A Volga Tale

Written by Guzel Yakhina Polly Gannon (trans.)
Review by Janice Ottersberg

A Volga Tale tells a tale of two worlds on opposite sides of the Volga River. On the left bank is the endless steppe and Gnadenthal, a small village within the Republic of Volga Germans (immigrants by invitation of Catherine the Great). Here we meet Jacob Bach, the village schoolteacher – a small, unprepossessing man with an unremarkable life. On the right bank are the forests and mountains, and Udo Grimm’s bustling homestead.

Bach is summoned by Grimm to educate his daughter Klara. He has never crossed the Volga and is charmed by this fairytale-like community. Surely Klara must be an enchantingly beautiful young woman, but she is kept hidden behind a linen screen, and he is forbidden to lay eyes on her. This makes for some amusing scenes. Grimm and his household return to Germany, but Klara runs to Bach in Gnadenthal, where he fearfully gazes upon her lovely face. The couple sets up a household in Grimm’s deserted farm, living an isolated life. Eventually we find Bach alone with the responsibility of baby Antje, and his steadfast care as she grows shows his gentle, caring side. Bach’s fierce fatherly love combined with the eccentric, timid man makes a unique, dimensional character.

As the Volga River runs through the center of Russia, it is also central to this novel. Bach occasionally ventures across the river to Gnadenthal to witness momentous events over 20 years, 1918-1938. Through his eyes we see the devastation of the Russian Revolution, the social and economic changes of Lenin’s regime, Stalin’s tyranny, and devastating famines of both regimes. From an English-only reader, both Gannon’s translation and Yakhina’s writing are undeniably brilliant. Sentences are rich with description and characterization, and replete with atmosphere. This is a wonderfully quirky novel, at times humorous, at times dark with fear and terror, and interspersed with themes of human resilience.