‘My children’ by Guzel Yakhina: A consuming, winding book like the Volga River
After I finished reading the first book signed by Guzel Yakhina (“Zuleikha”), I exclaimed: what a magnificent literary debut! A maturity of writing that would never have made me think that it belongs to a young debutante of only 38 years old! And, living with Zuleikha, at maximum intensity, every moment of the 16 years of her exile in Siberia, I was very curious to see where the second novel of the author could lead my thoughts and my soul. That’s how I’ve got to Gnadental, a village of the German colonies on the Volga, getting there through “My children”.
About the author
Guzel Yakhina, a Russian writer of Tatar origin, graduated from the Department of Foreign Languages in the Tatar State University of Humanities and Education from Kazan in 1999, then moved to Moscow where she obtained a degree in Screenwriting, after graduating from the Moscow School of Film. After several journalistic collaborations with various magazines, she does her fulminating literary debut, in 2015, with „Zuleikha”, a book translated into over 40 languages and which was rewarded with numerous prestigious literary awards in Russia (but not only); I must mention the Yasnaya Polyana Award (Lev Tolstoy) and The Big Book Prize (Bolsaia Kniga). After 3 years, and under the pressure of the resounding success of the first book, Guzel manages to win her audience again, with “My children”. As expected, the awards were not long in coming, of which I mention The Big Book Prize (Bolsaia Kniga) and the Winner of The Grand Prize Ivo Andrić 2019 (Serbia).
About the book
It’s been a couple of days since I’ve finished “My children“. I waited for the snow to fall over the rows, so that the bitter and sad taste would not transpire in such an overwhelming dose; I also needed time in order to detach myself from the relentless destiny of the main hero and the painful course of history. This book consumes you. It is oppressive, heavy and winding, but spectacular and deep, like the course of the Volga River. Guzel Yakhina creatively intertwines two plans – a historical one, highlighting the significant historical events for the community of German colonists established along the Volga and a personal one, regarding the destiny of Jacob Ivanovich Bach, a member of one of the colonies, during 1918-1938.
Very short history: in 1762 and 1763, Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia, who though had German origins, signed two manifestos inviting foreigners to settle in the deserted territories of the Russian Empire. This is how more than 100 German colonies settled along the Volga River. In 1924, The Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed, which later became a major stake in the Hitler-Stalin political game. In 1938, 1,300,000 (!) Germans lived in Russia, and in 1941, by decree, all Germans on Russian territory would be deported to Siberia. After the collapse of the USSR, almost all of them returned to their historical homeland.
Jacob Ivanovici Bach. What a monumental character, worthy of Russian literature! Teacher at the school in Gnadental, this young man, aged 32, presents himself from the first lines as a sensitive, contemplative, shy and isolated guy, but whose intense inner feelings we can guess from the suspicious way he loves the storms. Stuttering in free dialogue with people but cursive in reading Goethe in literary German language, he is seen as a bizarre man by the people living in the same village. His life takes an irreversible turn when he has to teach private lessons to young Karla, the daughter of a wealthy German from the other side of the Volga. In the delicate meeting between the two (- spark of the predictable love story), I found Salman Rushdie and his “Midnight’s Children” (the bed sheet being replaced by an equally useless folding screen … or rather intriguing). When Bach loves, he abandons himself totally, so he completely assumes the guilt of living with his beloved in isolation, being stigmatized by a society full of prejudices. And guilt, along with a pathological fear (which turns out to be the engine of life), are feelings that will never leave him and based on which the author makes the leap to a moderate surrealism. Out of love for his little girl, Anntche, and carrying Karla in his soul, Bach will have to adapt to the course of history while watching it happening from the other side of the Volga River.
Sovietization will systematically destroy, piece by piece, the spirit of the community (traditions, beliefs, customs) and Bach will release this pain through writing. The strange connection he establishes with Hoffman, a party activist who came to Gnadental to implement the new political and social arrangement, offers him the opportunity to reveal the entire German ethnographic treasure and to create fairy tales with a compensatory role (relative to his own existence), even if Hoffman packs everything in a new, ideologized form.
The leadership, taken over by the Soviets and the kolkhoz, confiscates “faith, school and community, the three unshakable cores of life in the colony”, and closes the church. The process of collectivization in the German Republic leaves its “imprint of destruction and sadness”. And Bach, helpless witness to the destruction of his universe, chooses to protect Ann in a way that gives rise to serious debates about morality. I still wonder…
Of high artistic attire is the affective, non-verbal language (the only one that Bach still has), in which he communicates with Ann and with the little Vanka – the boy “taken out of the magician’s hat” by Guzel Yakhina to add a touch of color to the novel and an unexpected emotions palette for Bach. His life is a continuous struggle that flows into the Volga – Bach, in German, means “creek”.
Guzel Yakhina impresses once again with this symmetrical novel (begins and ends with “The Eternal Volga”), in which the transition into immaterial, the timelessness (I must note here the German calendar based exclusively on people’s activities) are recurring themes, explored in detail. The major themes remain, however, the exile, the love, the sacrifice, the fear, the acceptance, the isolation etc. The author brings in metaphors, fine ironies and, last but not least, takes a notable risk: the risk of introducing Stalin as a sporadic character, presented in an extremely interesting manner.
Not by accident, I left at the end of the review the myths of the German colonists (who, in one form or another, may be the myths of all emigrants) so painfully described by the writer. Expelled from the land by famine and destruction, the Germans were drawn to three myths: “the promised land of Russia”, “the promised land of America” (much of them choosing to emigrate across the ocean) and, later, “the promised land of Germany” (the permanent idealization of the motherland). How much sadness and resignation in the rhetorical question: Hasn’t the time come for the Russian Germans to understand that there is no happiness far away?
Гузель, сезнең язуыгыз Идел кебек шау-шу! (Guzel, your writing is as whirling as the Volga! – Google translation, Tatar language)
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