French Azerbaijani writer Banine’s memoir of her childhood, Days of the Caucasus, is an entertaining early twentieth-century account ... Banine’s consummate prose is marked by undertones of erudite wittiness. Educated and pragmatic, but also hopeful, she expresses wanting nothing more than to be free to pursue self-realization. Days in the Caucasus was published in 1945; this first English translation of the memoir is an absolute joy—full of adventure, travel, and youthful dreams.
A a memoir, first published in 1945 and now keenly translated from the French by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova, which spans the tumultuous period from the author’s birth to 1924. Reflecting an era of bloodshed and terror, it should be a grim read. Instead, however, this account is an effervescent and irreverent feat of recollection and imagination—epic in sweep yet intimate in tone—that introduces the reader to an exotic, antique world and to characters so vividly drawn that their raucous voices seem to echo long after they have vanished from sight ... Playfully mirroring Tolstoy, Banine could be ushering us into a capacious 19th-century novel. And in a way she is. For what follows is a captivating drama of family, money, marriage and disaster that unfolds with deceptive ease and irresistible charm, thanks to the agility of a narrator who is both innocent girl and ironic observer.
A love story between a Georgian princess and a noble Azeri boy set in Baku during the Russian Revolution ... The poignancy is clear from the very first page: we know communism is coming, and with it the end of everything. Childhood slips into adulthood. Family scandals — her sister’s elopement, her widowed father’s second marriage to an Ossetian — weave into the bristling history: war, exile and a shortlived period of Azeri independence, during which her father was a minister. When the Bolsheviks arrive, it is only fitting that Banine and her cousin fall for a dashing commissar and espouse all the excitement of historical materialism even as her father is imprisoned ... The language is a free-flowing river — an adventure written decades later. Like Nabokov, fellow writer-in-exile, she writes memoir almost as fiction, as though it happened to someone else. Banine falls out of a love triangle and into marriage with an apparently eligible gambler with the right connections to get her father a passport ... a delightful memoir of an eventful life set against the helter-skelter of the 20th century, which plunged her family into exile and penury just as arbitrarily as it had set them in gilded houses and bedecked them with diamonds.
Every so often a voice emerges from the archive so vivid that it seems impossible that it should ever have been forgotten ... Banine’s sensual writing and remarkable ability to conjure the emotions of lost childhood recall Colette, but the comic grotesquerie of her accounts of her grandmother’s gossips doing their laundry in a frog-infested pool are all her own. Original, too, is her authorial voice, dashingly translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova, its wit combining with tenderness and self-knowledge.
This story of a family between tradition and modernity, filled with exotic and eccentric characters, of a multi-cultural place on the verge of a momentous transition in which both the traditional past and an increasingly cosmopolitan present are swept away, will be familiar to readers of such other memoirs as those of Andre Aciman or of pre-War Shanghai.The book treads some tricky ground, notably Turkish-Armenian enmity ... The book is nonetheless a product of its time. There are references to stereotypes, admittedly self-employed, that a writer a half-century later might have avoided ... Days in the Caucasus has charm by the bucketful. Yet it seems that Banine had not yet entirely come to terms with the contradictions of her pre-Parisian life; Days in the Caucasus reads as if there were much left beneath the surface.
The sharp, witty humour with which she conveys this colourful cast and rambunctious environment hints at just how close tragedy hovered during this decade and a half of monumental change. Humorous episodes and terrible revelations alike, her playful narration defuses the threat that drives the freneticism of both kinds of event ... Banine’s witty observations puncture pieties and preconceptions. She has a wickedly whetted tongue, and enough self-awareness to refuse sparing herself from her own reflections ... Her writing is gorgeously translated (from the French) by Anne Thomson-Ahmadova who spent twenty years living in Baku and it’s only to be hoped that more of her works are translated as a result.
Banine’s childlike voice in Days in the Caucasus – sometimes to effect, sometimes sincere – serves to represent, in the same breath, the carefree exploits of childhood (a game of ‘who could spit the farthest’ and ‘secret orgies of tomato and aubergine conserve’) and the racialised, nationalised violences that impinge on them ... Banine’s numb depictions of the riotous, horrific, and historic are a standout virtue of Days in the Caucasus ... This tonal quietness is also at the heart of the beguiling humour and terror that attend descriptions of family dramas and feuds – another success in the book. It is perhaps at its most effectively arresting in its narration of abuse and violence ... The one danger of Banine’s brand of narrative flatness, however, is resultant ploddingness. And it’s one that unfortunately emerges: the second half of the book is stronger than the first, which, at points, dwells without purpose – even if this does stylistically represent the immobility of her childhood. At times, the book falls into a pit common to memoirs; that, however extraordinary the narrative, it becomes myopically slow ... There are some literary correctives, for sure. But they are hard-won.