''I'd been living with Zuleikha for a very long time. It seemed to me I wouldn’t be able to write anything any more''
Guzel Yakhina about her second novel My Children, Volga Germans and the little man
Guzel Yakhina's new novel My Children will appear on shelves of bookshops these days. Her first novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes describing a dekulakised Tatar woman's life became a bestseller and was translated into 30 languages one year after the debut and got the famous Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana literary awards. Yakhina was called the brightest debutant in the history of contemporaneous Russian literature by critics for this. Her new novel also describes the early period of Soviet history: the Volga River in the 1920-1930s. The main character — Jacob Bach — is Russian German, a teacher in Gnadental. He brings a daughter up in an isolated village, writes fairy tales and becomes a witness of milestones in the country's life. Guzel Yakhin told about her road as a writer and work on the new novel to Realnoe Vremya.
''It's not fair to compare the first and the second novel''
Guzel, your first novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes was translated into 30 languages. And before asking you to tell about your second novel, how was the first one received in different countries?
First, I would emphasise the countries to which the topic of communism and political repressions is close. It's former countries of the Socialist bloc, former union republics. As it seems to me, people there read the novel about Zuleikha and take it to heart because their families had similar stories. It's Ukraine, Baltic states, the Czech Republic.
I will say about Iran separately. Iranian culture is very close to Tatar. Many mythological heroes in Tatar culture were borrowed from Persian. In Iran, the talk about the peri and the daeva wasn't something exotic – it's characters from tales whom Iranians know from childhood. Both the legend about Yousuf and Zuleikha and the legend about the mythological bird are plot making motifs of the novel. And the names used in the novel – Murtaza, Zuleikha, Salakhatdin, Yousuf – are modern names that people give their children in Iran. By the way, as well as Guzel.
The countries that didn't go through Stalinism and repressions, didn't experiment what the construction of communism and socialism is see rather a human than a political story in Zuleikha's story. And I start meetings with readers with a brief historical background there, a description of the historical context, I tell about those realities the novel's actions happen in.
The translator of your novel into French has recently claimed in the press that after publishing the book in France, critics started to talk about the comeback of great Russian literature…
I won't dare to judge the French audience, in general: I don't speak French and I haven't read critical articles in the language. I can only say the book in France was received very warmly. The French edition has an amazing cover, it's reserved and invites to reading – it's a very simple drawing of an Asian woman in pencil. The book appeared in France late last August, and I was invited to several book fairs at once: in Nancy near Paris, Morges on the bank of Lake Geneva. And I have also been in the Salon du Livre de Paris this March. And I can confirm the interest in Russian literature is very big. The readers whom I talked with were interested not only in literature, the book but also simply life of Russians. We talked about life in Russia, in general, about the role of the writer in Russia. In the Salon du Livre de Paris, Russia has been an honourable guest this year, there was a big Russian stand, and it was full of people on almost all days. One part of the stand was a bookshop: it worked hard during all days of the salon, it sold a huge number of both Russian books and translations of Russian authors into French.
I needed to choose: either to live with Zuleikha's story in the next 3, 4, 5 years while the film is prepared and shot because the scriptwriter is often actively involved in the production process or take a step aside this story and deal with a new one. I chose the second option
Why is there such an interest?
Russia and France are two countries that have always been interested in each other and known how to understand each other, they have influenced each other. This interest is historically conditioned. It was in the past, in the 19 th century, in the 20th, and now, in the 21st – it doesn't obey instantaneous political moments.
Why did your refuse to write a script for the film about Zuleikha?
Yes, I was offered and I refused. I needed to choose: either to live with Zuleikha's story in the next 3, 4, 5 years while the film is prepared and shot because the scriptwriter is often actively involved in the production process or take a step aside this story and deal with a new one. I chose the second option. I had been living with Zuleikha a very long time previously. It started to seem to me I wouldn't be able to write anything any more if I lived with his story a bit more.
Professional scriptwriters who wrote the script for the film were invited in the end. As for production deadlines, they don't exist now. The project has a director, a producer. The lead crew went on an expedition to look at locations. The actors haven't been chosen, the shooting process hasn't been planned yet. It's not a fast thing, and I didn't expect the film to be shot for a couple of years, of course, no. A television production can last for years.
How has your own vision of Zuleikha's story changed while you were meeting with readers, talking with translators? How has your view of the topics raised in the novel changed?
The same topics are present in my second novel too. But I tried to discuss them deeper there. It's a circle of topics that concern me – the relationship of the country and personality, the story of the little man in the big country, the issue of internal freedom and its ratio to the external freedom, the problem of relations of fathers and sons. As well as the issue of personal fears and overcoming them. I've dealt with these topics in the last two years when I was writing my new novel My Children.
As for the attitude to the first novel, I deeply thank it for allowing me to write the second novel. It's the first child whom I love. I love the second child no less, but it's another love – it was more complicated, difficult, longer. It's not fair to compare the first and the second novel. I don't wait for anything from readers but I hope those who loved Zuleikha's story will understand my desire to write another story different from the first one and won't look for continuation of Zuleikha's story in My Children.
It's not fair to compare the first and the second novel. I don't wait for anything from readers but I hope those who loved Zuleikha's story will understand my desire to write another story different from the first one
''I wrote not about Volga Germans but a human story''
How did you decide to write a new novel? The first novel was about a Tatar woman whose outlook is probably more understandable for you. But a man became the main character in My Children. In addition, he is German.
Volga Germans united two very important topics in my life – the German language, German culture and the Volga River. I can say it wasn't that complicated to write because these topics had been with me for long. I was born on the Volga River, I grew up on it, I love this river very much. While I had a teaching degree in German first. And my grandfather was a countryside German teacher (by the way, I dedicated this novel to him).
Initially, I doubted, of course, whether I had the right to write about the things that were strange to me, I didn't learn them with my mother's milk. But then I decided, yes, I had such a right. I studied the material quite well. And, most importantly, I wrote not about Volga Germans but a human story.
I didn't know how to build this story for long. The topic is very big, huge. The deeper you dive into it – study culture, customs, literature of Volga Germans, personal stories of people, read memories – the more you realise how little you know, in fact. You have a huge number of facts, personal stories, plots, details, events in your head you would like to talk about but you don't understand what is important and what's not.
Volga Germans united two very important topics in my life – the German language, German culture and the Volga River. I can say it wasn't that complicated to write because these topics had been with me for long
Can you tell the plot of the novel in brief?
I wouldn't start with the plot but those lines, levels in the novel. There is a plot of the ''little man''. It seemed to me interesting to make the German man, German language teacher in one of the Volga colonies this classical hero of Russian literature – ''little man''. Schulmeister Jacob Bach has been observing what goes in the Volga region for 22 years. And very important things happen there: key events of the Civil War, the hunger in 1921, the hunger in 1932, ubiquitous collectivisation. And big history enters the hero's life and pushes him into uneasy relations with a woman, forced parenthood, feeding, her education… And he doesn't notice himself how he gradually turns into a real big hero. It's a story of the formation of personality through contact with Big History and Big Culture. German culture plays an important role in the novel – the hero makes up fairy tales or, more precisely, interprets the folk plots he knows from childhood in a literary language.
There is a cultural and ethnographic line that tells about Volga Germans, their history, customs, traditions, superstitions, fairy tales. So just reading the book, one can know what a people they were. I even allowed myself to think about their mentality, how I understood it from the texts I had read, think of key myths that determined their consciousness.
Then there is a historical and political layer that tells about the relationship of Volga Germans with the country in the person of its governor Josef Stalin. Four out of thirty chapters are about the ''Father of Peoples''. Stalin himself isn't called by his name. But he is easily recognisable from the first lines, of course. He appears with different names: Guest, impersonal It, Chief. It was interesting for me to try to recreate the way of his thoughts and figuratively tell what happened in relations of the Soviet German people and the Soviet country.
There is also a philosophic layer. The ratio of love to fear in our heart is one of the main themes of the novel. It's the glue that joins the plot. The whole novel is full of the topic of fear and love. Love is in a broad sense of the word – not only for a woman or a man but also love for the homeland, the big river the heroes live on, for children, for art. I tried to think how fear and love lived in us, how fears arose – the fear to lose the person you love, the fear to lose the children you value, the fear for fruits of your art. And how we beat these fears: through love, through art (when we get rid of fears in artworks and beat these fears so). Another way of overcoming fears is logical, philosophic, through thinking, the realisation of fears, through wisdom we gain as time goes by. The novel is about overcoming fears with love and art, a philosophic attitude to life, in general.
You said you paid more attention to Stalin in the second novel. What's your attitude to him? Especially now, amid discussions about his role in history and even offers to place monuments to him.
My attitude is very simple: Stalin is a tyrant. And the time of his ruling is called tyranny. The achievements of the Stalinist regime, which is remembered with nostalgia now, was paid by such a tragic price, which seems to me even strange to think of these achievements. Yes, probably there are people who can see the good in the bad. But this discussion seems to be strange. However, the appearance of this discussion is a good sign, anyway. Old injuries accumulated during long years of the Soviet regime are treated. I express in my novels everything I want to say in this respect.
''I have a third story, I would like to write it – this is my plan for the next two years''
Critics notice that the past in literature has driven the present out for some time. Writers, including you, very often turn to the topic of the Soviet era today. Why?
We comprehend the past with the present. And for us, who grew up with Russian classical literature, such comprehension is very limited. At school, we get used to comparing ourselves not with modern heroes but past heroes – Evgeny Onegin and Tatiana Larina, Pechorin and Anna Karenina – those who lived 100-150 years ago. This is why for us such a look back and such comprehension of ourselves through heroes of the past are very limited.
I will write while my books are read. I don't make far and brave plans. I have a third story, I would like to write it – this is my plant for the next two years
A historical novel in Russia has many different functions. The first function is connection with previous generations. We know about our grandmothers and great-grandmothers' life little at times because family ties were broken for historical reasons: somebody left the country, somebody was killed at war, died from hunger. Many people hid their origin – the knowledge of the past often became dangerous for life for next generations. While a historical novel telling about the early Soviet era or the early past century helps us today to feel our ancestors better, think of them, touch them. It's an important function.
The second important function is to treat past injuries. A big number of injuries of Russian and Soviet society wasn't openly discussed, they haven't been treated, they just accumulated and formed a huge ball of injuries, even ten or even twenty years aren't enough to treat it. For these reasons, in my opinion, historical novels are very popular today: people write and read them.
Do you connect your further life with writing?
I prefer not to look far but just work. I will write while my books are read. I don't make far and brave plans. I have a third story, I would like to write it – this is my plan for the next two years.