The title of the book corresponds to the first sentence of this novel: ‘Zuleijá opens your eyes. He is dark, like in a warehouse. On the other side of the thin curtain, the geese wail’. It is the beginning of a story that tells of the experience of the kulaks , the peasants dispossessed of their land and deported to Siberia by the Stalinist regime.
Zuleijá opens your eyes is the experience of those displaced by collectivization. The Red Horde wreaked brutal chaos in the 1930s . Four and a half million people were retaliated against and sent on trains on journeys that lasted months to the unpopulated areas of Siberia. There they had to learn to live from scratch, with nothing more than a few tools to dig the ground, cut down trees, build their first huts, and hold out through the winter . Without clothes, without food, without light, without medicines, like robinsons.
The reader, perhaps familiar with the history of Soviet communism, will feel the surprise of reading, for the first time, a story that brings together in fiction all the elements of that atrocious reality. The great merit of this colossal novel lies in having reconstructed the mentality of those who suffered invasion, dispossession, and exile. This novel is the story of people without history who suffered the brutality of a regime that only admitted unconditional adherence, sincere or feigned, to the principles dictated by Father Stalin.
A deep inner transformation
Zuleija is a Tatar peasant. The Tatars have their own culture, they have their own language, from the same group as the Turkish language. They also have their own beliefs: gods and ghosts that live beyond the limits of the city, to whom recognition must be given, and who coexist without contradictions with the Muslim faith.
Zuleijá lives in a situation of extreme submission: to a husband for whom she is a servant, to a mother-in-law for whom she is just a sterile wreck, incapable of bearing offspring . In his mentality dominates the tradition of what is expected of a wife, and he only finds an understanding consolation in prayers to Allah, in respect for the little gods that inhabit the forest, and in the sweet protection that he believes emanates from those hanging portraits from which Stalin gazes with a fatherly expression.
Three points of view
The novel is woven around three points of view: that of Zuleijá (Tartar point of view ) that of Ignatov (the Russian officer in charge of leading the kulaks to Siberia) and Leiben (a German doctor, gynecologist in Kazan, the capital of the Tatars ). The novel is the story of a deep inner transformation. That of a woman who lives in permanent fear, marked by the early death of her daughters and expelled from her little world, cruel but safe and stable, to an uncertain existence in a hostile territory. Zuleijá engages in the story of two great vital challenges: the certainty and acceptance of love towards the man who murders her husband at the beginning of the novel, and the great vital sacrifice that she will have to assume as a mother at the end of the story.
In other words, we are facing a great story embedded in historical events that seem to go in the opposite direction. Reading Zuleijá opens your eyes reminds this reader of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich , the account of the experience in the concentration camps. They are two very different novels. In Solzhenitzyn ‘s text we witness the certainty that, even in the worst conditions of slavery, man maintains a sphere of freedom that constitutes the core of human nature . In Yájina’s novel, Zuleijá passes from a dark life to the full domain of his existence.
Memories of a deported grandmother
In successive interviews, Yájina has explained that the origin of this book is in the memories of her grandmother. ‘it coincides with my family history, because my grandmother, who went into exile as an illiterate girl who spoke only Tatar, came back with perfect Russian, teacher training and high heels’. The deportees had diverse origins: some came from the countryside and their knowledge was minimal; others came from the city. Some were distinguished mathematicians, notable painters, experts in classical or modern languages, physicists, chemists . In the taiga, in the middle of the forest, the schools sometimes had eminent teachers. The red horde was a machine that only distinguished between supporters of the new order or petty bourgeois who had to refine their mentality.
Along with this reconstruction of the grandmother’s memory, Yájina has done an in-depth archeology work, so that the most insignificant details, from the shape of a button to the herbal remedies with which the first deportees were cured , have a level of precision. extreme. You are therefore, readers, before one of the great stories of contemporary Russia. A work that received the Russian Great Book Award in 2015, and the Yásnaya Poliana Award, which recalls the great Tolstoy . Another of the memories and evocations of this great novel is precisely Resurrection, one of Tolstoy’s great novels, in which he narrates the experience of those deported to Siberia,a tradition of the Russia of the tsars that Stalin practiced with the same passion as if it had been his idea.
As a final note, we must highlight the excellent work of Jorge Ferrer as a translator. He came to travel to Kazan to see the places where this work travels, which has many terms of Tatar origin. Ferrer’s text preserves the nuances of the delicate reconstruction of the mentality of a woman so far removed from the author’s world. I insist that this is one of the great achievements of this novel. I add another detail. It is to be thanked, in this case to Cliff, that the text is clean of typos, without noise of errors, careful to the maximum.