1800’s and tutor to a Duchess and her son, the future Tsar-Liberator Alexander II, was highly esteemed by Pushkin. His heroine Tatyana is modelled in some way on the heroine Svetlana in Zhukovsky’s poem of the same name, where there are dreams of snowy nights, a hovel and a corpse who manifests into her beloved, just as there are in Chapter 5 of Pushkin’s poem.

Chapter Five

Vasily Zhukovsky_1815

Vasily Zhukovsky, 1815
Source: Wikipedia

Tatyana, who is prone to superstition and susceptible to clairvoyance, is plagued by dreams, of a snowstorm and a large bear stalking her, she can’t escape the sense of being pursued and will be taken by the bear to a gathering in a hovel, where she is reunited with her love Eugene Onegin, who feasts with bizarre creatures. Her happiness is short-lived as he embarrasses her in front of the audience gathered, only to claim her like a worthy hero, making her swoon in quickly forgiven ecstasy.

Tatyana is troubled by her dream and won’t speak of it to her sister, instead she descends into the safe passages of a book, with their trustworthy, predictable heroes.

January 25, her name day arrives and the mood changes as friends, family, neighbours, the local army Major and more descend upon the Larin household and word has it the regimental band is coming!

Dinner is served amid much excitement and the merriment rises in volume when the doors open to admit the latecomers Lensky the poet and his friend Eugene Onegin. Finally! Seated opposite Tatyana, who becomes a bundle of nerves, our hero isn’t impressed with her lovesick feminine display and mentally passes judgement on them all. I ask myself, is the man a psychopath, he displays zero empathy!

Fortunately no one notices, the gluttons, as more food arrives and flutes for champagne and cries of ‘Speech’ to toast the beautiful Tatyana who pulls herself together to respond to each guest individually, stumbling when she reaches Eugene, who seems to take pity, for his face shows something she interprets as tenderness – more fool her!

They move to the salon, tea and cards and the sound of the band arriving, the ball is underway, the Russian Waltz on display! And now the trouble starts as Eugene claims Olga, shocking the crowd in their stomping frenzy and outraging his friend! What is he up to this player of dangerous games! How will Lensky react?

He finds the shock beyond all bearing;

so, cursing women’s devious course,

he leaves the house, calls for his horse

and gallops. Pistols made for pairing

and just a double charge of shot

will in a flash decide his lot.

Chapter Six

Seeing his friend depart, Eugene becomes bored with his game and will leave alone. While bodies sprawl everywhere in sleep, Tatyana sits at her window and peers into the darkness, a coldness creeping over her heart.

We meet another landowner with a shady past, who delivers a message to Eugene, a letter from his friend Lensky, challenging him to a duel. He accepts, this manly hero, though on his own he laments his role.

With reason, too: for when he’d vetted

in secret judgement what he’d done,

he found too much that he regretted:

last night he’d erred in making fun,

so heartless and so detrimental,

of love so timorous and gentle.

Lensky wakes in anger like a raging bull intent on not seeing his love, but relents and is confused to find her as much in love as she ever was, his anger abates and he regrets his haste, but wants to teach his friend a lesson. No one spares a thought for our heroine. Lensky cleans his pistols and spends all night writing his last poem.

How did these two friends becomes foes and what madness have they entered into, to continue this game of death. Pistols ready, they march, they turn, a shot. Our poet holds his hand to his heart, inspired right up to his last seconds in this world, he departs.

Reader, whatever fate’s direction,

we weep for the young lover’s end,

the man of reveries and reflection,

the poet struck down by his friend!

Even the narrator stalls, he can not go on, he needs to pause. He will come back and tell us what will happen when he can face it.

Reactions

A.S.Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin by Vasily Tropinin
Source: Wikipedia

Since Tatyana and her sister rarely speak, the dream sequence helps us understand her state of mind, her fears and desires, her confusion and unwillingness to share it with anyone. It is like a premonition of what will come, the roller coaster of highs and lows on her name day, where even then the only high note she experiences in relation to her beloved is a look on his face that may or may not have been tenderness.

My opinion of Eugene Onegin has not changed, he has not a shed of empathy, neither for Tatyana or ever more tragically for his dear friend, the poet Lensky. How will he redeem himself from this pistol waving mess!

And the Narrator? I recall that this poem was written over several years and when the Narrator interjects and seems to need to pause, I find myself wondering if these pauses represent the intervening years. No doubt some scholar has the answer.

Brilliant. Loving this!

Click here to read the final follow up review of Eugene Onegin Chapters 7 & 8

Eugene Onegin – Chapters Three & Four Alexander Pushkin

Elle était fille, elle était amoureuse.

Jacques-Charles-Louis Clinchamps de Malfilâtre

Tatyana Eugene Onegin

January 25 – The Feast of Tatiana

What better day to write about these chapters, January 25 being the feast day of Saint Tatiana in Russia, a symbol of women and celebrated as a student festival. Both the name and the day have become even more popular since Alexander Pushkin made her the love interest of his epic poem.

Chapters Three & Four

Eugene Onegin inquires as to how his friend the poet spends his evenings and thus finds himself invited to join him for a family evening at the home of Olga and Tatyana, where they receive warm, old-fashioned hospitality, though afterwards he cannot remember which girl was Olga and which Tatyana. While the evening failed to ignite significant interest in our hero, it did set tongues wagging among the locals.

Conjecture found unending matter:

there was a general furtive chatter,

and jokes and spiteful gossip ran

claiming Tatyana’s found her man;

The girl who spends her hours immersed in romantic novels let her imagination run wild and fell for the insinuations, if not the man himself, suffering from a love sickness of her own making, culminating in a letter (in French) to the imagined hero she has shaped from the form of Eugene Onegin. A baffled Onegin, clearly does not read the same literary genre.

Who taught her an address so tender,

such careless language of surrender?

Who taught her all this mad, slapdash,

heartfelt, imploring, touching trash

fraught with enticement and disaster?

I can’t help but laugh, it is perhaps the poetic form combined with the ignorance of the hero, this bringing together of polar beings, to create such a discordant clash of romantic versus pragmatic. And so we wait to learn what will pass, when by chance the two meet, and Tatyana must listen to the unfeeling hero speak from a detached but well intended heart, warning her against baring her soul so easily in future. Though it is true, he tolerates and listens easily to similarly themed devotions from his friend the poet, for whom such outpourings are his raison d’être.

But I was simply not intended

for happiness – that alien role.

Should your perfections be expended

in vain on my unworthy soul?

Saint TatianaAnd finally the long autumn and winter bore him and he agrees to a second visit, one that will fall on Tatyana’s name day celebration!

Impressions of Tatayana and Olga

Tatyana is distant and aloof socially, yet vulnerable to the roller coaster of emotions she reads and studies at length in her romantic novels. Her falling in love is not as such inspired by meeting Onegin or anything he says or does in their first encounter, it is by the idea of him inflamed by the wagging tongues of neighbours, that allow her, now that she has some distance from the man himself, to imagine herself in love. She has a need to express herself and because she hesitates to ever do so in person, pours her emotion into the written word – a letter.

Olga we only see through the eyes of the enraptured poet Lensky, he is always with her, walking with her, reading to her, writing poems about her, he gives and receives love easily and neither of them appear subject to the more tumultuous vagaries of passionate love.

Onegin’s Reaction to Tatyana?

An almost fatherly response, he was concerned that she should not respond in the same manner when next she looks for love, outwardly he shows little emotional response to her revelations, however there is a hint that the words may have affected him at a more sub-conscious level that has yet to make its way into his more intellectual self. Fortunately, he does show careful consideration for her feelings, by refraining at least from criticising her too harshly or outrightly rejecting her. Ironically, it is his constant boredom that will lead back to the warm hospitality of her family home.

Le Grand Meaulnes

Le Grand Meaulnes

How Does it Contrast With Another Classic Romantic Novel?

I can only compare it with the most recent classic romantic novel I have read, though it was written nearly 100 years later, Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes whose male characters are more afflicted by romantic notions in the vein of Tatyana, than Eugene Onegin. In Fournier’s novel and in his own personal experience, it is the women who dole out the practical advice and suggest that the young man is too young, only for him to become completely obsessed with her.

Overall, these chapters are much more dramatic and throw us deep into the story, they entertain, they shock and delight. It is a pleasure to read and I am looking forward to what the next two chapters will bring.

Click here to read the follow up review of Eugene Onegin Chapters 5 & 6

Eugene Onegin Read Along – Chapter’s One & Two Alexander Pushkin

Eugene OneginWell, this is a first for me, a read along!

Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin has long been on my list of books to read, since it was gifted to me by husband many years ago. I don’t know why it seemed to intimidate me, since I loved long prose poems as a teenager, especially that other Alexander – Alexander Pope.

The book is a verse novel and I’m reading the Penguin Classic version translated by Charles Johnston with an introduction by the novelist and literary critic  John Bayley (husband of the late Iris Murdoch).

So I’m a little late finishing, but I have read the first two chapters and have a few basic impressions, though not much idea of the story, without reading outside the text.

So, I’ll follow Tanglewood’s lead (hosting this read-along) and try to answer her questions:

First impressions of Eugene?

A bit of a dandy? Son of a lavish spender who clearly didn’t instill much of a work ethic into his son. Then thanks to the legacy of a rich Uncle, he will spend more time in a dressing room, than any character I’ve ever read of.

Eugene turned countryman. He tasted

the total ownership of woods,

mills, lands and waters – he whose goods

till then had been dispersed and wasted –

and glad he was he’d thus arranged

for his old courses to be changed.

Not interested in history or politics or activism, he possesses a wealth of well polished stories to offer at the many social engagements he attends. Hates the Greek heros and prefers the theories of economics. Something of a chameleon, a charmer, dare I suggest, a manipulator, seducer? Prefers balls to ballet, the city to the countryside, yet tolerates boredom, cynicism suits him.

Chapter One introduces Eugene while chapter two introduces the characters he meets when he moves to the countryside, descriptions of Eugene are superficial, he lacks depth, something he may encounter soon perhaps.

What do you make of the narrator’s commentary?

I find the commentary more accessible than I thought, certainly it’s easier to interpret than Shakespeare and mildly humorous with its frequent drift into French words and an “I’ll write how I like” attitude, although it’s difficult to know when reading a translation, fortunately the French isn’t translated, so we have a better appreciation for the play with words intended.

Thoughts on the characters in Chapter 2?

Chapter Two begins to broaden the range of characters and they provide a welcome contrast to Onegin and the possibility of assisting him perhaps to see things through different eyes.  He is charmed by his friend, the poet Vladimir Lenksy and enjoys listening to his outpourings of emotion:

EugeneHe roamed the world, his lyre behind him;

Schiller and Goethe had refined him,

and theirs was the poetic flame

that fired his soul, to burn the same;

Olga, the subject of the poets verses since boyhood, the loved one and her elder sister Tatyana, the dreamer, the loner, living vicariously through her books.

I can see why it’s good to read and reread, even going back and reading earlier passages from yesterday seem to enlighten the story further. So forgive my ignorance as I trundle forward for the first time, slowly discovering what it is I am reading.

Click here to read the follow up review of Eugene Onegin Chapters 3 & 4