Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ganieva’s Salam, Dalgat! & The Debut Prize Tour Comes to Boston

Alisa Ganieva’s Салам тебе, Далгат! (Salam, Dalgat! in Nicholas Allen’s translation), winner of the 2009 Debut Prize for long prose, is a wonderful example of fiction where form and content complement one other, creating a harmonious, readable work that has more depth than you might initially feel or see. (Regular visitors to the Bookshelf know this is my favorite kind of fiction…) Ganieva’s long story describes a day in the life of Dalgat, a young man who travels around Makhachkala, Dagestan, on a mission to find a relative, Khalilbek.

Salam, Dalgat! opens at a market, among soaps, shampoos, henna packets, raspberries, grape bunches, pomegranates, sad-looking kittens, and sellers’ pitches… and closes hours later, after Dalgat has, among other things, experienced a minor mugging, sat for a bit in a café, and witnessed such events as a literary ceremony and a shooting at a wedding. Ganieva moves Dalgat—and the vignettes that accumulate to form a plot and collective portrait of a time and place—at a brisk but rational pace, weaving in language as varied, colorful, and juicy as the market goods on the story’s first pages.

I found Salam, Dalgat! particularly interesting because Ganieva also works in cultural observations of what she calls a “troublesome” place: young women discuss clothing, men discuss Islam, and a female friend of Dalgat’s discusses her plans to relocate to St. Petersburg. With its mixture of humor, tradition (wife stealing even gets a mention, though a character says that’s a Chechen habit), and a sense of alarm about the future, Salam, Dalgat! felt unusually energetic and organic, all as poor Dalgat, seeking but never quite managing to find, trots along, a perfectly agreeable, generally patient, nearly blank slate of a character, the ideal figure for a reader like me, who’s never been to Makhachkala, to follow.

I should note that Ganieva submitted Salam, Dalgat! to Debut under a male pseudonym, Gulla Khirachev, because Dagestani women aren’t supposed to move around in public as freely as men… or write about what happens on the street. Based on her comments about reactions to the story, it sounds like Ganieva succeeded in inspiring social discussion with Salam, Dalgat!

I enjoyed the social aspect of Salam, Dalgat! but, given my readerly biases, wouldn’t rate the story so highly if I didn’t think it was nicely composed, falling into a category of writing that writer Olga Slavnikova mentioned during a Debut Prize event in Boston last Wednesday evening: “физически сильный текст,” a “physically strong text” or “physically sound text.” Slavnikova, who serves as director of Debut, used the term (which she borrowed from a critic) to describe the work of Debut winners and finalists. I’m sure sound texts are a big reason so many Debut writers continue to find success: works by Ganieva and Irina Bogatyreva, who was also in Boston, were nominated for this year’s National Bestseller award.

Bogatyreva’s Товарищ Анна (Comrade Anna), the title story of the collection on the NatsBest longlist, was also shortlisted for the Belkin Prize. I’m very much looking forward to reading Comrade Anna: I’m interested in Bogatyreva’s take on patriotic youth, particularly after enjoying hearing her read from her stories of hitchhiking. (The 2012 Belkin, BTW, went to Aleksei Kozlachkov for Запах искусственнойсвежести (The Scent of Artificial Freshness).)

The other two writers visiting Boston—Dmitry Biryukov, who won Debut’s journalism award in 2005, and Igor Savelyev, whose Бледный город (Pale City), a long story about hitchhiking, apparently has quite a cult following—were also fun to hear. Biryukov and Savelyev both work days as journalists, and both continue to write outside work. Both also continue to read and value Russian “thick journals”; the panel’s consensus was that journals retain an important, prestigious place in Russian literary life, despite diminished circulation figures. Biryukov is working on a novel; the excerpt I heard from his story Улица Урицкого (Uritsky Street) had a nice retro feel. The narrative voice of Savelyev’s Pale City, which was published in the journal Novyi mir in 2004 and made the Belkin Prize shortlist that year, is invitingly chatty.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about these and other Debut writers, and not just because a delegation of Debut winners and shortlisters will be at BookExpo America in June. I have books from several other “Debutnik” winners and finalists—including Sergei Shargunov and Natal’ia Kluchareva—on my shelf, waiting.

For more about Debut and February 2012 tour events:
  • Causa Artium, the organization that organized the Debut tour, has links on Facebook to press items about events.
  • Debutprize.com has Debut information in English
  • Pokolenie-debut.ru has Debut information in Russian
  • Several books published by Glas contain translations of Debut writers’ work. Among them:  Ganieva’s Salam, Dalgat! is in the Squaring the Circle collection, and Off the Beaten Track contains Savelyev’s Pale City as well as Bogatyreva’s Off the Beaten Track. Some stories in the Rasskazy collection published by Tin House (previous posts) were written by Debut writers.

A Big Pile of Disclaimers: I’ve known John William Narins, of Causa Artium, the organization that organized the Debut tour, for (oh my!) decades. I’ve collaborated with Natasha Perova of Glas, which has published books of Debut Prize writers’ work. (I even translated pieces for one of those books.) And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting writers who’ve come to the U.S. and England on Debut tours.

Up Next: Translation roundup. The list keeps growing! Then Roman Senchin’s Информация (The Information) and Irina Bogatyreva’s Comrade Anna, which I’m looking forward to very much.


  1. Don't know much about Makhachkala, but the Махачкалинские бродяги were KVN favorites in the mid-1990s.

  2. Thanks for mentioning that, Alex! There's even a Wikipedia page for them.