Alisa Ganieva: Жених и невеста (Bride and Groom)
The title of this book gives an idea of what it is about. She is Patya. We first meet her when she is spending a year in Moscow, binding and copying documents in the basement of a Moscow courthouse. It is not a job she particularly enjoys. Her year is up and it is time to return home to Dagestan. Before she goes home she goes out to a dacha with a few friends. She is subjected to teasing about Islamic restrictions both as regards alcohol and sex. She had met one young man online but, when she met him in the flesh, she nicknamed him Lughead. He was a strange one. Downright creepy. So she is off back home.
Back home, we learn that things have changed in Dagestan. We follow three generations. From the grandmother, we learn the world in which she dwelt had absolutely nothing in common with ours. It was subject to ancient rules, which had to be rigidly followed. Patya’s parents’ generation had been brought up under Soviet rule and though they generally still remain Muslim and followed some Muslim customs, they do not, for example, support wearing of the niqab and other more traditional Muslim customs.
The younger generation seems to be of two minds. Most of the young people own or have access to modern technology and therefore are well aware of what the world is like. The young men expect pre-marital sex, the young women do not expect to have to wear the niqab or to be totally beholden to men (though Patya was, to a certain degree, under her brother’s watchful eye while in Moscow). However, some of the younger generation have reverted to a more traditional form of Islam and, indeed, there is a certain amount of Islamic terrorism in Dagestan.
When Patya gets home, her mother is most worried by the fact that here daughter is not married. In fact, Patya has been communicating with Timur online (she has never met him) who is from the same town and they agree to meet. She is very disappointed, not least because early on in their meeting, he tells her that he will need to talk to her parents about their impending nuptials, nuptials she has no desire whatsoever for, not least because he does not look like his photo.
The warning of the dangers of being too modern are shown with Amishka, one of Patya’s friends. She had gone to university, met a fellow student and started a relationship with him. He had assured her that they were going to be married and, accordingly, they had sex. He then later told her that he was going to marry a distant cousin. She was now sure that she was unmarriageable, as she was no longer a virgin.
Our main male hero is Marat. He has been working as a lawyer in Moscow, recently focussing on a high-profile human rights trial. He is back in Dagestan for a visit. His parents have already made arrangements for a marriage, booking an expensive hall and setting the date. The only problem is that there is no bride. Somewhat surprisingly (to us), Marat is not opposed to the idea, providing the bride is right. Once he arrives home, his mother produces a list of potential candidates. Of course, it is not too straightforward. He rejects a few. A visit to one possibility is a disaster.
Behind all of this story, there are a couple of things going on in the town. The first is the dispute between the different Muslim factions. Indeed, there has been a fight at the mosque between different groups. The second is those in favour of or against Khalibek. Khalibek is, depending on your point of view, an out-and-out crook or a great saviour of the people. However, Khalibek has now been arrested and is in jail (unless, of course, the person in jail is not really him but a look-alike, as some people think). Marat and his family hate him as he killed Marat’s half-brother in a car accident and got away with it. Patya’s father has worked for Khalibek and favours him.
Timur, however, is pressing his suit and insisting that Patya is to be his bride. He is part of the traditionalist movement and, for example, thinks evolution is nonsense. He does not help his case with Patya when he tells her, in response to her support for the idea of evolution, Don’t worry, we’ll spend some time together, just the two of us, and get this foolishness out of your pretty little head. Her response, at least, in her own mind is Why was it only now, after we had met in person, that I realized what a moron he was? Indeed, it is while she is at a meeting with Timur that she meets Marat.
It seems to us that Patya and Marat are destined to become a couple and that the bride at the pre-booked wedding ceremony will be Patya. However, there are complications. Khalibek is now out of prison and out for revenge, while Timur, who is influential in traditional Muslim circles, is not going to give up so easily.
There are three main themes in this book. Firstly, there is the issue of the inevitable difference in views between the generations. Interestingly, it goes both ways. Some of the young people want greater freedom than their parents had, such as being able to choose one’s own spouse, while others want to revert to a more traditional and conservative form of Islam. Secondly, possibly, at least in part, because of this, there is the rise of Islamic terrorism, which is in the background in this book but fear of it does affect the people. Thirdly, the influence of strong men and their control over large swathes of society is still felt. Khalibek may be in prison for much of this book (he is released towards the end) but he still plays a major role, not least because everyone is either adamantly for him or adamantly against him.
There is another theme that had escaped me and will undoubtedly escape most Western readers. In the afterword, Ganieva points out that an important subtext of the novel is Sufism. The Sufi’s task, through a long path of self-discovery, asceticism, and absolute obedience to his teacher, is ultimately to arrive at a merging with God. While I am vaguely aware of Sufism (Doris Lessing, for example, was an adherent of Sufism and it influenced her work) I had not realised the importance of Sufism to this book when reading it. She shows, in some detail, how it does relate to this novel. I would argue that you can fully enjoy this book without being even vaguely aware of Sufism and its role in this book.
Ganieva tells a very good story, shows us a world which, while different from ours (by which I mean the Western world), is, in many ways, moving closer to ours and gives us the odd surprise in her tale. It is definitely a worthy successor to Праздничная гора (The Mountain and the Wall).
First published in 2015 by Eleny Shubinoĭ
First English translation in 2018 by Deep Vellum