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An epic love story in the narrative tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but this time with Stalinist Russia as the vivid backdrop: Didar en Faroek, by the Tatar Sana Valiulina, who lives in the Netherlands and writes in Dutch, is a book of international allure. Never before has this period been so convincingly and majestically articulated in a novel.

Didar and Faruk are distant cousins from a Tatar family that was dispersed in the displacement of ethnic groups in Russia in the 1920s. Didar grows up in the town of Pushkin, near St Petersburg, and Faruk in the centre of Moscow, which, at the time, was inhabited by multi-racial peoples from southern Russia. As in a fairy tale, Didar and Faruk are made for one another, and although the course of history keeps them apart for years, they succeed in keeping their love alive in their correspondence.

Didar rejects her Muslim background by becoming a model pioneer in the thirties and she is even invited to the model child camp Artek, where she receives the first glimpse of freedom in her interaction with the sons of party functionaries who enjoy themselves outside the camp.

In contrast, religious faith is alive and kicking in Faruk’s family, although it is undercover. Faruk is an impressive twentieth-century anti-hero: in much the same way as little Oskar in Grass’s Die Blechtrommel did not wish to grow, Faruk does not speak until he is eleven, as a consequence of Stalin’s gaze in the picture on the wall above his cot. Moreover, like several other unforgettable figures in Russian literature, he suffers from epilepsy, and Valiulina describes his epileptic attacks brilliantly, like a constrictor coming upon him.

History sweeps across Russia. After the terror of the thirties comes the devastating Second World War, and then the horrors of the Gulag. Didar and Faruk live in a moral vacuum: while Stalin attempts to create an artificial humanity, Didar loses all faith in a communist Utopia and falls in love with a German officer, thereby surviving the war. Faruk fights for Russia against the Germans, is taken prisoner, fetches up in Normandy, and is forced to resist the Allied invasion. After the war, he is taken to a camp in England from where he is deported to Allied Russia. There, he awaits the Gulag, the bitter fate of 2 million other Russian war prisoners. The Islamic faith is their only moral prop, and their love for one another their only motivation, until they see one another once more…

In this overwhelming, empathic, anti-Soviet novel of the 1922-56 period, Valiulina portrays two people who survive the Stalinist terror, each in their own way, without losing their human dignity. It is a terrifying story in which she has processed the experiences of her parents. It is her proof of proficiency, and simultaneously a glorious settlement of her past and that of her family.  -- NRC Handelsblad

A monumental book. -- de Volkskrant

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