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.