This autobiography (published in French in 1985 by Gris Banal) was kindly lent to me by my neighbor, who stems originally from Russia, and it was a true eye-opener regarding a time and place about which I knew absolutely nothing.
The author, who writes under a nom-de-plume, was born in 1905 into a fabulously rich family of oil-producers in Bakou, Azerbaijan. Her mother died giving birth to her, leaving her the youngest of four sisters. In the book she describes her childhood which, though lacking for nothing in the material sense, was far from idyllic.
Banine depicts the various members of her family of wealthy but uneducated Caucasian Moslems, and paints vivid portraits of each one. These include her corpulent and irascible grandmother, who spends most of her day praying and reciting verses from the Koran, intermittently cursing all non-Moslems and hurling insults at her children and grandchildren. As was the custom in those days, she wore traditional garb, was heavily veiled and spent most of her time sitting on cushions on the floor. One gets the impression that she was primarily involved in creating an acerbic atmosphere around her.
The idea the reader gains of Banine’s sisters is that they were considerably older than her, heavily-built, liberally-endowed with facial hair and generally unpleasant in mien. In addition to Banine’s immediate family, there was a large number of uncles and aunts, who were attached to Banine’s family, but seemed to be consumed by jealousy and ire of their great wealth. The author spares no-one in her accounts of the petty in-fighting within and between the various families that made up the wider clan. In addition, they all seemed to live either under the same, extremely extensive roof or in close proximity to one another. Apart from constantly arguing with one another, the adults, both men and women, spent their time playing endless games of poker, enabling the young nephews and nieces to benefit from the occasional coin disbursed by whoever was winning.
In the summer the entire family, including all the uncles, aunts, cousins, and servants, moved to their grand estate in the country, where armies of gardeners tended the gardens, woods, vineyards, pools and grounds. In the period before the Revolution, the main means of transport was by horse-drawn carriage over unpaved roads, involving considerable physical discomfort. In order to provide an education for his daughters, Banine’s father employed a German governess, Fraulein Anna, whose blond hair and blue eyes inspired the love and admiration of the young girl. Thus, the sisters were taught the basics of European languages, as well as how to play the piano and eat in a manner that befits a civilised person.
Banine and her cousins continued in this way for most of her childhood, using the grounds of their estate as a playground that most children in that part of the world could only dream of. Banine assuaged her sense of isolation by reading voraciously from the extensive library in one of the many rooms of their house. In addition, there were also occasional family outings to the sea which involved passing through the poorer parts of the district and undergoing uncomfortable encounters with distant poor relatives.
As was the custom in that part of the world, Banine’s sisters were married while still in their teens, and departed the family home, eventually settling in Paris. This left their sister feeling even more neglected and lonely. The outbreak of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution did not affect the Caucasus initially, and the area was controlled successively by British and Turkish troops. Eventually, however, the Russians gained supremacy, and the forces of Communism prevailed.
It is interesting to read Banine’s account of her encounter as a teenager with the young Russians sent to impose socialist principles on the oil-rich region, and her own realization that her family’s wealth was unjust. She even went so far as to be actively involved in making inventories of the property owned by individual families, and ended up falling in love with one of the young Russian emisseries.
Aged only fifteen, Banine was married to a much older man whom she detested, in order to enable her father to obtain the passport he needed so that he could leave Russia. As the book ends, we find that she, too, was able to leave Russia and, after travelling through Russia to Constantinople (as it was then known), and on through Europe, she was finally able to join her father and her sisters in Paris.
What happened then, we can only guess from inspecting the list of books she has translated (from Russian, German and English) into French, as well as those she has written herself. This book is written in a lively and interesting way and contains a fascinating account of a world that no longer exists.