Carol Apollonio translated the first Dagestani novel available in English, The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva. Anglophone readers will find much to relate to in the novel’s premise—a rumor that the Russian government is building a wall between the Muslim provinces of the Caucasus and the rest of Russia. In this free-wheeling, clear-eyed interview with Hannah Weber, Apollonio takes an impassioned look at literatures in translation, and at the simplest yet most complex human propensity—the desire to read.
Hannah Weber (HW): You’re a scholar of Russian literature and translate works from both Russian and Japanese. What led to your interest in these particular languages?
Carol Apollonio (CA): Most of your life path is luck. I knew early on that learning languages came easy to me, so I kept on doing it. After French, it was quite a shock to realize that for Russian you didn’t just plug the words into grammar you already knew. You had to change everything around in your brain. Plus, all the words were different. Anyway, if you’re rebellious enough, you decide it’s worth putting in the effort. It helped that I’d studied some Latin early on.
So, why Russian? Here’s how a Cold War eighteen-year-old radical hippie thinks in 1973: “The Russians are our enemies; the only problem is that Americans don’t know Russian. I’ll learn Russian, become president of the USA, we’ll all learn to love one another, and that will solve the whole problem.” So, I went to college and studied Russian and politics. As it turned out, I was too impatient and tactless for politics. As for Russian, at that time basically there were three paths for Russian-language students: one, learn about the complicated grammar and crazy vocabulary—recoil, and turn to economics or psychology; two, learn the language, recoil from the politics, and go into national security; three, learn the language, love it, read the literature and have your head explode. I’m one of the survivors with the exploded heads. READ MORE…
This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.
I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown. READ MORE…
Last month, Alisa Ganieva was in Iowa City to teach global literature in English and the Russian-language workshop of the Russia-Arabic session of Between the Lines, a summer program for writers between the ages of 16 and 19 who spend two weeks in shared cultural and artistic dialogue about the literary traditions of their home countries. I sat down with Alisa to discuss her rise to literary fame and the new translation of her novel, The Mountain and the Wall, out this month with Deep Vellum Publishing.
At 24, you won the prestigious Russian literary Debut Prize of 2009 for your novella, Salaam, Dalgat!, which you wrote under a male nom-de-plume. How did you choose “Gulla Khirachev” for your pseudonym?
My goal was to hint those from Dagestan that I’m not a real author. That’s why I took a real name, “Gulla,” which means “bullet” in my mother tongue—in Avar language—but has not been used for many years. I found out there is actually an old man called Gulla, but he might be the only man with this name. So when my Gulla Khirachev appeared, many of those in Dagestan—journalists and writers—guessed that it must be a pseudonym, and they began trying to find out who it was. They guessed there must be a person, a young man, who lives in Makhachkala, since he knows it so well. They argued with each other and named different candidates, but always missed.
So you meant for the name “Gulla Khirachev” to be transparent as a pseudonym?
Yes, so the name means “bullet,” and the lexical root of this surname means “darling” in my native language. So it’s something piercing, but at the same time, it’s something . . . nonaggressive. READ MORE…