Alisa Ganieva portrays the influence of political intolerance and religious violence in the lives of people forced to choose between evils. She tells an excellent story about the rise of Islam, the fate of the republics in post-Soviet Russia and the traditions of a people little known in the West
Alisa Ganieva, The Mountain and the Wall, Trans. by Carol Apollonio, Deep Vellum, 2015.
"Never before has Russian literature produced such an honest and complete picture of today's Caucasus."—Kommersant Weekend (Russia)
"The Mountain and the Wall is a major event in contemporary Russian literature."—Ulrich M. Schmid
This remarkable debut novel by a unique young Russian voice portrays the influence of political intolerance and religious violence in the lives of people forced to choose between evils.
The Mountain and the Wall focuses on Shamil, a young local reporter in Makhachkala, and his reactions, or lack thereof, to rumors that the Russian government is building a wall to cut off the Muslim provinces of the Caucasus from the rest of Russia. As unrest spreads and the tension builds, Shamil's life is turned upside down, and he can no longer afford to ignore the violence surrounding him.
With a fine sense for mounting catastrophe, Alisa Ganieva tells the story of the decline of a society torn apart by its inherent extremes.
The Mountain and the Wall is both the first novel by Alisa Ganieva, and the first in English translation from the Russian republic of Dagestan. I have to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never even heard of Dagestan until I read this book, so I come to write this review more tentatively than I might usually. In a way, though, that’s quite appropriate; because it seems to me that Ganieva’s novel is very much concerned with hearsay and the limits of knowledge.
The prologue, set at a social gathering, is a cinematic carousel of anecdotes told by a succession of characters, until someone realises a critical fact that nobody knew. In the first chapter, we find Ganieva’s protagonist Shamil visiting a village of goldsmiths, on assignment from a newspaper to write about their traditional crafts – though he soon discovers that these are losing out to cheaper tourist trinkets, which is not the story he’s there to tell. These set the scene for a tale of hidden information, not least of which is the rumour that the government is building a wall to separate off Russia’s Caucasus republics – a wall that we hear plenty about, but never see.
Carol Apollonio’s translation from the Russian moves through a range of different styles, particularly as it quotes from various fictional texts – including a novel which Shamil reads, and about he which he might feel differently if he knew what we find out about its author. In all, The Mountain and the Wall strikes me as a story of characters on shifting ground, trying to find their way with incomplete information – and the ultimate sense is that, to go forward, they need to know where they’ve been. - David Hebblethwaite
Dagestan is next to Chechnya and is also an Islamic country. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Islamisation has become stronger here, as elsewhere. There has also been some spillover from the Chechen war. Ganieva shows this in a prologue where we meet Zumrud, whom we will meet later in the book, and her extended family. There is much discussion within the family on the changing situation in Dagestan, with stories of apparently liberal people adopting Islam wholesale, liberal women taking the veil and men taking second (and more) wives. But there are also stories of jihadists as well as stories of how people do or do not observe the Koran. Inevitably, there is also much corruption. There is also opposition to this intense Islamisation, as some people fight for human rights and a more liberal state.
The main story starts with Shamil (it is no concidence that he is named after Imam Shamil) in the town of Makhachkala, where Ganieva spent some of her childhood. Shamil is working as a journalist for a local newspaper. Indeed, we meet him when he is visiting a village, where there are goldsmiths who have a long tradition of making beautiful items but now seem intent only on making items for the tourist trade. It is interesting that he starts his article by staying Religious extremism is on the rise in Dagestan. However, two key events happen at this point. When he returns to Makhachkala, he hears rumours of a wall that the Russians have constructed or are constructing between the Caucasus republics and Russia. At the same time, the mobile phone system seems to go down and no-one can phone anyone to get this rumour confirmed or denied. Things seem to be heating up and we learn of another issue in the region. The various constituent nationalities are arguing among themselves, each one claiming that their nationality is the superior one and the one that has been most oppressed. The Kumyks want their ancient lands back, while the Lezgians maintain that their lands have been stolen by the Azeris.
While it is the wall that dominates the story, we never actually see the wall or, rather, Shamil does not see it. Indeed, with the Internet soon going down and most TV stations out of action, no-one actually knows for sure, though some people claim to have seen it in their travels. Much of the rest of the book is a fascinating mixture of stories, first- and second-hand, about what happens post-Wall and accounts of the lives of a few individuals. Shamil seems to drift around almost in a daze. He was engaged to a woman, Madina, but has decided he really does not want to marry her. When he visits her house, he learns from her parents that she has has married one of what are called the beards, i.e. the radical Islamists, who seem to be gradually taking over. Her parents are furious about this and bitterly oppose it. Shamil is horrified, so much so that he goes round visiting all his ex-girlfriends.
We also learn more about his past, in particular a key event when he and his friend, Arip, go hiking. They see what looks a fortification high on the hill and climb up to it, where they find a village which is almost deserted. However, an old man takes them in and feeds them and talks to them, often in riddles or proverbs. They fall asleep and wake up on the mountainside. There is no sign of the village. Was it a dream? If so, both of them had the dream.
Another key character is Makhmud Tagirovich. Ganieva interestingly gives us several excerpts from the works of other people, including Makhmud Tagirovich. Makhmud Tagirovich started to write a novel, abandoned it and then started to write a long poem, before getting a sudden burst of inspiration and finishing the novel. We get excerpts from both. Makhmud Tagirovich is also something of a lost character, berated by his wife for his failure to achieve anything and all too often a victim. All he wants to do is write his poem and novel and spend time with his friend in the local bar. His father had been a poet and something of a colourful character. It is clear that Makhmud Tagirovich cannot live up to his father's reputation.
The background to the story and to the stories of Shamil and Makhmud Tagirovich, is the changing situation. The airport is closed. The bosses seem to disappear. The police hide way and , when they appear, are often killed. The beards are taking over and are being ruthless in imposing what they see as strict Muslim standards. Inevitably, there is an economic crisis, with long Soviet-style queues for food. Madina comments the brothers aren’t terrorists, they are Muslims who want to live like Muslims. And soon everyone will live that same way . Even Arip says Maybe there’ll be some real change? We could have a new state, one that’ll care about truth, justice, and morality more than cash. But museums are sacked and destroyed, a Caucasian Emirate declared and a Mahdi is revealed as the new saviour, till he takes all the cash and disappears.
This is a superb book, giving us the Islamisation aspect from an insider's point of view. There is a certain level of chaos in the novel, by which I mean, it jumps around. This, however, is definitely a positive, as it it gives us an impressionistic view of what is happening in post-Wall Dagestan, both the rise of a traditional Islam view and sharia law, as well as the viewpoint of those who are opposed and those who hover somewhere between the two, i.e. the Russians are bad and we should return to our old ways but this might be too extreme. There is no doubt that Ganieva sees the Islamisation as negative but she is quick to point out the failures of both the Soviet and post-Soviet systems. Just as importantly, for us, the readers, she tells an excellent story about the rise of Islam, the fate of the republics in post-Soviet Russia and the traditions of a people little known in the West. - - www.themodernnovel.com/dagestani/ganieva/mountain.htm
Alisa Ganieva's first novel, The Mountain and the Wall, brings readers into a dystopic world that is slowly being ripped apart at the seams. The novel is set in Dagestan, which is located in Russia's North Caucasus region and is its most ethnically diverse republic. (It's worth noting that Ganieva grew up in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital city.) While no ethnicity forms a majority, approximately 80% of the population adheres to Islam. In recent years, Dagestan has been the site of occasional ethnic and religious tension, which has sometimes resulted in violence –including suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism—between militant and secular-leaning Islamist groups. This is the reality from which the novel grows.
There are many intersecting storylines in The Mountain and the Wall, but Ganieva centers these intersections on Shamil, a young reporter from Makhachkala. He is the observer whom we observe—a somewhat reluctant protagonist who, despite his best efforts to "postpone the collapse of his world," is continually thrust into rumor, conflict, and violence. Through Shamil we hear that the Russian government may or may not have cut off Dagestan by erecting the Wall along its border. Through Shamil we witness the resulting ethnic and religious unrest caused by the Wall. It is when Shamil's fiancé, Madina, joins radical militants that we observe the turmoil and despair that occur in communities when tension escalates to a breaking point. And it is Shamil who connects us to an experience of hope on the Mountain of Celebration.
Ganieva uses Shamil and his community to give readers a sense of the rhythm of life in a place of such unrest. That rhythm has two primary components: the struggle for information and the consolations of routine. After attending a tense press conference about the Wall (which is full of conflicting reports) Shamil, bewildered, wanders into the streets. There he observes taxis, girls laughing and talking as they shop, and a bread-seller shouting at a group of children playing. "What am I so scared of?" Shamil asks himself. Later, one of Shamil's family members will tell him that "things are always falling apart."
As Shamil watches things fall apart—Madina becomes radicalized and leaves him, family members go missing and are perhaps dead, the government collapses, the streets are filled with violence—he consoles himself with routine:
In a personal effort to postpone the collapse of his world, Shamil sought out forbidden DVDs of non-Muslim films, intensified his workout schedule, and went around visiting his relatives. They fought their anxiety and remained steeped in everyday routines and cares: changing diapers, counting money, repairing their homes.
As is often the case, the routine causes Shamil to disbelieve the extraordinary events he has witnessed. "Maybe everything's alright now," he thinks, "no Wall, network's back up. Maybe it was all just some kind of trick?"
But Ganieva's characters—Shamil especially—wish for something more than cheap denial or escape. As the escalating violence continually rushes at them, they long for hope. And Ganieva does not leave Shamil or his community to suffocate from the tension forever.
One of the ways Ganieva creates space in the narrative for her characters (and for the reader) is by interpolating texts. Throughout the narrative, Shamil encounters newspaper articles, propaganda masked as a children's story, and the manuscript of a novel by a character named Makhmud (as well as a few lines of Makhmud's poetry). Sometimes these interpolations highlight the tensions presented in the narrative—i.e. Shamil's sister's "schoolbook" that includes propagandistic stories of a culture that has thrown off religious tradition and has learned that "not in the mountains, not in the old ways, is happiness to be found, but in the new and joyous morning of freedom." But it is Makhmud's manuscript that becomes important in the final sections of the book.
Makhmud's novel-in-manuscript quickly becomes the subject of a different kind of rumor, marked by hope, vision, and the potential for unity. The manuscript includes a story about Rokhel-Meer, the Mountain of Celebrations. If the Wall is the unseen instigator of division and violence, the Mountain of Celebrations is the intimation that hope exists beyond the conflict and dystopic dread. And it is hope, not mere denial or escape, that Ganieva gives her characters.
Before it appears in Makhmud's manuscript, the Mountain of Celebrations is introduced to readers via a memory that Shamil recounts to himself after discovering that Madina has become radicalized. Shamil and his friend Arip had gone for a hike in the mountains. As they explored, they became drowsy and fell asleep. When they awoke, they followed a path that led to a deserted village, where they found a mysterious man. The man only spoke in proverbs, mumbling as if to himself. He called the village "Rokhel-Meer."
Shamil remembers how the mysterious man brought them back to his mostly empty house and fed them. Soon Shamil and Arip fell asleep again. They awoke on the same mountainside where they had rested before. As they attempted to piece together the incident, they searched for the path to the village again, but found that the mountain was bare—there was no village, and there was no man. It was as if they shared the same dream.
When the Mountain of Celebrations makes its appearance in Makhmud's manuscript, he writes that it is a place "where the soul ends up after death." What he describes is like an embodied dream, an enchantment grounded in work and feasting, a meeting point between heaven and earth:
Our souls end up at the top of Rokhel-Meer, the Mountain of Celebrations. And there, on Meer, will be a place of purity, where there is no poverty, scarcity, or want. There will be a great village there with tanneries, armories, and stone workshops. Its dwellings are part of the very cliffs; there, benign white spirits will feast together with the people, and the celebrations will never end.
The Mountain of Celebrations in Makhmud's novel has a different character than it does in Shamil's memory. Each vision of the mountain is increasingly populated and celebratory. And it is this vision that Ganieva leaves us with at the end of the novel when she shows us a third scene on the mountain. It is a vision of hope that contrasts the dystopic violence in the rest of the book.
The real-life ethnic tension and religious violence in Dagestan and elsewhere since the novel's original publication in 2012 make this dystopian future seem all the more immediate and urgent. Ganieva's novel is about things we often see in headlines: fundamentalist / secularist tensions, ethnic clashes, personal and social collapses, shifting cultural dynamics, and the manipulation of information. But it is also about the survival of a people and the desire to move beyond postmodern cynicism and despair to a hope that lies on the far side of struggle.
Ganieva's novel is terrifying in many ways. But it is also courageous, timely, and clear-eyed. The book begins with the Wall, but it ends on the Mountain. By doing so, it acknowledges that pain and darkness are real. But it argues that hope is also a real and worthwhile endeavor. - A. T. Grant
Alisa Ganieva, born in 1985, grew up in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Her literary debut, the novella Salaam, Dalgat!, won the prestigious Debut Prize in 2009. Shortlisted for all of Russia's major literary awards, The Mountain and the Wall is her first novel, and has already been translated into several languages. Ganieva lives in Moscow, where she works as a journalist and literary critic.