Only a very few stories make you feel that you’ve just returned from a brief trip where only you’ve got the return ticket but the characters and their worlds are left there still living on. One such book is Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha. In what seems to be quite a bulky book, but flying away effortlessly, Guzel rushes to the Soviet traumas of the recent past. She yells out the horrors of Stalinism, very raw!
Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha
Zuleikha, the green-eyed, raises the curtain as a subservient, meek wife of old Murtaza and daughter-in-law of a deaf and blind Vampire hag, as Zuleikha likes to call her. The family lives in a small Tatar town in Kazan (in Soviet Russia) where Zuleikha opens her eyes every day, firstly to clean up the Vampire hag’s chamber pot. Followed by scrubbing, cleaning, washing, cooking, woodcutting, getting beaten, and finally sleeping in a tin trunk with nails protruding around.
The Red Hordesmen (Bolsheviks or Red Army during Soviet Russia) pay frequent visits to grab everything they could find in the house. Now, alongside the food supplies, they take away Murtaza’s life. Zuleikha’s family suddenly slides down from being kulaks (wealthy peasants) into merely nothing (but a Hell!) in the name of dekulakization—Soviet campaign that considered peasants as class enemies and confiscated their lands and properties and banished them by arresting, deporting and executing.
Leaving the dead Murtaza and living-dead-Vampire Hag, Zuleikha’s sent into exile travelling for several months first, by her sledge; next, a train flooded with people and cattle; and finally, a barge (ship) where a storm almost drowns her but saved by Ignatov (the Red Commandant). Almost all the kulaks die leaving only a very few.
Life has changed so much up to living among strange men which is shameful for the forefathers three generations away, as her mother would have reproachfully said. Being dissociated and so far from her house and past, least did she know that Murtaza’s seeds are still inside her until Doctor Leibe utters the word pregnancy. Thoughts flow to her: Another girl? … what was it the Vampire Hag said?… You only bring girls into the world and they don’t survive.
The new life of exile takes stride along the banks of river Angara with forging a new identity and reality. Zuleikha evolves from a domestic worker to a hunter, medical helper and most of all mama to her son Yusuf— with extreme physical and moral strength. By the way, she observes that her husband’s killer (Ignatov) is looking at her with her husband’s gaze and the air around them is becoming honey in which she’s gliding, tensing all her muscles and stretching her sinews. When, one day, Ignatov proposes his feelings for her, she’s entangled in her secret love for him; her only reason for her survival, Yusuf; and her morals, as Ignatov is the killer of her husband. Zuleikha’s story takes a sharp shot from then on until the touching end!
So, Guzel Yakhina’s book is inspired by her grandmother’s life as a kulak and her subsequent exile. It gives me chills to think that horrors like these have happened for real. You can’t pull yourself apart from Zuleikha’s life right from her domestic servitude to her life of imposed Soviet repressions. Though nothing in her life was her decision, never had she gone against anything or anyone, she chose to live, fight and survive!
For the Writer from Kazan (as she proudly likes to be called), Zuleikha is her debut novel. The book’s been translated into 33 languages and in English by Lisa.C. Hayden. Her book won the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award and the Big Book award for the year 2015.
I’ve always wanted to put my reading experience into writing—venting out. With the fecund digital and social space, I’ve decided now the right time to plunge into my ambitious desire of getting to know as many women writers across the world, through their works, regardless of their geographic and ethnic existence. Yet, I’m against the idea of branding my blog as feminist as I choose to read on them purely for the writers’ purport and their ardent works.
I’d like you to be a part of my reading journey and get to know along with me the women writers who’ve been silently transfiguring their areas of interest.