This is a novel that I just happened to stumble upon while browsing in the bookstore one afternoon. The title intrigued me so I picked it up and read the blurb on the back cover and immediately knew I wanted to check it out. This is author/musician Ella Leya’s first novel and it is an absolutely superb one.
Set in 1979 Azerbaijan, Leila is a 15 year old member of the Azerbaijan Young Communist League, loyal to Communist principles. She is also a classical pianist - a prodigy - who is about to embark on a music competition that will allow her to perform in Budapest, representing Azerbaijan. Her mentor in the youth league is a charismatic young man named Farhad, a young man who Leila has a sort of youthful crush on. Farhad, seeing her loyalty and her potential to help spread Communist ideology, gives her a mission: to spy on a music shop owner in Baku who is suspected of being an American mole and a subversive. Leila accepts the mission happily but when she enters the music shop and meets the free spirited artist Tahir, everything she ever believed in suddenly gets called into question. Tahir’s effect on her is immediate and Tahir makes no bones about his distaste for the Soviet system and his love of art, Jazz, and “subversive opinions” begin to crack open the rigid shell in which Leila lives. It also begins to tear apart the fabric of her comfortable and privileged existence. Suddenly she has a choice to make and that choice is a near impossible one. The novel parallels many ancient Azeri myths and legends, particularly “The Maiden Tower”, which is peppered throughout the novel at key points of Leila’s development. There are other referred to myths as well: Turkish, Persian, and Russian, all of which closely parallel the narrative.
The novel is an amazing window onto a little known culture in the West and set in a time when the Soviet Union was confronting threats from two sides: The increasingly influential Western influences seeping their way into their culture and the rising religious militancy in Iran and Afghanistan on the other. These two conflicts figure heavily into the narrative. While the Soviet system was officially “atheist”, there was some tolerance for Azerbaijan’s Islamic past, allowing for some religious openness although treated as second class citizens, done more to curry favor with the then perceived “Communist inspired” revolution in Iran (which eventually turned out to be anything but). The Russian war in Afghanistan also figures heavily into the story as well, seemingly as a way to show how the whole, corrupt, hypocritical system was beginning to fall apart. There is plenty of Azerbaijani history here as well and an interesting peek into how the Soviets allowed certain adaptations into the Communist fold. But at its core the system is entirely corrupt and this is no more evident when looking at Leila’s family: wealthy and privileged, they are far removed from the “classless society” that Russian Communism claimed to be.
The contrast between Leila’s family and that of the average resident of Baku is clearly on display and even though some may have been considered “subversive” that didn’t necessarily mean that those in the system didn’t take liberties of their own while ready to condemn others for doing the same thing. All of these things happen right under Leila’s nose and it’s Tahir’s influence on her thinking that begins to crack open her sheltered existence. Leila has her music and music is her life’s blood. There are many outstanding musical passages, all of which speak to Leila’s yearn for self-expression and the yearning to be creatively free. However the rigidity of the system does not allow her to express herself as fully as she’d like and around every corner is someone who can’t be trusted, including her own family. It is a very complicated narrative with a lot of twists and turns worthy of a good espionage novel but beneath all the political intrigue is a story about one woman’s quest to be free - free to express herself, free to learn the truth, free to create, free to live a life of her own choosing.
It is the nightmare of totalitarianism and the ever present eye of the authorities which at any moment can condemn anyone for even the slightest of deviations of official doctrine, something Leila eventually learns all too clearly. It is a tragic story in a lot of ways but there is a ray of hope, light at the end of the tunnel. Not only is the story ultimately about the yearning to find oneself creatively but to also find oneself place in the world in a time when it seemed there is no other place to turn, that one’s life is nothing more than a prison in which one can never escape from. Highly recommended.