Zuleikha opens her eyes: Love and survival in Siberia

Guzel Yakhina’s debut novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (Elena Shubina Publishers, 2015) has won several literary prizes. In the 1930s, dispossessed Tatar peasants have been sent to Siberia; they have landed on the banks of the river Angara and left in the taiga (boreal forest) without any means of subsistence. Led by their commandant Ivan Ignatov, they make a dugout and wait for a seemingly inevitable death. here is an excerpt from the book, which has not yet been translated into other languages.

He is staring at the bluish gray, smudged horizon. This is where the next barge will come from. But when? Kuznets promised it would be soon. They spent three days getting here; it took Kuznets less than a day in his motorboat. If the journey back takes a day, plus a day or two for bureaucratic prevarication and a new barge, that’s three days to return to Ignatov. A week in total.
They have to hold out for a week.

But what if Kuznets is delayed? And that bastard won’t be in any hurry. He could easy take a week-and-a-half, or two. Close to the end of August. But it’s been snowing today already, as if it’s late fall, rather than summer.

How far are they from Krasnoyarsk? It took them two days to get down the Yenisei – that must have been 175 miles, maybe more. Then they travelled up the Angara for a whole day, that’s another 75 miles. Some 250 miles in total. There’s 250 miles of river separating them from Kuznets. And the endless taiga. There was the occasional village along the Yenisei, but Ignatov couldn’t tell if they were inhabited. There were none along the Angara: it was a place devoid of human life.

Ignatov angrily flicks off a bug that has crawled on to the gray boulder, sending it tumbling into the precipice. He stands up and readjusts his military shirt, which is still wet down to the hem. Why did he go into the water like an idiot? To get soaking wet for nothing.

He should have got his thoughts together earlier, on the boat. He should have grabbed that bastard Kuznets by the neck, by the hair, and not let him go no matter what. Sure, they would have tied Ignatov up, sent him to Krasnoyarsk under armed guard and charged him with abusing his authority, but anything would be better than being stuck here.

“A week,” Ignatov sternly tells the precipice, wagging his finger at it. “I’m waiting for exactly a week, not a day longer. Just you watch me.”

The precipice does not reply.

The black grouses are fat and stupid here. They stare at Ignatov from round black eyes under thick red eyebrows and don’t fly away. He approaches until he is just a few steps away and fires at point-blank range. Their soft bodies explode into fountains of black feathers, there is a belated flap of wings and their small crested heads fall to the grass. Meanwhile others watch with curiosity from nearby trees. What’s happened, hmm? We want to watch too, we’re … He kills six of them, as many bullets as he has in the gun. He ties their necks together with a piece of string he found in his pocket and makes two heavy bundles. Then he sets off back to the riverbank.

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