Monday, September 14, 2015

The Mountain and the Wall (Book Review)

My literary education includes many of the great twentieth-century novelists of world literature, such as Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, and Günter Grass. Fortuitously, I studied this literature with Wendy Faris, one of the great scholars of magical realism, who opened up the entire world of contemporary literature for me as an undergraduate. I was only through the first 100 pages of Alisa Ganieva's novel The Mountain and the Wall (trans. Carol Apollonio, pub. Deep Vellum) when I realized I had been reading something equally delectable, enchanting, and momentous. Ganieva reveals herself to be a top-tier storyteller on a par with these greats.

The Mountain and the Wall is broad and sweeping in its historical consciousness, its mythologizing, and its narrativizing–its ability to make some of the most mundane acts the basis of an engrossing story. Ganieva achieves this in a story that takes place over the course of a couple of days in Dagestan, a country of about three million people on the Caspian Sea. The novel follows Shamil as he walks the street of the capital trying to make sense of the rumors in circulation: the Russians, in sheer exasperation with the republics of the Caucasus region, are building a wall on their border. It's a plausible premise that resonates not only in Texas (where I am) but also across Europe, across the globe. Our history shows us to be a walled-in creature, Homo muratis. Ganieva is our sibyl.

This is more than a story about Shamil, or a wall, or a mountain, however. At 245 pages, you'll notice that it's also considerably shorter than many of the novels by the pantheon of writers mentioned above. But like intricate origami, this story unfolds and unfolds. Shamil's story opens up multiple stories within stories. We read Shamil as he reads–sometimes skipping pages–through the various layers of Dagestan: its Socialist Realist past as part of the Soviet Union, as well the conflict between its two present narratives: a call to jihad versus a nationalist panegyric. These are the texts, the contents of the texts, that Shamil reads, and in reading, he excavates the plurivocality and multidimensionality of the Caucasus nation that is "both small and large." This is metafiction at its finest.

Reading headlines today, we can wonder how someone falls for the jihadist line, how someone can respond to an extremist's call to arms. Ganieva shows us how. Through this exquisitely crafted tale, she weaves the storylines of her characters in such a way that taking the veil is as viable a response to the socioeconomic disorder as drinking oneself into oblivion or retreating to the vagaries of the black market of bribes. The novel, as an eloquent understatement, offers an explanation: such radicals depend on the incredulity of the people. "Something like that can't happen here!" we continue to exclaim as those very things happen more and more frequently, more intractably.

But The Mountain and the Wall is not an easy, moralizing book. Many of the characters seek answers to questions they don't yet even know how to ask. It seems, aside from the Salafis, that everyone is desperately trying to make sense of their world, like the scholar who groans and curses as he sorts through "the books, which his wife had arranged by size and color, trying to find the places he had marked so carefully" (193). Every detail (much like every historical, cultural, and ethnic particularity) had been made the same, which is not only a repeated literary device but also the novel's instinctive critique of both colonialism and post-colonialism.

The jihadists, who are so certain of their interpretation and the Truth of the Prophet, must resort to Russian, the lingua franca of Russia's most heterogeneous republic. But they can't even reconcile the language they're forced to use with the force their faith requires. The radicals don't know Arabic and have all but lost command of their native tongues. When posters appear across the capital urging the citizens to burn everything written from left to right, the people realize they they would have to burn even the posters themselves since they were written in Russian. This is but one of the many comic insights and clever ironies that Ganieva scatters throughout her text. She has inherited this trait straight from Dostoevsky.

Translator Carol Apollonio exhibits a nuance of language that makes this novel a pleasure to read in English. She effortlessly navigates the tricky shifts between characters, voices, and embedded genres. I applaud her for the way she contends with the overabundance of ethnic and religious terms. It is no exaggeration to say that the English-speaking world is indebted to her.

The nexus of narratives and the subtlety of the translation would've benefited, I think, by a more useful and user-friendly Glossary. I would've liked for it to have contained more entries and to be properly alphabetized. It seemed that close to one-third of all special vocabulary and italicized terms were not to be found there. Even the dictionaries I used and Wikipedia did not have entries for some of the terms. I was never able to find any information, for example, about Gamalkar and Untul Ebel, two Dagestani mountain deities (or spirits or devils?), beyond their brief mention in the text (220-221).

There were also some terms whose Glossary entry didn't quite get it right. For example, the entry on sabur simply states that it's Arabic for patience. But near the end of the novel, one character tells another, "Say a sabur, sister, your husband isn't there right now..." (239) which contextually seems to imply that a sabur is a type of prayer. After about ten minutes on Google, I finally found reference to the As-Sabur, one of the many names from the Koran for God (as the Patient One). Reciting this name 3000 times will allegedly rescue the person from difficulty. I know many translators who cringe at the thought, but even more footnotes would've been appreciated.

Regardless of this minor criticism, I wholeheartedly and without reservation urge you to read this book. Let it astound you the way it astounded me.