On a book’s last page, I know the read was either complex or compelling if I feel the urge to start again from the beginning. The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio, is both. It’s complex in a nineteenth-century, great-multi-plot-Russian-novel way, especially in the religious and political fervor of the distinctly Dostoevskian crowd scenes that fuel the action; it’s compelling in its topical exploration of Islamic fundamentalism and annexation by or expulsion from the Russia Federation, depending on that nation’s shifting whims, e.g. Crimea and Ukraine these last two years.
The novel follows Shamil, a young man from Dagestan, through the capital city of Makhachkala, where rumors are beginning to circulate of a wall going up along their northern border with Russia that would isolate the republic from the larger nation. At the newspaper where Shamil has taken a temporary post as a reporter, editors rail at one another that growing Islamic extremism in Dagestan must be motivating the construction. Shamil spends the majority of the book running between neighboring factions, trying to sort out the truth and his future in his hometown.
In an interview for the Asymptote blog, Ganieva traces the book’s multiple prose styles to her desire for a chorus of voices: Soviet Realism in a novel Shamil skims one afternoon, article clippings from the Emirate’s tabloid, epic poetry, journal entries, and excerpts from a patriotic novel by village writer Makhmud Tagirovich. In combination with the crowd scenes, this chorus lends the larger text a Dostoevskian heteroglossia (cf. Mikhail Bakhtin).
It’s said that English-language writers get only one dream sequence per fiction career, but dream sequences are a staple of Russian literature, and play no small role in The Mountain and the Wall. Shamil reminisces about the time he and his friend Arip hiked to an abandoned village at the top of the local mountain, where a mysterious nondescript man welcomed them to the enchanted, disappearing “Mountain of Celebrations” and invited them into his house for a meal. Soon after, they decide this episode was a dream they shared during a mid-hike nap. Later, Arip claims not to remember the episode, and much later, finally admits he’s remembered. The whole novel echoes with the prophecies of flashbacks and forwards, including the way his cousin Asya always stumbles into scenes just as someone asks Shamil about his wedding preparations with Madina. But this predictability is pleasing because political intrigue, not love, commands the reader’s interest in this novel.
Tension in the novel mounts from periodic to continuous discord: prostitutes turn up dead in apartments; schoolteachers are hanged as infidels; theaters, restaurants, and museums go up in flames; liquor stores, bakeries, hair salons, music venues, and movie theaters close. The Caucasus unite under the banner of Allah, but even preventative beards and hijabs don’t insure safety, as so-called devotion to the Koran gives way to profiteering among spiritual leaders.
Rather than emotions, Ganieva uses political stance to individuate her characters. For minor characters, a gesture combined with a salient feature or a piece of clothing serves to distinguish them physically. It’s an efficient formula, but perhaps too formulaic. Throughout the novel, Ganieva opts for a genealogical quantity of superficial characters over fewer characters with profounder qualities. The casual bawdiness of her prose may have helped convince the judges panel of the 2009 Debut Prize, which she won for her first novella Salam, Dalgat!, that the text was authored by a man—big busts on peasant girls, clenched buttholes on men in the gym—but it often rings more vulgate than vernacular.
The translation is distractingly heavy on Avar loan words. While Apollonio provides an extensive rear glossary, the reading experience would resemble stop-and-go traffic were you to pause to look up every italicized phrase. The only terms I managed to assimilate simply by virtue of their frequency were le (a vocative particle used when addressing men) and khapur-chapur (nonsense, hogwash): the former expediently short, the latter obligingly rhymed. The Avar proper nouns that pepper the text impart enough local flavor without the names of every side dish and community title remaining in the original. And when those proper nouns happen to be familiar to Anglophone readers, why foreignize them?
For all but Caucasians and historians of the Caucasus, The Mountain and the Wall in Apollonio’s translation reads like a barrage of foreign words and place names one only half gets the hang of by the end. Even so, history wimps could stand to absorb what politics and religion they can from this novel. They’ll meet a variety of Caucasian ethnicities and civil grudges, and encounter a legacy of waxing and waning Islamic fervor that sheds light on our present fundamentalist era. On the back cover of this Deep Vellum edition, Ganieva is quoted as saying, “It is no longer possible to describe my book as fantastic or dystopian. It is a work of realist literature, dealing with something that might very well have happened.” Thank goodness this realist work is not yet reality. Should anything like Ganieva’s Wall ever come to pass in the Caucasus, we’ll hold tight to the knowledge that similar walls and curtains have fallen before in this part of the world.
The Mountain and the Wall
by Alisa Ganieva
Translated by Carol Apollonio
Deep Vellum, 2015
Reviewer Genevieve Arlie is a writer, translator, and editor from California. Her awards include a Pushkin Poetry Prize, a Kathryn Davis Peace Fellowship, and a nature writing residency at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. Her articles and poetry translations have appeared in St. Petersburg Review and The Brooklyn Quarterly, and on the blogs of Asymptote and Words Without Borders. She’s currently based in the Midwest.