The Simurgh fable of democracy

Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha is one of the best novels I’ve read in while, a vivid, emotionally resonant tale of a Tatar woman caught up in the Soviet Union’s disastrous collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s. It was wonderfully translated by Lisa C. Hayden (her blog on Russian literature is great; here is her 2015 review of the novel in the original Russian, written before it went on to win Russia’s Big Book Prize).

The focus is very much on the texture of daily life rather than politics (Stalin is barely mentioned). Ultimately, it’s about how a bunch of kulaks and exiles make a community for themselves amid authoritarian politics and great physical hardship. It’s rather hard to excerpt, but this bit–a tale that Zuleikha tells to a child–captures some of the book’s themes in a more direct way (although most of the book is not at all like this):

Once upon a time there lived in the world a bird. Not just any bird but a magical bird. Persians and Uzbeks called the bird Simurg, Kazakhs said Samuryk, and Tatars say Semrug. And this bird lived on top of the highest mountain. Nobody could see Semrug – not wild animals, nor birds, nor humans. They knew only that his plumage was more beautiful than all the worldly sunrises and sunsets combined. At one time, while flying over the faraway country of China, Semrug dropped one feather, clothing all of China in radiance, so the Chinese themselves turned into skillful picture painters. Semrug was not only splendidly beautiful but his wisdom was as boundless as the ocean.

One time, all the birds on earth flew to a big celebration to revel together and rejoice at life. The festivities were spoiled, though, because the parrots started arguing with the magpies, the peacocks quarreled with the crows, the nightingales with the eagles … And from that great quarrel there arose in the world such a hullabaloo that all the leaves began falling off the trees and all the animals grew frightened and hid in their burrows. A wise hoopoe flapped his wings for three days, calming all the enraged birds. Finally, they settled down and let him speak.

‘What is the use in spending our time and energy on factions and feuding,’ he told them. ‘We need to elect a shah bird among us to lead us and bring quarrels to an end with his authority.’ The birds agreed. But here was the question: who should be elected as their head? They began squabbling again and a scuffle nearly broke out, but the wise hoopoe already had a suggestion. ‘Let us fly to Semrug,’ he proposed, ‘and ask him to become our shah. Who, if not he, the most wonderful and most wise on earth, should be our sovereign?’ This speech went down so well that a large brigade of eager birds prepared right then and there to make the trip. The flock soared into the sky and set off for the highest mountain in the world, in search of his illustrious highness, Semrug.

A flock as vast and black as a cloud soared into the sky and set off for the highest mountain in the world, in search of his illustrious highness, Semrug. The birds flew day and night, not pausing to sleep or eat, until the last of their strength was all but gone, and finally they reached the foot of the mountain they had been seeking. There they had to abandon flight, as the path ahead could only be trodden on foot. For it was only through suffering that they could ascend to the top.

In the Valley of Confusion – which was shaken by thunderstorms – night and day, and truth and untruth were muddled. Everything the birds had come to know through such hardship during their long journey was swept away by a hurricane, and emptiness and hopelessness reigned in their souls. The progress they had made seemed useless to them, the life they had already lived, worthless. Many of them fell here, defeated by despair. The thirty most steadfast remained alive. Bleeding, mortally tired, their feathers singed, they crawled to the final vale. And there, in the Valley of Renunciation, all that awaited them was a smooth, unending watery surface, with eternal stillness over it. Beyond, there began the Land of Eternity, to which there was no entry for the living. …

The birds realized they had reached Semrug’s dwelling place and they felt his approach through the growing gladness in their hearts. Their eyes squinted from the bright light that filled the world and when they opened them, they saw only one other. In that instant, they grasped the essence – that they were all Semrug. Each individually and all of them together.

That is also, by the way, essentially the idea behind the last episode of Game of Thrones (which in fact I rather liked). Of course, ideas don’t make novels great, the writing does–and that’s what Yakhina and her translator very much deliver.

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