Here is a novel written exactly and deliberately the way you’re not supposed to write a novel. And yet, or maybe for that very reason, it works, and it had me racing through it at breakneck speed, twice over. Which is why I wrote ages and ages ago that I couldn’t wait to review it and then made you wait all this time – because after first reading it I knew I wanted to read it again so I didn’t write any notes. And now I’ve read it again and yes, it still does everything wrong but there seems to be a little more system to it, and yes, it still works.
I’m most delighted, of course, by a scene very reminiscent of my evening out with Olga Grjasnowa while she was working on the novel. Chapter minus twenty-nine, in case you’re interested. But regardless of that, this is very possibly one of those books that you have to read if you’re interested in the future of writing or indeed non-heteronormative sexuality in Azerbaijan. Because as the title suggests (it translates as: the legal blurriness of a marriage) it’s about relationships, mainly between Leyla and her husband Altay but also between Leyla, Altay and Leyla’s girlfriend Jonoun in Berlin. And then a little bit between Altay and another man in Baku, Farid.
Now look at me avoiding certain words. Those words are: Muslim, Jewish, ex-Soviet, American, Israeli, Azerbaijani, gay, lesbian, bisexual, homosexual, love. The words are contained in the book but the characters don’t apply them to themselves.
Leyla is a ballet dancer from Baku. Altay is a psychologist from Baku. They get married in Moscow because they get along well and they want to get their parents off their backs. Then they move to Berlin to get Moscow off their backs – Leyla the pressure of the Bolshoi, Altay the pressure of his homophobic colleagues. Jonoun comes from all over the place, would like to be an artist, and works behind a bar in Berlin. Normally, it’s the reviewer’s task to compile this type of pithy plot and character descriptions, but in this book the author does it for us. Grjasnowa’s prose is swarming with short, sharp psychological characterizations and one-liners. She tells more than she shows, and her omniscient narrator has a dark, cynical sense of humour.
But she gets away with all that because there are things she shows, and those things are less about her characters than about the world around them. The novel is cleverly structured around a central episode, chapter zero, which is placed at the beginning of the book. Leyla has been arrested in Baku for illegal car racing and is tortured by the police. It’s a scary thing to start with, and the device of singling out that chapter rather than letting it stand for itself might seem heavy-handed if it weren’t for the fact that half of this book is about a thoroughly corrupt and oppressive regime. If you’re going to write a novel set partly in Azerbaijan there’s not much point in being delicate about it.
So before chapter zero, chronologically, comes the countdown to it, the story of Leyla growing up and to some extent Jonoun and Altay too, and the story of Leyla and Jonoun meeting and Jonoun moving in and moving out again, and Leyla going away on her own. We look at their messy lives from the relative stability of Berlin. And after that fulcrum comes the Baku half, which is just as messy and involves a road trip during which Leyla and Jonoun fall thoroughly out of love, leaving Altay to fall for a golden boy who’s built a nest for himself in the regime’s comfortable closet. And then comes the jaded fairytale ending, which Grjasnowa gives away rather with her choice of quote for the second half. And the best thing is: she does it deliberately, I’m sure of it, her narrator being cynical for so many understandable reasons. Really, the only possible reaction on closing the book is a tired laugh, a Woody Allen kind of laugh at how crap the world is. Allen, incidentally, delivers the novel’s first prefacing quote.
There are a few leitmotifs here that don’t quite come to the fore – more birds, some folklore elements that might be more prominent in a different novel or if Grjasnowa’s characters didn’t wave them off with amused disinterest. I almost didn’t notice them on my first reading, so I do wonder if they’re even necessary or don’t just muddy the waters. The way I read Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe, though, is that Grjasnowa is writing against norms and classifications. Her characters are neither bad nor good, neither fish nor flesh, not passionate about much at all, and not really classifiable in society’s preferred terms when it comes to sexuality either (neither Berlin’s preferred terms nor Baku’s, incidentally – there’s an amusing scene when Farid berates Altay for being gay in a Western way, interested in art and film and culture, and shudders at the thought of a gay pride parade).
And it seems to me that Olga Grjasnowa is trying to achieve the same effect with her writing, rebelling against much-repeated creative writing programme wisdoms like “show, don’t tell”. And if you read it like that then it’s funny, despite the depressing subject matter. Like Woody Allen. I assume he, too, is in there to make us feel slightly uncomfortable about sexuality and the family. It works for me.