Sunday, August 7, 2016

WITMonth Day 7 | The Mountain and the Wall - Alisa Ganieva | Review

There are so many parts of Alisa Ganieva's The Mountain and the Wall (translated by Carol Apollonio) that I could focus on. I could talk about how otherworldly it felt (not least because I read the book while floating in a hammock under a flawless blue sky, a bright green tree with blooming pink flowers, and the most gentle breeze swinging me from side to side), or about how the book introduced me to a part of the world that has otherwise been completely off my radar, or about how the politics reminded me so thoroughly of my own local messes, or about so many other small moments in this surprisingly packed novel.

The Mountain and the Wall devotes a pretty significant portion of itself to religious extremism (specifically Islamic). It's a narrative that made me slightly uncomfortable at times, if only because much of it is framed by how quickly the extremism spreads and takes hold in a formerly not-so-religious society. It was almost too familiar, too sharp-eyed and critical of something that is too often lost in political shenanigans (see: US Elections 2016). Something that many of us - rightly, I believe - tend to frame in less aggressive tones because of the implications we might carry. Reading it made me pause and reflect quite a bit, but not always in the ways I wanted to.

The book isn't just defined by its politics, though. While the plot itself is a bit messy and at times felt like it tried to do too much in too little space (it's pretty dense, to be honest), there's a strong urgency in following this thread of characters. The writing is also a bit messy, with rather jolting shifts between very elegant, poetic bits (including actual poetry, which was gorgeous) and flat, sometimes oddly stilted dialogue. There are moments where the writing also feels like a seventh grader who was just told off by the teacher for over-using the word "said": Upon randomly opening the book now to a dialogue page, the words "rasped", "roared", and "stammered" all appeared. And these words are fine in theory, but as I learned at age eighteen (or thereabouts), the word "said" is often the cleanest. All these rasped and roared and mumbled, etc. make the text feel needlessly bloated and awkward. Which is a shame, seeing as the descriptive sections are clear and sharp in the best way.

I loved that The Mountain and the Wall forced me to learn about a new place, a new culture, and a new set of rules. To me, that's what literature needs to be about - challenging our preexisting perceptions and assumptions, illuminating realities we wouldn't otherwise know. A few years ago, I realized that I will never be able to travel to every part of the world and meet people from every single background. But I would be able to read about as many of them as possible (or watch films/television/webseries/whatever). I would be able to explore other cultures and mindsets in the second most-pure way possible (other than living through it myself) - reading it through the eyes of another.

That's how The Mountain and the Wall felt. The book frustrated me at times for various technical/literary reasons, but I loved how much it made me think. I loved how much it forced me to look at my own world a little differently. I loved how much time I spent during and afterwards, reading about Dagestan on Wikipedia and wondering more about its culture. And most of all: I loved the otherworldiness. The book has flashes of fantasy, of incredible imagination that made me feel like I was being transported (not unlike the characters). It's one of my favorite literary techniques, and The Mountain and the Wall was no exception in hooking me through that.

This is not a perfect novel, but it's nonetheless something special. And in an intersectional WITMonth environment when I'd like to point to as many interesting and different and unique books as possible, The Mountain and the Wall is a worthy read.

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