Book review: Alisa Ganieva, ‘The Mountain and the Wall’

The Mountain and the Wall,
by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio,
published by Deep Vellum.

Alisa Ganieva is a talented, well-educated Moscow literary critic who left Dagestan to study at The Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. In his introduction, Roger Meyer writes that she is ethnic Avar (like the famed late national poet of Dagestan Rasul Gamzatov, but unlike him ‘identifies with Russian culture’. Rasul’s life-size bronze statue was unveiled by President Putin in central Moscow in 2013; and when Rasul, a former member of the Supreme Soviet of USSR, picked up the highest Russian order of St Andrew in 2003, I heard that he tartly remarked to Putin that he hadn’t known that Putin liked poetry. Putin was not amused.

Over many decades I have found that Dagestan, with a population of 3 million out of about 144 million in the Russian Federation, is under-represented culturally. Only recently, earlier texts were discovered in Dagestan, which established the truth, denied during the Soviet period that, inter alia Avar was a written language. All ethnic Dagestanis, then, who write about Dagestan must be welcomed; according to publisher Deep Vellum, The Mountain and the Wall is the first Dagestani novel to be published in English. There are enough reports of bombs and deaths, and abuse by both authorities and rebels/ terrorists to obscure Dagestan’s rich cultural heritage and brand them all as terrorists. On the human level, Ganieva is very courageous to write about what is happening in Dagestan, thinly veiled in the traditional Russian literary use of fiction. Several journalists who have written actual or perceived criticism of the system have paid for it dearly. Since Putin came to power, some 123 journalists have been killed in Russia not including 8 killed while writing about the second war in Chechnya.

Ganieva won the under-25 Debut prize in 2009 with her novella Salam Dalgat! and perhaps here, we have another prize-worthy work. The plot may be somewhat thin, focused on the wall rumoured to have been built by Russia to cut off the Caucasus, which one never sees (despite everyone having mobile phones and social media); while the more human protagonists are Shamil and his fiancée Madina who jilts him for a purer Islam; and his eventual rather shyer would-be wife Asya, whose somewhat cold nature is sadly under-developed. In contrast, the memorable characters Ali and Nino in Kurban Said/ Lev Nussimbaum’s eponymous novel of 1937, tell a somewhat similar tale of doomed inter-religious and inter-ethnic love in the Caucasus, where the no smaller ‘walls’ are psychological and cultural, set against the revolutionary war of 1920.

Walls should be a wonderful construct for this story. The walls visible from outer space are the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall across north Britain, the triple walls of Constantinople, the Sassanian Persian walls of Derbent, and others in Dagestan. In modern times there rose the former Berlin Wall, the West Bank Wall, and the Belfast Wall. So the mythical wall of the title is in rich company.

Arguments bubble as to whether their purpose was to keep people in or out. Perhaps there is another novel to be written from what the author, as a self-confessed Moscow-centric, left out, namely the fascinating opportunity the wall would afford for Dagestan to rejoin its historical Trans-Caucasian neighbours, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. Although the panic about separation from Russia is not entirely credible. As the joke goes: ‘after the referendum in Crimea, why not Dagestan?’ While Dagestan receives over 80% of its state budget from Moscow, Moscow refuses to allow development of Dagestan’s offshore oil riches even as it condones corruption that stifles business and economic progress. And there are still many who recall that their fathers or grandfathers were deported by the Russian Soviet state. Most Dagestanis who go to Russia are confronted by xenophobic racism, backed up by the recent draconian registration laws.


Ganieva’s division of Dagestan into Sufis, Soviet-style societal Muslims, and Wahhabis, omits acknowledgment of the increasing numbers of peaceful Salafis who are not Wahhabis, and thus tacitly supports Moscow’s violent repressions in Dagestan, prepetrated by Russian Federation and local security forces alike. Dagestan is being steadily degraded by this policy and it is a pity to see it misinterpreted in a novel where so many other details of Dagestan are accurately portrayed.

The otherwise comprehensive glossary contains one unfortunate item (page 255) that reflects the text to which it refers: ‘Wahhabi: the same as Salafi.’ As a short explanation: according to many reports, the corrupt leadership of Dagestan comprise the mainly Naqshbandi Sufi Sunni Muslims. The absence of hope for any future, present among the numerous younger generation, has left a vacuum in which many adopt Salafi Sunni Islam, with its perceived moral probity; and there are several legal Salafi mosques. It is, however, illegal to have religious books unapproved by the State Muslim Board. There is indeed a militant minority who have fled to the forests and are fighting against the authorities. But the retaliation has been disproportionate, and perceived opponents, including reporters, lawyers and doctors, as well as mosque-goers and their families, have been frequently interrogated and then ‘disappeared’. Years later, some of their cases brought by their families were won in the European Court of Human Rights, to which the Russian Federation is a signatory.

While most of the Salafis are not Wahhabis who espouse armed jihad, and deny that they are, they are called Vakhabist (Wahhabi) by the authorities in Moscow, where the policy aspiration has always been for Russia to be included in the ‘war against international terrorism’, in part to justify their systemic human rights abuses in Russia and the North Caucasus (including Dagestan). Indeed, most terrorist acts have been against Dagestani or Russian targets, with the exception of the Boston marathon bomber brothers who were ethnic-Chechens from Dagestan. Many commentators maintain that the thuggish Russian policy in the north Caucasus is counter-productive and simply increases recruitment to the rebels/ terrorists. For the record, on 16 February 2015, the new Jihadist leader in Dagestan, Said Arakanskiy, denounced any former colleagues who had sworn allegiance to IS, emphasising that the Caucasus rebel emirate had nothing in common with IS.

It is useful to understand the size of the insurgency, the background permeating this novel. Caucasian Knot stated that during the four years to end 2013, 5291 people suffered from the conflict in North Caucasus – 54% in Dagestan. From 2010 to the beginning of 2014, victims, including killed and wounded, decreased from 1705 (including 956 wounded) in 2010 to 986 (including 457 wounded) in 2013, with the sharpest annual decline in 2013 from 700 (2012) to 529 casualties.

Magical realism

On the literary level, here and there, a fascinating dark thread appears, which regrettably is not sufficiently developed: the exciting and engaging magical realism of Rokhel-Meer, the enchanted mountain village, is reduced to a wonderful, albeit brief dream, extended in the Soviet-style wedding where Mad Maga and all the senior men leave and disappear; and the overwhelming, magical Soviet doggerel-singer Sabina who is duly murdered in the ensuing unrest. The epilogue visits Shamil and Asya’s alchemical wedding where all the protagonists, dead or alive, appear in a pantomime ending. Wonderful.

In a sort of ‘style triumphing over content’, the author frequently is distracted by literary flourishes of hyperactive fragments and quotations from fictional sources. Chapters filled with a babbling stream of consciousness form an ethnographic tour de force, and cover a wealth of rich local history, mixed in with traditional customs and their intersection with modern life of the 31 ethnic groups of Dagestan. However, it is not clear if there is a direct link to the plot. It somewhat lacks the charm and humour of Lawrence Sterne’s masterpiece Tristam Shandy (1760), which invented the shaggy-dog story and is one of the first modern novels to hilariously examine writing a novel, but it is only distantly echoed here. There are, for example, unfortunate quotations illustrating the mediocre writings of local (fictional) author Makhmud Tagirovich (name and patronymic, in the Russian style, not used naturally in Dagestan).

In what I imagine was an unintended swipe at Rasul Gamzatov, the author writes on page 127 about Tagirovich: ‘in fact his novel was his life’s work but he’d gotten blocked and had turned to verse as an outlet for his creative energy.’ Well, as Rasul would likely boom out from beyond his grave in literary Avar: ‘Your poetry is not much good either. Gotten blocked, my foot!’ It is not clear what the mockery of Makhmud’s pseudo poetry adds to the magical story. Is the reader being given a hint when Makhmud ‘skips ahead a few pages’ (page 132), and later ‘randomly picks out an old notebook’ for quotation (138); and Shamil quotes copiously from his sister’s Soviet-period schoolbook, while ‘skipping several paragraphs’ (76) and ‘ later skipping’ another 50 pages (78)? It gives an impression that the author barely enjoyed writing this book.

Translated by Carol Apollonio, the laudable policy was to translate the Russian into English and to preserve the local language terms, written in italics, and explained in the large glossary at the end. Such mixed language is indeed spoken locally, but it is perplexing for the reader to constantly need to look up words, which for me broke up the flow of the talented writing. If the majority were simply translated into English, it would be just as effective.

Unlike Rasul, Ganieva hides her sense of humour, which I have always found to be one of the most engaging features of Dagestan’s mountain and urban men and women, making a transition between traditional village jokes and Russiananekdoty. Humour would have been welcome – things are so bad in Dagestan that if you don’t laugh you would cry.

Piece originally posted at Open DemocracyCreative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Robert Chenciner is a writer and journalist who has been a senior member of St. Antony's College, Oxford since 1987. He specialises in ethnography and material culture in Albania, the Caucasus, Russia and other post-Soviet states, and is the author of several books including Dagestan: Tradition and Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, Caucasus World Series, 1997).

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