Alisa Ganieva: Bride & Groom

Ganieva, Alisa (2018 [2015]), Bride & Groom, Deep Vellum
trans. Carol Apollonio
ISBN 978-1-941920-59-6

This is the first novel by Alisa Ganieva I have read – and one of embarrassingly few novels by contemporary Russian writers on my shelf. Bride & Groom (published in Russian as Жених и невеста) is an excellent novel, and my appreciation of it has only increased as the weeks passed between finishing it and sitting down to type up this quick note. This is the second novel by Ganieva to be translated into English (and her third work of fiction generally), with a third (Оскорблённые чувства, translated as Offended Sensibilities) coming down the pike this year, and all reviews and comments on it note the progression from the previously translated novel, The Mountain and The Wall (Праздничная гора) to this one, as one where the writer moves from a more macro to a more micro perspective, from a novel concerned with a whole country to one dealing with one small town and two youngish people who may or may not get married. All three novels are translated by Carol Apollonio who finds such a lively and idiom-rich English language for Ganieva’s words that I am occasionally suspicious of it.

All of her novels are set in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the very south of the still quite enormous Russian Federation. Like many of the republics at the fringes of Russia, it has had a capricious history before being colonized by Russia – in recent years, it has similarly known upheaval. As Ganieva notes in various interviews, Dagestani identity has been eroded by Soviet rule, and while it has a long Islamic history, today’s Islamic movements in Dagestan, such as the 1999 attempt to create an “independent Islamic State of Dagestan,” are not an evocation of old rules. As Ganieva says:

“[young people] began re-finding their roots and many found them in what turned out to be a superficial version of religion. They’re trying to eliminate the Soviet lifestyle, but they’re not truly Dagestani either. They’re trying to be Arabs or, I don’t know, general Muslims.”

What Bride & Groom discusses is how these cultural attempts to find one’s identity put young people in Dagestan in a bind. The Russian state’s grasp on local laws is famously weak this far away from Moscow, as various waves of laws since the early 2000s paradoxically demonstrate, including a ban on the title of “president” for local leaders and an abolition of mandatory minority language teaching in 2018. In effect, this leads to complex layers of local chieftains attempting to control their fiefdoms by using violence, local religion, as well as good old-fashioned corruption. None of this is exactly new. Ganieva’s major success in her novel is to show how these folds of power and violence interact with age-old patriarchal structures, making marriage, the sacrament at the center of her novel, both an instrument of social control and an attempt to establish control over the smallest local community: individual households.

What she also discusses is how women are consistently under threat of power being exercised against them. Violence and control happen to them, though, in a pivotal episode at the very end, they can push those in power a little to achieve their own minor ends. Truly every woman in the novel has to be vigilant of the men in her life, careful to occupy the correct role. Men consistently talk down to women, abuse women, and use marriage as a way to control women and at the same time elevate their own position in life. In her excellent polemic Tomorrow Sex will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel explains why the focus on consent is blind to the many expectations and demands put on women by various systems of power, and how people often operate under a fiction of consent.  It is extremely hard to say that anyone in the novel cares about women’s consent for anything, but consent, explicit consent is frequently given, and not under explicit threats of violence.

Instead, the threats are, mostly, implicit threats, a tapestry woven by the incessant chatter. Marriage is a protection from men. Being in love with a man who does not, then, marry you, is the worst-case scenario. You don’t have to be pregnant for it, but you will then no longer find a husband, unless you are willing to compromise especially deeply. Angel discusses sexual mores and agreements as attempts “to be safe from violence” – and indeed, in Ganieva’s novel, women weigh one act of violence against the other. And even if you accept the above example as a kind of misstep, a wrongdoing, a sin, an action that a woman cannot do in this small town on the fringes of Russia, without condemnation – Ganieva offers other examples of women condemned for the actions of men without any previous mistake.

A man who had sex with a woman presented to us as a prostitute (more likely merely a woman who agreed to have intercourse with said man) comes home to the small town to marry. The woman follows him, having been impregnated. She comes with an army of support, brothers, mothers, in order to interrupt his engagement. Though his own army of friends and family try to prevent a confrontation, the pregnant woman’s mother utters a black curse in the middle of the engagement celebration. The engagement is called off, everyone involved is some level of embarrassed. In later pages we learn that this is a black mark on the fiancée. Not on her husband-to-be, not on his family, not on his friends who made unpleasant jokes about his prostitute earlier. This woman, whose only mistake was picking the wrong partner, is now single, old(er) and effectively unmarriable. She, too, will have to make some kind of compromise, if she does not want to entirely forego the protection of marriage.

In yet another interview, Ganieva notes that while there is indeed “the general perception of women as some kind of property of the family that has to be protected from the outside world” – the internet has not changed things in the slightest:

“the Internet is becoming an instrument of control and surveillance. Compromising evidence on women recorded on mobile cameras by men has turned into a regular blackmailing technique. Secret male groups in social networks are used to accumulate and exchange compromising information about young women.”

In fact, the female protagonist’s flirtatious behavior with a man leads to her being pressured, stalked, and threatened by said man who promises to marshal power, violence, and influence in order to force her into marriage.

This is the first time I mentioned either protagonist of the novel and that’s because the novel is not primarily propelled forward by plot, but by the inexorable accumulation of events, pressure, violence. While there are two protagonists who will have an amorous relationship, Bride & Groom doesn’t just mean specific people, it designates the entire power structure, that mixture of fear, superstition and corruption that pervades everything and that women are at the receiving end of. The book is told in alternating chapters from the point of view of two youngish people approaching their 30s. Both have worked in Moscow and have returned home for a visit. Both meet friends and stay with family, and both are pressured by their respective family to get married. The book charts their movements – and in more broad terms, their movements towards each other. However, as we follow them around town, we find that they encounter different realities.

Marat, a young lawyer, has the respect of important people around town, and his parents rent him a banquet hall in the hopes for his engagement to happen before his visit ends. Marat and his friends speak badly of women, it’s what you do, after all, and he is among the people laughing at the abovementioned prostitute jokes. However, the main topic of conversation are not women. It is the former mayor, it is the rise of Islam and the tensions between the two major Muslim communities in town, weighty topics like that. For Patya, a young woman who has held an office job in Moscow, most conversations revolve around men. Not just because she is not included in political conversation. But also, because she and her friends have to negotiate a very different set of threats and fears. She is not afraid of the growing tension between abstract communities of Muslims, she is specifically afraid of a man named Timur who is a vocal leader in his mosque. And so on. Her mother does not offer the gift and prospect of a banquet hall – instead, Patya is inundated by threats and complaints.

Ganieva’s writing, in Carol Appolonio’s translation, is occasionally a bit static – but much of the value of the novel is not on its surface. Beyond the aspects I mentioned, and which clearly interested me most, there’s an entire additional level of allusions to Islamic myth and sufism. Symbolic colors and objects abound. In the afterword of the Deep Vellum edition, it is Ganieva herself who explains these connections and subtexts. In the end, the paths of the novel’s characters arc towards dissolution “into the substance of the divine.” While the novel can be a bit slow going at times, its multi-layered structure rewards re-readings. What’s more – I may be unreasonably drawn to the dour aspects of the book. Go read this excellent review in Asymptote which notes the light and enjoyable traits of the novel, comparing its patter to Jane Austen.

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