The Mountain and the Wall

By Alisa Ganieva
Translated by Carol Appollonio


Deep Vellum Press
June 2015

Reviewed by A. T. Grant


Alisa Ganieva's first novel, The Mountain and the Wall, brings readers into a dystopic world that is slowly being ripped apart at the seams. The novel is set in Dagestan, which is located in Russia's North Caucasus region and is its most ethnically diverse republic. (It's worth noting that Ganieva grew up in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital city.) While no ethnicity forms a majority, approximately 80% of the population adheres to Islam. In recent years, Dagestan has been the site of occasional ethnic and religious tension, which has sometimes resulted in violence –including suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism—between militant and secular-leaning Islamist groups. This is the reality from which the novel grows.

There are many intersecting storylines in The Mountain and the Wall, but Ganieva centers these intersections on Shamil, a young reporter from Makhachkala. He is the observer whom we observe—a somewhat reluctant protagonist who, despite his best efforts to "postpone the collapse of his world," is continually thrust into rumor, conflict, and violence. Through Shamil we hear that the Russian government may or may not have cut off Dagestan by erecting the Wall along its border. Through Shamil we witness the resulting ethnic and religious unrest caused by the Wall. It is when Shamil's fiancé, Madina, joins radical militants that we observe the turmoil and despair that occur in communities when tension escalates to a breaking point. And it is Shamil who connects us to an experience of hope on the Mountain of Celebration.

Ganieva uses Shamil and his community to give readers a sense of the rhythm of life in a place of such unrest. That rhythm has two primary components: the struggle for information and the consolations of routine. After attending a tense press conference about the Wall (which is full of conflicting reports) Shamil, bewildered, wanders into the streets. There he observes taxis, girls laughing and talking as they shop, and a bread-seller shouting at a group of children playing. "What am I so scared of?" Shamil asks himself. Later, one of Shamil's family members will tell him that "things are always falling apart."

As Shamil watches things fall apart—Madina becomes radicalized and leaves him, family members go missing and are perhaps dead, the government collapses, the streets are filled with violence—he consoles himself with routine:

In a personal effort to postpone the collapse of his world, Shamil sought out forbidden DVDs of non-Muslim films, intensified his workout schedule, and went around visiting his relatives. They fought their anxiety and remained steeped in everyday routines and cares: changing diapers, counting money, repairing their homes.

As is often the case, the routine causes Shamil to disbelieve the extraordinary events he has witnessed. "Maybe everything's alright now," he thinks, "no Wall, network's back up. Maybe it was all just some kind of trick?"

But Ganieva's characters—Shamil especially—wish for something more than cheap denial or escape. As the escalating violence continually rushes at them, they long for hope. And Ganieva does not leave Shamil or his community to suffocate from the tension forever.

One of the ways Ganieva creates space in the narrative for her characters (and for the reader) is by interpolating texts. Throughout the narrative, Shamil encounters newspaper articles, propaganda masked as a children's story, and the manuscript of a novel by a character named Makhmud (as well as a few lines of Makhmud's poetry). Sometimes these interpolations highlight the tensions presented in the narrative—i.e. Shamil's sister's "schoolbook" that includes propagandistic stories of a culture that has thrown off religious tradition and has learned that "not in the mountains, not in the old ways, is happiness to be found, but in the new and joyous morning of freedom." But it is Makhmud's manuscript that becomes important in the final sections of the book.

Makhmud's novel-in-manuscript quickly becomes the subject of a different kind of rumor, marked by hope, vision, and the potential for unity. The manuscript includes a story about Rokhel-Meer, the Mountain of Celebrations. If the Wall is the unseen instigator of division and violence, the Mountain of Celebrations is the intimation that hope exists beyond the conflict and dystopic dread. And it is hope, not mere denial or escape, that Ganieva gives her characters.

Before it appears in Makhmud's manuscript, the Mountain of Celebrations is introduced to readers via a memory that Shamil recounts to himself after discovering that Madina has become radicalized. Shamil and his friend Arip had gone for a hike in the mountains. As they explored, they became drowsy and fell asleep. When they awoke, they followed a path that led to a deserted village, where they found a mysterious man. The man only spoke in proverbs, mumbling as if to himself. He called the village "Rokhel-Meer."

Shamil remembers how the mysterious man brought them back to his mostly empty house and fed them. Soon Shamil and Arip fell asleep again. They awoke on the same mountainside where they had rested before. As they attempted to piece together the incident, they searched for the path to the village again, but found that the mountain was bare—there was no village, and there was no man. It was as if they shared the same dream.

When the Mountain of Celebrations makes its appearance in Makhmud's manuscript, he writes that it is a place "where the soul ends up after death." What he describes is like an embodied dream, an enchantment grounded in work and feasting, a meeting point between heaven and earth: 

Our souls end up at the top of Rokhel-Meer, the Mountain of Celebrations. And there, on Meer, will be a place of purity, where there is no poverty, scarcity, or want. There will be a great village there with tanneries, armories, and stone workshops. Its dwellings are part of the very cliffs; there, benign white spirits will feast together with the people, and the celebrations will never end.

The Mountain of Celebrations in Makhmud's novel has a different character than it does in Shamil's memory. Each vision of the mountain is increasingly populated and celebratory. And it is this vision that Ganieva leaves us with at the end of the novel when she shows us a third scene on the mountain. It is a vision of hope that contrasts the dystopic violence in the rest of the book.

The real-life ethnic tension and religious violence in Dagestan and elsewhere since the novel's original publication in 2012 make this dystopian future seem all the more immediate and urgent. Ganieva's novel is about things we often see in headlines: fundamentalist / secularist tensions, ethnic clashes, personal and social collapses, shifting cultural dynamics, and the manipulation of information. But it is also about the survival of a people and the desire to move beyond postmodern cynicism and despair to a hope that lies on the far side of struggle.

Ganieva's novel is terrifying in many ways. But it is also courageous, timely, and clear-eyed. The book begins with the Wall, but it ends on the Mountain. By doing so, it acknowledges that pain and darkness are real. But it argues that hope is also a real and worthwhile endeavor.