August is traditionally women-in-translation month in the world of book-blogging and book-twitter. My blog is dedicated to the predominantly male world of 19th century Russian literature, but nowadays there are many great and interesting female writers out there, so why not digress a bit?
Let’s start with Lyudmila Ulitskaya. I once saw her at the Helsinki book fair, where she was so popular that the auditorium where she was speaking was literally filled to the brim with people eager to see her. I loved her novel The Kukotsky Enigma (Казус Кукоцкого) about a gynaecologist with a special gift who marries one of his patients, set against the background of communist Russia. Ulitskaya’s characters are people you know and care about from the first page on which they are introduced. And most importantly: her work has that special quality that so much of the best Russian literature has: it’s life-affirming.
Another Moscow based author is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. She too focuses on family life in Soviet times. The recurring themes in her work are poverty, abuse, envy, alcoholism, unhappy love and unfulfilled ambitions. Although this may be something that many women in the former Soviet Union struggled with, her stories are surprisingly free from politics; the enemy is not the state, but the daughter-in-law who is after your apartment. Her stories may be dark, but so is her sense of humor. They always have a surprising ending that leaves you something to think and laugh about.
Then we have the stories of Tatyana Tolstaya, the granddaughter of the writer Aleksey Tolstoy and a distant relative of Lev Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. Being born into such a family she had big shoes to fill, and she pulls it off very well. She definitely has her own distinct voice. Her stories start off perfectly normal, but at some point they turn into something impossible. One of the story collections is called Aetherial Worlds and that sums up her work pretty well: unearthly. I have a copy of her (only) novel The Slynx still waiting for me.
Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha (Зулейха́ открыва́ет глаза́), translated by Lisa Hayden, is set in Tatarstan. Zuleikha is a young Tatar woman who is sent to Siberia during the dekulakization. In Siberia she is forced to built a new life, literally from scratch, and there she discovers her own strengths and talents. Yakhina based the story on the experiences of her own grandmother and on eye-witness accounts from other dekulakization survivors. This intricate novel is a real page-turner; there are frequent cliff-hangers which leave the reader in suspense for whole chapters.
Now we move to the Caucasus, starting with Banine’s wonderful memoire Days in the Caucasus. Banine paints a colourful and delightful picture of her childhood in Baku (Azerbaijan) and the family’s summer house by the sea, set at the beginning of the 20th century. Her enormous (her words) grandmother is the head of the family, and besides praying five times a day, she loves to gossip, play poker and swears like a sailor. I hope that the wonderful Pushkin Press will also publish the sequel, Days in Paris.
A tiny and remote village in the mountains of Armenia is the setting for Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky, another translation by Lisa Hayden. The village is so remote that even goats find the path leading to the village scary. The villagers live in their tiny world, unaffected by modern technology. The passage of time is noted by the seasons and just like in ancient times each villager has a particular trade, so that they can get by without needing the rest of the world, simply referred to as ‘the valley’ or ‘the North’, too much. This idyllic place is, however, plagued by all kinds of disasters. Abgaryan’s enchanting and charming book will keep you guessing until the last page.
Finally Nino Haratischvili, who gave us more than 900 pages to read with The Eighth Life, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin. Nino Haratischvili was born in Tbilisi in 1983 and moved to Germany in 2003. She clearly is a born storyteller and her pleasure in writing and love for Georgia shine through on every page. The Eighth Life tells the (his)story of the Jashi family through six generations of women, spanning about 100 years from the beginning of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century.
The world is tough, but so are you!
A common thread seems to be a need to go back to the Soviet era and somehow validate the suffering experienced by the authors themselves and/or their ancestors. Not in the raw manner of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but much more relatable, and always with at least a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
What were your highlights and discoveries this women-in-translation month?
By the way, I made a more extensive series for #WITMonth on my Instagram @arussianaffairig
Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020