“The closer a person is to you, the deeper you hide your secrets away from him or her.”
Gaia, Queen of Ants is the tale of three expatriates who live in England. Russian Gaia is 80 years old, but hardly anyone’s idea of a frail old woman. Meskhetian Turk Domrul, who is haunted by memories of childhood trauma in Uzbekistan is her caretaker. Finally there’s Emer, a young Irish woman who grew up in Bosnia. So there’s a mix there: a mix of cultures, memories and traumas, and all these come hurtling together in this Uzbek novel.
Gaia, as it is revealed, has MS, and she, a “queen of cunning,” has another, shady, agenda for Domrul, who unfortunately, for a range of reasons, becomes putty in sly Gaia’s hands. According to Domrul’s boss, his “task is not so much to assist with her MS, but to be more like an entertainer, bringing her joy.” Fat chance.
Gaia lives in Eastbourne’s “tallest, most mountainous apartment building,” and she draws an unsuspecting Domrul into her plot:
The Armenian cognac had no effect on him, but when the Qoraqum candy, which Domrul had forgotten, touched his mouth, his heart grew warm and suddenly overflowed. Bith his tongue and his soul spread wings. He told the begum about his childhood. They drank some more, the begum brought out some Russian caramels, and another teacup later, she served up more Russian treats: gingerbread and wafer cookies. That did it for Domrul.
“Naive” Domrul, who’s scarred from his horrific past, and pen-ultimately respectful of his elders, is just what Gaia has been looking for, and soon Domrul, who already had a somewhat fragile psyche, is in a terrible position. Enter Emer, Domrul’s girlfriend, born in Bogside, whose father was murdered by the Irish People’s Rescue Organization, and who is subsequently raised in Sarajevo. Emer was 12 when war broke out, and eventually Emer and her mother escaped to London. Emer, who is made of stronger stuff than Domrul, is unfortunately in Paris where she’s under the spell of a “bard” a “story-teller” Kuyak-baxshi, who gives concerts with his dombra.
In a giant coincidence, Kuyak reveals that he knows Gaia all too well. …
I loved parts of this novel: Gaia’s Soviet past, the way she was “unwillingly made into a housewife,” her life with her husband, a Soviet party council member, her indestructibility and the awful, awful way she treated her family.
As if moving a pawn by bald-faced trickery to the far end of the chessboard to turn it into a queen, Gaia, slowly, carefully filled up her husband with airs and importance.
Other parts of the novel (non-Gaia) were not as appealing as she is an incredible, larger than life woman who sourly dominates and submerges the other characters who seem tangled in the net of religion weaving its web through the culture, conflicts and traumas of the past and present. As with all religious stuff, I tune out, and the MS thread seems a superfluous plot convenience.
“This evening there’s a poetry event at Pushkin House in London,” she said. When Gaia Mangitkhanovna probed, she learned that neither Pushkin nor any descendants of his had ever lived in that house, but Pushkin’s name had just metaphorically been attached to a splendid building, and evenings devoted to Russian and Soviet culture, literature, and music were arranged there.
It ought to be nicer than sitting around this stinking place thought Gaia.
Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega