Sunday, September 13, 2015

Big Book 1: Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes

My reading of 2015 Big Book Award finalists started off on a high note, with Guzel Yakhina’s Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes), a debut novel that begins in 1930 in a Tatar village, from which a kulak woman—Zuleikha, she of the title—is quickly sent into exile after her husband is killed during dekulakization.

Incongruous though it may sound, Zuleikha is an enjoyable and smooth novel, unpretentious mainstream historical fiction that I realized, upon reflection, covers more cultural, ethnic, religious, and sociopolitical issues than I’d noticed (consciously, anyway) during my reading. As I write, I realize, too, that this is probably the most crucial element of good mainstream fiction for me: it should be so absorbing that I want to keep turning pages, no matter what crazy plot the author is putting forth, but I should want to turn the pages back when I finish. Put another way, I think “mainstream fiction,” can occupy most any genre, so what makes me want to call a book “good” is its ability to hold my attention both as I read and after I’ve read, compelling me to return to my notes and various passages in the book to consider depths I didn’t want to dwell on too much because I was enjoying the author’s storytelling. More on Yakhina’s storytelling below…

Though Zuleikha lives in relative material comfort, in the women’s half of a large house, she’d been married off early (and can’t calculate whether she’s been with Murtaza for half her thirty years or not) and her mother-in-law, who’s deaf and blind, demands chamber pot emptying services first thing every the morning. Zuleikha has lots of other chores, like clearing snow, tending animals, and serving Murtaza, plus she takes lots of abuse from her mother-in-law for her children’s deaths early in their lives.

Zuleikha’s own life—after seeing her husband killed, after a horrendous train trip to a spot on the Angara River where her group of exiles will settle, and after a difficult first winter that kills many—settles into a new routine with characters nothing like her neighbors in Yulbash. The characters are many but distinct, and they include a rather dotty doctor, an artist who paints on the sly, and urbane city dwellers who remember past European travels, as well as Ignatov, Zuleikha’s husband’s killer. Ignatov is persuaded to remain in the settlement, as its commandant, and he stays because of his own political issues back in Kazan. Most important, there is Zuleikha’s son Yuzuf, born in the settlement, who develops an interest for art and learns to paint.

Yakhina’s writing is simple, albeit sprinkled with Tatar words (there’s a glossary), and I particularly like the grace with which she handles her setting in the settlement on the Angara. One of the excerpts from the book that I’m translating for Elkost describes one of Zuleikha’s workdays, beginning with an early wakeup and showing Zuleikha making the rounds of her hunting grounds. I write “hunting grounds” in the literal sense: during a chance encounter with Ignatov and a bear, Zuleikha learns she’s a crack shot, so she’s entrusted with a rifle to hunt for food for the settlement’s kitchen. On the day in the passage, she’s bringing home a hare and some fowl, and is met by Yuzuf near the settlement: he asks her to tell his favorite story, about a mountain-dwelling mystical bird, known in Tatar as Semrug and in Wikipedia as Simurgh. (Edit: And here, thanks to my colleague Liza Prudovskaya, is a Wikipedia version of the story Zuleikha tells Yuzuf.) This day-in-the-life passage does everything, with lovely descriptions of nature that integrate Zuleikha into her surroundings without getting flowery (why can’t more writers do this!?), sweet banter between Zuleikha and Yuzuf, and, yes, oral storytelling that fits the scene plus the novel’s main story, too, because it looks at finding one’s strengths.

I’m not quite sure how Yakhina makes that feel fresh—she herself has said the novel is about how Zuleikha wakes up, opens her eyes to the world, and finds happiness, albeit bitter happiness—but I wonder if details from handed-down family stories about her grandmother’s experiences during dekulakization might be one reason. Another is, again, Yakhina’s ability to use a simple structure and language to tell her story, all as she plants details that will have meaning later in the book. (Side note: one of the most fun aspects of translating after reading an entire book is seeing storytelling motifs early on, the second time around.)

I’m glad to see lots of appreciation for Yakhina, Zuleikha, and, really, good ol’ storytelling: beyond being a Big Book finalist, Zuleikha made the Yasnaya Polyana Award shortlist. The novel has also won the Prose of the Year award and the Ticket to the Stars award.

Bonus Links! This year’s PEN Center USA translation award goes to Ainsley Morse and Peter Golub for Andrei Sen-Senkov’s Anatomical Theater, poetry published in a bilingual edition by Zephyr Press.

Disclaimers: The usual plus my work on excerpts from Zuleikha. Thank you, too, to Elkost for sending me an advance electronic edition of Zuleikha after telling me about the book!

Up Next: More books from the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties), which was also shortlisted for this year’s NatsBest, and gets off to a great start.


  1. Just finished "Zuleikha" and can't stop thinking about it. I wasn't crazy about it in the beginning--characters and plot sounded too stereotypical and I felt like I knew where it would go. And it kind of did go the direction I predicted (the good woman Zuleikha turns into a "просветленный" human being), but the storytelling got really irresistible. Just like you, I couldn't put down the book until I got done last night. And since that minute, I keep getting back to it. Just the vision metaphor is fun to ponder on (Zuleikha has green eyes that everyone seems to notice; she has a great eye for hunting; she loves LOOKING at Ignatov...). And I agree with you that it is a great book for rereading. Looking back, there seems to be many fascinating motifs "turned around" throughout the book. It is both simple and complex. And Ulitskaya said it right in the foreword: the book gets to the reader's heart. It certainly got to mine.

  2. One thing though that I find not quite supported in the book: the life in Semruk sounds almost idyllic thanks to very little attention the author pays to the difficult things such as backbreaking labor and constant hunger.

  3. Yulia B., I'm so glad you raised these points about Zuleikha, particularly about the beginning! I also wondered if things, particularly the mother-in-law, were a little too (predictably) awful but realized that they had to be horrendous: they're seen from Zuleikha's perspective and she was, after all, married off at only 15, only to be subjected to all sorts of demands and grief. Even more, I think the contrast is important for the plot: as you mention, Semruk seems almost idyllic, which feels incongruous, though I see the idyll as largely a matter of contrast to Zuleikha's pre-camp life, where her life wasn't easy, either, particularly given the deaths of her children. (The relative idyll in Semruk reminds me of other camp literature, too, including Solzhenitsyn.) And then there's the matter of Zuleikha's unique position as a member of the hunting artel, which allows her to wander, feel thoroughly connected to nature and her surroundings, and find new perspectives on death and her ability to feel content where she is. She also knows how lucky she is to live at the infirmary.

    One section of the excerpts I'm working on is the "Шах-птица" chapter, which stresses storytelling and motifs from сказки. (The chapter contains lots of the themes I mentioned above, so I may be placing too much importance on it because it and a couple scenes from the beginning are looping endlessly in my head right now!) Zuleikha loves telling stories to Yuzuf so I've started to see her nickname for her mother-in-law (бырлы карчык) in that context, too, almost as if she's placed herself within another story and its narratives as a survival mechanism.

    I'm not sure how much sense all this makes in a comment but there you go!))) I'm glad you mentioned these things because I'd wondered about them, too, and seen, as I translated, how nicely the novel fits together. Like you, I appreciate the combination of simplicity and complexity.

  4. That's a valid point, about things being shown from Zuleikha's perspective. Also, goes along with the whole eyes metaphor. It's very interesting, what you're saying about her putting herself within a certain narrative as a survival mechanism. I can to confess that I kind of skipped through the part where she tells the legend t her son. It did sound interesting (all those different valleys that the birds went through), but I felt so compelled to finish the novel that I hurried through that part. I have young kids at home, so there's very little time for reading. I grab every second, and sometimes skip parts.

    1. I love the scene where she tells the story: the interaction with Yuzuf is very sweet! That whole chapter is great.

  5. I finished the book and in the end I have to say I was really in love with the flow of prose, and the amazing fresh way the author distills everything down to the human feelings. The prose is just so pure and unburdened, almost in the zen sense. As in that episode where Ignatov knows he is about to be demoted and he may be punished, or worse, and he just takes his brown jacket and brushes it down, and writes out a new document for Yousuf, and tosses the old one in the fire. Or the way in multiple episodes the doctor goes and treats his patients and gets about practicing medicine and being a human being. And how the nature is so vast and immense in Siberia that it dwarfs and absorbs everyone who lives on the banks of the great river, even the ones sort of in command, trying to instill fear in others....(that part I actually love in Russian lit - there is a long list of wonderful novels where life takes place along a great Eastern river, and the flow of the river becomes a metaphor for the flow and upheavals of life - Ivanov, Rasputin, Sholokhov, the list goes on)... Really, how everyone gets to be just a human being with their own human actions in that novel, and to live their lives out, and to teach a young pure soul to dream... I thought long about getting going with another 30's exile camp life novel, but in the end it was something entirely different that emerged. And, as Lisa mentions above, it does address many more philosophical, sociopolitical and cultural issues than first meet the reader's eye, I feel that its recognition and popularity in the recent years has been well founded...

    1. Thank, you for this comment/review, Margarita! It is a lovely book and you're right that it most definitely is not a typical camp or exile novel. I loved it when I first read it but the more I work on it (and there's still plenty of work ahead!) the more I love it.