Looking back on Baku

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

The discovery of oil in Baku brought Ummulbanu Asadullayeva’s family respect if not respectability. Peasant-born, her grandparents ranked by the time of her birth among the richest in the Russian empire, thanks to the abundance of black gold unearthed on their doorstep. Yet while oil barony went hand in hand with fantastic wealth and political prestige, the changes it wrought privately, such as they were, did little to convert her family into paragons of refinement and cultivation. Luckily for us, the result makes for some very fine reading.

Published in Paris in 1945, after Asadullayeva had fled Azerbaijan and completed her émigrée transfiguration into the successful French writer ‘Banine’, Days in the Caucasus is a romantic and gloriously comic account of a heady and turbulent youth spent on the shores of the Caspian. Spanning the last days of the Russian empire and the establishment of Soviet power in the Caucasus, Banine’s autobiography captures a rarefied world on the brink of extinction. Teetering between stagnating tradition and rapid modernisation, between stringent Islam and progressive secularism, between the excesses of empire and a new socialist order, it was, in her own words, a world in which ‘freedom was gaining precedence over the veil, education over fanaticism’.

And yet, old habits die hard. From the nursery Banine found herself in the midst of a cultural tug-of-war, her childhood dominated by the imposing figures of her imperious, devout Muslim grandmother and her beloved, flaxen-haired German governess, each of whom battled for influence over the child — one raining prohibitions and foul-mouthed curses down on her, the other treating her to exotic delicacies (cream tarts) and illicit trips to the Women’s Union. And all this with a droll chorus of grasping uncles, bickering, chain-smoking, moustachioed aunts who applied themselves with more zeal to the card table than to devotion, and a pair of mischievous, lascivious cousins, whose antics far surpassed what one would dare to imagine of such tender years.

The memoir’s languid first half gives way to a much pacier second. Having become a multimillionaire after the death of her grandfather, Banine awoke at dawn a few days later to hear the Internationale being sung in the street. Alongside an unlikely dalliance with socialism — most conspicuously in the form of a dashing commissar — two life-changing races began: the first to arrange her marriage, the other to obtain a passport and flee to Europe. While the former spelt misery and heartache for the child (she was married at 15 and ‘disgusted’ by her witless suitor, 20 years her senior), the latterultimately offered freedom from that marital prison.

What commends Days in the Caucasus, quite aside from its rakish narrative, is Banine’s exquisite, prose and unremitting eye for comic absurdity even amid the profoundest personal tragedy. After experiencing such drastic loss one could be forgiven for rose-tinting the past; but Banine resists sentimentality wholesale — and the result is all the more striking for it. More than that, she contends that adversity itself can be the very source of joie de vivre. Momentarily considering whether she regretted her mistreatment by fortune, she concludes: ‘Not at all: I abhor that state of innocence precisely because it is ignorant of the real world in all its magnificence, horror and divinity.’

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