A tale of resilience and love Read a sneak preview of one of the biggest runaway bestsellers in recent Russian literature
Zuleikha is the story of a young Muslim woman who is wrenched out of her abusive home and into the Gulag system. The novel is a stark portrait of the Stalinist era, but its focus is on the title character’s sense of hope and resilience: Zuleikha Valieva joins a motley crew of peasants, intellectuals, soldiers, and other displaced Soviet citizens to form an unexpectedly close family in exile. It is no wonder that Zuleikha launched its author, Guzel Yakhina, from her life as a film student to international fame. The book, which is based on the experiences of the author’s grandmother, depicts an often-overlooked slice of history with an optimistic sense of humor and the visual flair of a good movie. Although it was Yakhina’s first novel, Zuleikha won both of Russia’s most prestigious nationwide literary prizes. When Yakhina published her second book last year, it topped Russian sales charts alongside international bestsellers by Dan Brown and Jojo Moyes.
Now, Yakhina’s debut is set to appear in an English translation by Lisa C. Hayden. Because Hayden’s translation of Zuleikha will give English speakers access to a major event in contemporary Russian literature, Meduza is offering readers a preview of the book with the kind permission of its publisher, Oneworld Publications.
A shaggy snout bares its yellowed teeth and wails, shaking its inside-out lips. Zuleikha squeezes the reins tighter. May Allah protect me, what is this hellish monster?
“A camel!” cries someone behind her. “A real one!”
The outlandish beast swings its master, who’s sitting between the humps and wearing a colorful quilted robe, side to side as it floats past. A sharp smell of spices trails after them.
The sledges are traveling along a central street. The caravan has formed and straightened out so the vehicles are riding close together past buildings of brick and stone, painted light blue, pink, and white, like huge carved jewel boxes. Lots of little turrets tower over the roofs; there are weathervanes blossoming with tin flowers and roof tiles glistening like colorful fish scales under spots of snow. Decorative flourishes creep along pediments and tickle the heels of half-naked men and women (what shame this is, Allah!) who bear heavy cornices on their muscular shoulders. Railings curl like iron lace.
Young ladies in little boots with heels (how do they not fall off those!), servicemen in mouse-colored military overcoats like Ignatov’s, public servants chilled to the bone in patched coats, middle-aged women wearing huge felt boots and selling little pies (the smell, the wonderful smell …), portly nannies with children swathed in shawls on wooden sledges … In their hands are folders, briefcases, tubes, reticules, bouquets, and cakes …
The wind tears a pile of sheet music from the hands of a skinny young man wearing glasses, hurling it into the sorrowful face of a cow that a frail peasant is leading past on a rope.
The hulk of a tractor for agitational propaganda rolls along, its heavy wheels rumbling as it tows a large, cracked bell, around which winds a snake-like red cotton banner: “We will reforge church bells into tractors!”
Dirty slush on the road explodes into a crooked fountain under the hooves of a cavalry detachment rushing past, and under the wheels of shiny black automobiles tearing along toward it, driving in the opposite direction.
A fiery red tram flies along with a deafening clang; its brass handles blaze and there are faces clustered in its glassless windows. A small pack of waifs flit away from a gateway and hang on the handrail with frenzied shrieks. The furious conductor curses and waves his fists; a policeman is already running, cutting across the road, and blowing his whistle.
Zuleikha squints. A lot of buildings, a lot of people. All loud, vivid, fast, and strong-smelling. This is understandable since it’s the capital. Kazan is generously throwing its treasures into the stunned exiles’ eyes before they’ve had a chance to recover.
The red-and-white spire of the Church of Saint Varvara is solemn, the aperture of its bell tower window forlornly empty, and there’s an inscription painted in yellow above the entrance: “Greetings to the workers of the First Tram Depot!” There’s the governor-general’s former home, as well decorated as a torte and now housing the tuberculosis hospital. The ice on Black Lake rings with children’s laughter. The columns of Kazan University, each as thick as a century-old oak, are a delicate white.
The city’s kremlin has sharp little towers like heads of sugar. Instead of a clock, there’s a large, stern face – with wise, narrowed eyes under falconine brows and a mustache like a broad wave – gazing out at Zuleikha from a round opening on Spassky Tower. Who is it? He doesn’t resemble the Christian god, whom Zuleikha once saw in a picture that the mullah had shown her.
Then there’s an unexpected shout: “We’ve arrived!” How could that be? Where had they arrived? Zuleikha looks around, confused. In front of her is a squat, dirty white building with tiny squares of windows that form a chain along one side and a tall stone wall around it, three times her height.
“Down you go, Green Eyes!” says Prokopenko, puckering his cheeks in a smile and winking, his gaze probing for the lamb under the burlap in the sledge: Is it in one piece?
Zuleikha squeezes her bundle tightly and jumps to the ground. Bayonets already bristle to greet her; a live corridor of young junior soldiers leads to a small open metal door. In there, then.
Prokopenko takes Sandugach by the bridle and the horse neighs shrilly, jerking under an unknown hand. Zuleikha drops her bundle and rushes to the horse, pressing her face into her dear muzzle.
“Not allowed!” is the anxious cry behind her and something sharp, a bayonet blade, presses at her back.
“Come on, now,” says Prokopenko’s smiling voice. “Let her say goodbye. Why begrudge that?”
“I’ll count to three!” utters the stern, anxious voice. “One!”
Sandugach smells of healthy sweat, hay, the shed, and milk – of home. She exhales joyfully as she nestles against her mistress and the warm dampness of her delicate nostrils settles on Zuleikha’s cheek. Zuleikha sticks her hand in her pocket and removes the poisoned sugar. The large, heavy lump weighs on her palm like a stone. Murtaza used foresight on everything: he’s already headed off to his forefathers, but his thoughts are still directing his loyal wife.
Zuleikha opens her sweaty palm and raises it to Sandugach’s face. The horse nods gratefully and joyfully. The foal jumps out from under her legs. Pushing its mother away and greedily stretching its long neck, it snuffles and smacks its outstretched lips, hurrying to take the treat.
“Three!” The bayonet is driving in, painfully, between her shoulder blades.
Zuleikha clenches her fingers and lowers her hand with the sugar into her pocket. She takes the broken-off chunk of bread from her other pocket and sticks it instead into the trusting outstretched lips of Sandugach and the foal.
Forgive me, Murtaza, for not fulfilling your order. I couldn’t. I disobeyed you for the first time in my life.
Ignatov’s dissatisfied voice is already behind her. “What’s going on? Why the delay?”
Zuleikha takes her bundle from the ground and ducks through the open door.
For a long time, she takes small steps through a bare, ice-coated courtyard, then along a narrow corridor, following an ungainly young soldier who’s striding forward, his soot-blackened kerosene lamp illuminating lumpy stone walls trickling with moisture. Another’s hobnail boots thud behind her. Zuleikha draws her shoulders together from the chill. Even the cold here is particular – it’s frigid, damp, and clinging. Voices carry from behind heavy doors that have tiny windows with crosses in their gratings: Russian, Tatar, Mari, and Chuvash speech; songs, cursing, a child’s crying …
“Could use some water, boss! Need to drink …”
“… I must ask you – no, I demand an attorney! A Soviet court should …”
“I want a woman, commander. Bring that one to me, huh?”
“… I beg you, the telephone number is 2-35. Just say you’re calling on behalf of Pavlusha Semyonych …”
“I’ve remembered! I’ve remembered everything! Send for Investigator Ivashov! And tell him Sidorchuk will sign the confession …”
“… and you will burn in the fires of Gehenna until the end of time …”
“… I’m begging you! Aspirin! The child has a fever …”
“On Deribasovskaya Street they’ve opened a new bar. It’s loud with beer, and there, my dear, is where the jailbirds are …”
“… Let me go, sons of bitches! Bastards! Scum! Ahhhh!”
A door creaks heavily and swings open. The young soldier nods: In here. Zuleikha steps into an inky darkness that breathes with the smell of bodies long unwashed; the cold metal door nudges her forward. A lock clicks outside. She listens to many mouths breathing as she waits for her eyes to grow accustomed to the dark. A dull light trickles from a window with bars and Zuleikha begins to discern silhouettes.
Two tiers of bunks are crowded with people. Others sit on crates, on heaps of old clothes, and on the floor. There are so many people that there’s nowhere to move to. There’s the sound of loud scratching, of snoring, and low voices. A mother whispers a fairytale to her child. In one corner, they’re murmuring, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us sinners,” while another voice pleads to Allah for refuge from the devil.
Nobody pays attention to Zuleikha. She makes her way inside, trying not to step on anyone’s arms or legs. After reaching the bunks, she stands, not knowing where to settle because there are backs, stomachs, and heads positioned so close together here it’s as if they’re in several layers. Suddenly someone moves aside (it’s impossible to figure out right away if it’s a man or a woman), freeing up a hand-sized part of the bunk. Zuleikha perches, whispering a grateful thank you into the dark. A person turns a face – there are light curls around a high forehead, and a small, sharp nose – and announces protectively:
“I’ll see you’re issued clean linens and a change of footwear.”
Zuleikha nods readily, agreeing. She can hear from the voice that the person is already advanced in years, respectable. Who knows what sort of ways they have here.
“You don’t know where they’re taking us, do you?” she asks deferentially.
“Come to me tomorrow for an initial exam,” the other continues. “On an empty stomach.”
Zuleikha doesn’t know what an initial exam is but she nods again, just in case. There’s an unpleasant nagging in her stomach as she hasn’t eaten since yesterday. She takes the remainder of the bread from her pocket. Her strange neighbor noisily draws air into his nostrils and turns his head, his eyes boring into the bread. Zuleikha breaks the piece in two and extends half. Her neighbor thrusts his share into his mouth in a flash and swallows, almost without chewing.
“Strictly on an empty stomach!” he mumbles menacingly, his fingers holding back crumbs that threaten to fall from his mouth.
And with those remnants of stale bread, the foundations for an unusual friendship are laid. Zuleikha and Volf Karlovich Leibe will become conversation partners, if peculiar ones. In moments when his flickering consciousness flashes, he will occasionally speak, throwing in unconnected medical terms, recalling and clarifying diagnoses of former patients, and asking professional questions that demand no answers. She will listen gratefully, not understanding even the slightest bit of this blend of arcane Russian and Latin words but feeling an important meaning concealed behind them and rejoicing at her interaction with such a learned man. They keep silent most of the time but that silence doesn’t tire either of them.
Zuleikha’s fellow townspeople from Yulbash are soon settled into the cell, too: the mullah’s wife with the ever-present cat cage in her lap and the morose, black-bearded peasant with his numerous descendants. Convicts from Voronezh who worm their way in with the exiles take away the cat a week later and eat it, and one of the prison officials appropriates the karakul fur coat, forcing the mullah’s wife to affix her signature on a corresponding protocol regarding the surrender of property. She hardly notices the loss: she sobs for days on end, maybe about her husband, maybe about her cat.
Death is everywhere. Zuleikha grasped that back in her childhood. Tremblingly soft chicks covered in the downiest sunny yellow fluff, curly-haired lambs scented with hay and warm milk, the first spring moths, and rosy apples filled with heavy sugary juice – all of them carried within themselves the germ of future dying. All it took was for something to happen – sometimes this was obvious, though sometimes it was accidental, fleeting, and not at all noticeable to the eye – and then the beating of life would stop within the living, ceding its place to disintegration and decay. Chicks struck down by a poultry disease dropped like lifeless lumps of flesh into bright green grass in a yard; lambs skinned during Qurbani displayed their pale red innards; one-day moths poured from the sky, strewing themselves as if they were fresh snow on apples that had already fallen to the ground, their sides spotted with purplish abrasions.
The fate of her own children was confirmation of that, too.
Four babies born only to die. Each time Zuleikha brought the little wrinkled face of a daughter to her lips for a kiss after birth, she would peer with hope into half-blind eyes still covered with slightly swollen lids, into tiny nose holes, into the fold of doll-like lips, into barely distinguishable pores on skin still a gentle red, and at sparse shoots of fluff on a small head. She thought she was seeing life. It would later turn out she was seeing death.
She had grown accustomed to that thought, just as an ox grows accustomed to a yoke and a horse to its master’s voice. Some people, like her daughters, were allotted a pinch of life and some got handfuls; others, like her mother-in-law, received immeasurably generous entire sacks and granaries. Death awaits everyone, though, hiding in actual people or walking alongside them, snuggling up to their feet like a cat, settling on clothing like dust, or penetrating the lungs like air. Death is ubiquitous and it is slyer, smarter, and more powerful than a silly life that will always lose a skirmish.
It arrived and took away the powerful Murtaza, who had seemed born to live a hundred years. It will obviously take the proud Vampire Hag away soon, too. Even the grain that she and her husband buried between their daughters’ graves – with the hope of saving it for their new crop – will rot in spring and become death’s quarry, shut away in a cramped wooden crate.
It seems as if Zuleikha’s time has also come. She was prepared to accept death on that memorable night, lying on the sleeping bench alongside the already dead Murtaza, so she is surprised to still be alive. She waited as the Red Hordesmen barged into the house and destroyed her home and hearth. And she waited when they brought her along the snow-covered expanses of her native land, too. And while spending the night in the desecrated mosque, to the sleepy bleating of sheep and the yellow-haired harlot’s shameless shrieks. And now she is waiting again, in a damp and cold stone cell, passing the hours with lengthy reflections like this for the first time in her life.
Will her death take the shape of a young soldier with a long, sharp bayonet? Of some thief who’s been moved into their cell, with a faintly predatory smile, a homemade knife hidden in his boot, and a hankering for her warm sheepskin coat? Or will death come from within, turning into disease, cooling the lungs, appearing on her forehead as hot and sticky sweat, filling her throat with heavy green phlegm, and, finally, squeezing her heart in its icy fist, forbidding it to beat? Zuleikha doesn’t know.
That lack of knowledge is distressing and the long wait excruciating. Sometimes it seems she is already dead. The people around her are emaciated, pale, and spend entire days whispering and quietly weeping: so who are they if not the dead? This place – frigid and crowded, the stone walls wet from damp, deep under the ground, without a single ray of sun – what is it if not a burial vault? Only when Zuleikha makes her way to the latrine, a large, echoing tin bucket in the corner of the cell, and feels her cheeks warm with shame is she convinced that, no, she is still alive. The dead do not know shame.