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.

#Translation and Heartbreak

I review a lot of translated literature on this here blog thing. I also advocate for translating German literature. I love translation (I may be of two minds about poetry translation) as I love literature. I also think that ethically, translation is an extremely difficult business. I don’t, at this point, want to wade in further in the issue, but this post is just to reflect my sadness and heartbreak about the recent news about Han Kang’s English translator.

Personally, I stay away from German translation because it is *as a rule* either sloppy or rather distanced from the text. There are whole generations of translators who are taught to “improve” the text. I heard that at university when i studied Romance languages in Bonn. Germans have no issues translating a Japanese text from the English translation. It’s bizarre and offensive. So I try to read English and French translations. And with some languages, particularly Romance languages, you can guess. When I read the Villalobos I reviewed yesterday, I double checked a few things in my Spanish dictionary and I think I can make an educated guess at some of the translation’s flaws (this is not in the review; I didn’t want to be a sourpuss). But with, say, Korean, I am out on a raft on the empty sea. I don’t speak any Asian language to my great shame and embarrassment and so my guesses, well, let me quote from my review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian:

The translation fits the text perfectly and contributes to the unsettling effect that this novel-in-stories provides.


The ultimate test of a translation, the accuracy, is one I cannot perform, but from my limited angle this is a fine effort, and Han Kang is fortunate to be translated by Deborah Smith, almost as fortunate as we all have to have such a good novel around.

As I found out this week, I was severely off-base. I recommend you read this essay by Charse Yung with some urgency if you haven’t yet. I share none of its positive attitude and spin to the facts it lays out. I read (and reread) this with a profound sense of heartbreak. Sure, the numerical parts are questionable (how do you quantify how much has been added since no good translation is a 1-to-1 interlinear equivalent) without reading the paper mentioned (but not cited) within. But even with some allowance for that, the rest of the autopsy here is absolutely atrocious. I am heartbroken. As someone as profoundly and shamefully limited as me with languages, translation is a trust excercise. Egregious cases like this one feel like a betrayal to me. I know I may take literature too seriously, people tell me that, but this is a stunning case. Let me repeat: you want to read this article. And I don’t see how you (or anyone) can ever read another Smith-translated book again.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian

Kang, Han (2015 [2007]), The Vegetarian, Portobello
[Translated by Deborah Smith]
ISBN 978-1-84627-562-3

han kangI have read and reread The Vegetarian twice in the past two months (first time was in December). It is very good. The translation fits the text perfectly and contributes to the unsettling effect that this novel-in-stories provides. Han Kang wrote a book which is both existentially distant and sharp but is also, at the same time, suffused with a warm sense of longing, of loss, of fullness of feeling even in their absence. It is a novel about a young woman who, to the disbelief of her husband and parents, decides to stop eating meat. It is quite the extraordinary -if bleak- text and, compared to, say, I have the right to destroy myself, one of only three Korean novels I have read in the past 12 months, it’s also remarkably well done. It works marvelously as a novel, but each of the individual novellas are also well-balanced and constructed and would have been worth publishing on their own (as they have been in Korea). It took me some time to find my way around the novel due to a certain denseness of thought and vision and in fact, I recommend reading each novella/segment separately, spaced out over 3 (or more) days, and reading each novella in one sitting. They are all fairly short, so that isn’t a problem. The novel succeeds both as a comment on feminity in the modern world, as well as a novel on mental disintegration and, finally, a novel about the corps propre of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. I do think there is an oddly normative sense of bodily function, with quite alarming blind spots all over the place. At the same time, Han Kang’s novel is laser-focused on a specific issue and manages to be both intellectually intriguing regarding its topic and aesthetically pleasing. The only reason I read this book is because I gave a copy to my sister for Christmas and I don’t give away books I have not read. And I am so glad I did. If any of Han Kang’s other books are on par with The Vegetarian, I will be reading this author with pleasure for years to come. So will you. Go. Read the damn thing.

A quick note. I have used the word “pleasure” a few times in the previous paragraph to convey my feelings towards the book. In fact, The Vegetarian, while enjoyable as literature, is also a profoundly brutal book, with next to nothing that mitigates or catches that brutality. Emotional brutality, but also physical violence and rape. Han Kang pulls no punches and yet, all of this cruelty seems necessary, a well integrated part of the book, not just puerile excitement about provocation (the shocking sounding, but ultimately pedestrian and dull novel by Urs Allemann comes to mind). The effect the book has on the reader is not pleasure as in joy, and the cruelty also does not provide a frisson of transgressiveness. Instead, the feeling I had was of an enormously plausible portrait of a woman who becomes more and more dissociated from her body and her everyday existence and retreats. The cruelty comes through the way her environment, from husband to family and friends, react to her. Was it Aristotle who said that “nature abhors a vaccuum”? Anway, that’s exactly what happens. As the novel’s protagonist retreats, everybody else pushes into the gap, both physically as well as in volume. Restraints fall away fast as there is no obvious social mechanism to deal with the protagonist’s profund Melvillian denial of cooperation with how people around her expect the world to work. And brilliantly, Han Kang duplicates this process on a literary level by barely giving us the protagonist’s own point of view except snippets here and there. We see her through the eyes of people around her and with them, we, too push into the gap. We become voyeurs in her most brutal moments, we, deprived of a reasoned explanation for her denial, also have to guess, have to divine from the few sources we have what her reasoning is. This is not one of those he said, she said situations. The brutality of the book is one in which we are complicit.

DSC_1950With all that said, Han Kang is not subtle about much of this. The first novella, which deals with the impact of the incipient Vegetarianism (Veganism, really, I think?) on husband and family, makes no bones about it: the husband’s behavior is indefensible. And yet, by making the grab for knowledge, the nosy eyes and minds of family and friends the culprit (speaking about obviousness, the second novella is about a video artist) in this, we are automatically part of the problem in a way that we cannot easily escape. In a way, this makes Kang’s novel a sibling of some of Haneke’s best movies. The obviousness of the husband’s and family’s despicable behavior just compounds our complicity in the whole affair. This is important because surely, part of the novel’s concern is all of our concern with female bodies and the expectations we put on them. This gaze is too often simplified into guilty actions by heterosexual men, but the male gaze as part of patriarchal oppression is systematic and institutionalized and women can and do compound its effects. It’s a rotten system of assumptions and expectations and women, especially young women, mutilate their bodies and minds in order to conform. Han Kang’s book can be seen to be about that pressure finally breaking its subject. The obvious predecessor to this book is Bartleby The Scrivener, and while Bartleby succumbs when he also “prefers not to” eat, Han Kang prefers to start her protagonist’s denial at that point. The effect, I think, is an interesting one. Bartleby angers his environment by declining to participate, enfin, to move. That’s what gets him jailed. Nobody in Bartleby’s world would have been interested to know whether the poor man lived off a diet of potatoes or whether he enjoyed a piece of meat now and then. The mere fact that the refusal in The Vegetarian results in such virulent reactions shows that the author believes we live in a time of much more policed bodies, especially when it comes to the female body.

The novel does offer an explanation of sorts for the protagonist’s behavior, an explanation that appears, as the novel ends, to affect the protagonist’s sister, as well. However, part of the novel’s power derives from the fact that it discusses a mode of behavior that is fairly common in the surveillance of female behavior and mental deviation. On some level, and this it also shares with Melville’s dense masterpiece, the book also functions as a comment on the way society deals with anxious and depressed members, especially women. If you can’t function any more, it conversely becomes harder to function (much like it is more expensive to be poor). The solutions in the novel to the protagonist’s plight are all bad: there is coercion, deceit, medication and exploitation. Everyone in the book does one of those things (or multiple) or is complicit in them being done. The sister, who declines to abuse, lie or exploit her sister, ends up pushing her into a hospital stay where her condition is primarily treated medically. Nobody in the novel makes a real effort of understanding the protagonist’s plight. The novel keeps lobbing solutions at us that everybody inside the novel is blind to. They range from speaking, listening, understanding, accommodating, to the redemptive power of art. That last one is the most brutal because the artist is the one character in the novel best equipped to help the protagonist. Not just because he found the key to relieving her stress and unhappiness, but also because she opens up to him. He knows the solution but proceeds to ignore it because he cannot see beyond his own desire, the limits and agitations of his own mind. This reading of the novel as being applicable to people not as specifically afflicted or obsessed as the protagonist is supported by the fact that her sister’s husband is similarly disinterested in her sister without any ‘obvious’ reasons for it. At some point, he slakes his thirst for the protagonist by having rough, hungry sex with his wife in an act that I’m fairly certain should be labeled rape.

When it was all over, she was crying. He couldn’t tell what these tears meant – pain, pleasure, passion, disgust, or some inscrutable loneliness that she would have been no more able to explain than he would have been to understand. He didn’t know.
I’m scared, she’d muttered, turned away from him. No, it wasn’t that. You’re scaring me. At that point he was already slipping into a death-like sleep, so he couldn’t be sure if those words had really passed his wife’s lips. She might have lain there sobbing for hours in the darkness. He didn’t know.

The repeated line “He didn’t know” might as well end with the explanation “…and he didn’t care.”

The novel powerfully channels the feeling many women share of being the object of men’s desires and emotions, not subjects in those situations. In pop theory, terms like “fridging” and the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” have evolved to describe cultural manifestations of this androcentric world view, this male appetite to seeing one’s own interests merely mirrored in the women we are sharing our lives with. Institutions (in the novel: family, marriage, the medical profession) are set up as implicit barriers, as limits that are additional to the limits of the body itself. This is maybe where the novel most sharply diverges from Bartleby. Melville, like Edwards and Emerson, if I’m not mistaken, believed in a freedom of will that may be impeded by society but once we step outside of that logic and those expectations, we can be wholly free. Not so in The Vegetarian. Declining to eat meat, losing connections to her husband and family (which, to be honest, good riddance) does not provide freedom or solace to the protagonist who is more, I would suggest, a literary manifestation of the limits to choice as laid out by Merleau-Ponty. Multiple distinctions in his work appear to be in play in this novel. One is the distinction between the corps propre and the idea of a mere, isolated body, the meatsuit, if you will. That latter one does not exist as an entity in the world. We cannot split the way our body works and interacts with the world from the way our minds use and inhabit that body. But, importantly (take note, Joshua Ferris!), we can’t make the opposite distinction either, according to Merleau-Ponty. Our minds don’t exist as brains in a vat. In a way, the protagonist’s affliction is a depiction of the resulting complexities of choice and freedom. Han Kang does not really depict a true feedback, and some of it reads a bit like able-bodied fantasy of physical choice and autonomy, but the tense, tragic movement of the book does reflect the sense in MMP’s work that (physically, socially determined) choice comes before thought and is thus limiting.

The book’s conclusion is less clinical that you’d think, in fact, the last novella opens up the novel into interesting directions that I don’t want to spoil. However, that means that, ideally, the language must accommodate both the distance of a cold, existentialist novel and a warmer novel of possibilities and weirdness. I cannot read Korean and while now and then, Korean phrases seem to shine through (I have issues with a particular phrase that I noticed), this is extremely rare. Deborah Smith creates a language for the book that reaches all the right registers, that is smooth and readable and functions perfectly as an English text without the crutch of exoticism. The ultimate test of a translation, the accuracy, is one I cannot perform, but from my limited angle this is a fine effort, and Han Kang is fortunate to be translated by Deborah Smith, almost as fortunate as we all have to have such a good novel around. If you find the themes I mentioned unpleasant, I would understand you staying away from this book. If that is not an issue you have, I strongly recommend The Vegetarian. It is very good.


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Here is a trailer for a German documentary about Swetlana Geier, who translated Dostoevsky and other major Russian writers into German and whose translations have a status comparable to the one enjoyed by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translations into English. Sadly, Geier died Nov 7 2010.

Translating Thomas Mann

Cautionary tale, case study, or tragicomedy of errors? Even years after his death, the saga of the English translations of Mann has failed to find a satisfactory ending, and presumably for some considerable time to come, if not indefinitely, two Thomas Manns will continue to coexist in our midst: the German original, read chiefly by academics and some students of German, and the Lowe-Porter ‘adaptations into English’, which offer the unsuspecting general public access to another, a pseudo- Mann that Thomas, warned of the shortcomings of his would-be translator, had feared might result from her being appointed. For his ‘pact’ with the prestigious publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf, which would bring him royalties and recognition in the English-speaking world, but no say in the choice of his English echo, he paid a high price indeed.

Thus writes Timothy Buck in his interesting, if disquieting essay “Loyalty and License: Thomas Mann’s fiction in English translation” (The Modern Language Review, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 898-92), where he, thoroughly, brilliantly, and frighteningly dissects Helen Lowe-Porter’s “damaging” translation of Mann’s work, which reads horrible. The amount of falsifying, incompetence both in English and German, that Buck unearths here, is staggering. The same argument is developed in Buck’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, which I highly recommend. If you want to read Thomas Mann in English or have done so and are interested how much Mann you can get for your money, these essays are required reading.