Errant History

Hamid Ismailov is widely regarded as one of Central Asia’s greatest living writers. His work has been translated into all the major European languages, including Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and Spanish. Yet in Ismailov’s home country of Uzbekistan his books are outlawed, and since being forced into exile in 1992 for what he has described as his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’, he has only been able to return there on rare occasions. Tragic ironies of history recur throughout Ismailov’s oeuvre, not least in his three most recent novels to appear in English, The Devil’s Dance (2018), Of Strangers and Bees (2019) and Manaschi (2021), which form an extraordinary informal trilogy that interweaves the region’s past and present.

Born in 1954, a year after the death of Stalin, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Ismailov had a peripatetic childhood spread across the various republics of Soviet Central Asia. Following his mother’s death when he was twelve, Ismailov was raised by his grandmother in the city of Tashkent. It was his grandmother, who had been born into a noble Uzbek family, that kindled Ismailov’s interest in literature, making him read aloud to her from books of Uzbek poetry and One Thousand and One Nights. His adolescence coincided with the cultural thaw of the Khrushchev era, following the harsh years of the purges and Second World War. Censored Uzbek writers like Abdurauf Fitrat, Cho’lpon and Abdulla Qadiriy – all killed at the height of Stalinist repression – were rehabilitated and their literature returned to circulation. The young Ismailov was free to encounter their work, along with translations from English and other European languages that began to proliferate during this period.

After an eclectic education at the military college and local university, Ismailov moved to Moscow where he lived throughout the years of Perestroika. While working for the Uzbek Writers’ Union he translated Uzbek classics into Russian and Russian classics into Uzbek, and eventually became involved in agitating for democratic reform. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Ismailov had published three poetry collections and had finished his first Russian novel, Collection of the Refined (published in Moscow in 1995), as well as parts of another in Uzbek under the title Arosat, a work that would later become the Russian language novel The Railway (1997). When Ismailov showed his early literary efforts in Uzbek to an older writer who had lived through Stalin’s purges, he was told in no uncertain terms that ‘This will never be published. You’ll be arrested. You need to drop this and write in Russian.’

As reaction set in across the region during the 1990s, the independent nations of Central Asia converted into what Dmitri Furman labelled ‘imitation democracies’, pairing authoritarian rule with neoliberal shock therapy. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who had ascended the ranks of the Uzbek Communist Party during the Gorbachev years, remained in post after the Union’s dissolution, launching a brutal crackdown. Political opposition was outlawed in spite of the ongoing election cycle (Karimov’s re-election in 2000 saw him face off against a little-known Marxist historian who admitted that even he voted for the incumbent). Uzbekistan’s culture industry, which had begun to develop during the final decade of Soviet rule, suffered heavily. Critical newspapers were suppressed or banned, television was heavily controlled, and writers such as Mamadali Mahmudov, Yusuf Jumaev and Muhammad Salih were forced into exile or spent years in prison. Yet the country’s geopolitical role as a strategic ally in the War on Terror, alongside Karimov’s crusade against domestic Islamism, kept international condemnation at bay.

Ismailov returned to Uzbekistan shortly after independence, working as a journalist for a Russian newspaper, but the threat of arrest soon forced him to flee. After brief spells in Moscow and Paris, he eventually settled in London, where he worked for the BBC World Service – ascending to the top of its Central Asia department – until his retirement in 2019. His early novels were largely written in Russian and were typified by bitterly comedic reflections on Central Asia as a crossroads of empires. In The Railway, translated into English in 2006, the ancient Silk Road is replaced by the modern Iron Road of the Soviet railways that, like its forbear, brings a carnivalesque atmosphere to the steppe and the small Uzbek town at the novel’s centre. The Underground (2009), published in English in 2015, employs the peripheral outlook of a mixed-race Russian orphan in Moscow – born to a Russian mother and an African father – to metonymize the final decade of Soviet rule. We follow Mbobo, ‘Moscow’s underground son’ – or ‘little Pushkin’, as his stepfather nicknames him in reference to the great poet’s Abyssinian ancestry – as he tours the palaces of Moscow’s Metro system, posing searching questions about what Russian literature is, or could be.

Ismailov’s three most recently translated novels, however, were composed in Uzbek: a change signalling a more concerted engagement with the cultural traditions of Central Asia, and one which brought with it significant changes in form and tone. Whereas the Russian novels are indebted to the biting satire of Gogol and Platonov, the Uzbek trilogy is written with a prosaic economy and the cadences of myth and parable. They have a hallucinatory quality, more reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights than Dead Souls. Taken together, the books offer something like a fable of Uzbek history from the age of Ibn Sina – known in the West as Avicenna – to the tumultuous struggles of 19th-century imperial conquest, through to the resurgent nationalisms and the rise of Islamism in the present. (It must be said, however, that Ismailov disputes his publisher’s claim that the novels constitute a distinct series, asserting that this was never his intention).

The latest to be published, Manaschi, was translated by Donald Rayfield, a scholar of Russian and Georgian who learnt Uzbek solely to work on Ismailov’s writings. It centres on Bekesh, a radio presenter in contemporary Kyrgyzstan, who awakens from a dream believing he is destined to become a manaschi, the venerated figure in Kyrgyz culture who recites the Epic of Manas, a giant oral folk epic widely considered the foundational text of Kyrgyz nationalism. The Epic tells the story of an 8th- or 9th-century warrior, Manas, who united the forty Kyrgyz tribes and clans in a rebellion against the Kitai. Ismailov’s narrative is punctuated with extracts from the Epic of Manas itself, a continually evolving text that, depending on the teller, can comprise anywhere between 250,000 and 900,000 verses. Returning to his village to fulfil his destiny, Bekesh is confronted by the tide of modernity sweeping across the region. As the village is transformed by Chinese building projects and contractors – the product of China’s Belt and Road initiative – the long-simmering border disputes between the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks threaten to erupt into violence.

The previous book, Of Strangers and Bees, is set during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We follow Sheikhov, an Uzbek writer-in-exile in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as he makes his way across Europe and America, scraping together a living through stints as a painter, decorator and translator, as well as assisting in the production of a documentary about the real-life Uzbek cyclist Jamaliddin Abdoujaparov, known as the ‘Tashkent Terror’ for his frenzied riding style. Sheikhov’s journey is interwoven with two further narrative strands: one that follows 10th-century polymath Avicenna, the father of early modern medicine, as he reappears throughout history during periods of religious and political strife; the other, the story of a honeybee called Sina that finds itself ostracized from its hive. The book is a deeply felt, richly textured, and multi-layered fabulation that wonderfully evokes the agonies of exile.

But it is The Devil’s Dance, the first of the trilogy, that best encapsulates Ismailov’s literary talents. At its outset we encounter a man crouched over a book in a damp prison cell somewhere in Central Asia on New Year’s Day 1938. Taken from his home just as celebrations were about to begin, the prisoner – a fictionalized version of Adulla Qadiriy – is being held in solitary confinement. During his interrogation, he noticed some writing on a slip of a paper which claimed that he had broken Articles 58 and 67 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. As luck would have it, there happens to be a battered copy of the code by the door to his cell. Qadiriy rifles through it, discovering the reason for his confinement: he is guilty, it says, of counterrevolutionary activity. Nothing Qadiriy has done, he thinks to himself, could possibly fit this definition. While his novels may contain nationalist themes, he’s never taken part in organizing against the state. After several days, Qadiriy is taken during the night and bundled into a new cell that is overflowing with prisoners. Before his arrest, all he’d wished for was a winter of uninterrupted work on his latest novel, a historical work about Oxyon, the second wife of Emir Umar of Bukhara, and the courtly intrigues of early 19th-century Central Asia. But now he longs for the interruptions of family and friends.

Qadiriy was one of the region’s most revered writers during the 1920s and 1930s. Forged at the intersection of empires and cultures, the nomadic and the sedentary, the traditional and the modern, Qadiriy’s work stands alongside that of other great founders of late-arriving national literatures such as Natsume Soseki in Japan and José Rizal in the Philippines. He is perhaps best known for Oʻtgan kunlar (1926), generally considered the first novel in the Uzbek language. This story of a Muslim reformer set in late 19th-century Tashkent high society was so popular that it was supposedly read aloud in tea shops (an English translation, Bygone Days, belatedly appeared in 2018). Qadiriy’s work initially found favour with a Soviet regime under which the distinction between ethnic and national groups in the federalist union was promoted as, in the words of one Party official, ‘a communal apartment’ in which each republic was a ‘separate room.’ Yet this soon changed, and Stalin’s purges targeted thousands of alleged bourgeois nationalists – Qadiriy among them. In Devil’s Dance, the captive Qadiriy descends into the dreamworld of his stories, and his own fate begins to merge with that of Oyxon. Just as Oyxon is subjected to brutal beatings and rape at the hands of the cruel Emirs, Qadiriy, too, is assaulted and brutalized by his guards.

If, as Perry Anderson has written, the classic form of the historical novel developed under the spell of romantic nationalism, as ‘a nation-building exercise in the backwash of romantic reaction to the French Revolution and Napoleonic expansion’, Devil’s Dance is a more postmodern historical narrative, shaped by contrasting historical circumstances. The work is inflected by the local oral traditions of Uzbek storytelling. In prison, Qadiriy initiates a form of collective narrative, eliciting tales and anecdotes from his cellmates. One prisoner, the Party lector Laziz, holds forth about the ‘ideologically impoverished and artistically shallow’ poetry of Umar, set against the ‘progressive-democratic’ verse of his first wife Nodira (his lecture, Qadiriy tells us, is stuffed with ‘nonsensical jargon’ that pours from his mouth ‘like a kettle’). Another, a Russian professor, when asked about the fate of the imperial-era British spy Colonel Stoddart, turns to his fellow inmate, an elderly scholar who proceeds to reel off a list of books on the Khanate of Kokand (‘to put it bluntly’, he tells Qadiriy, ‘there are a lot of books, and life is short’). It seems that everyone in the prison is an intellectual or an artist; their patchwork of reflections is gathered together in Qadiriy’s tale.

Awaiting his execution, Qadiriy begins to weep. ‘He wept as he recalled his mother’, Ismailov writes, ‘he grieved for the wife and children he had failed to make happy; for his friends lying here in neighbouring prison cells; his tears were bathing the defunct and forgotten, his wretched people and their errant history, of whom the beautiful, betrayed Oyxon seemed such a potent symbol, her memory in danger of being lost along with her poetry, another chapter of Uzbek literature brutally excised.’ Qadiriy’s suppression at the hands of the Soviet regime is another brutal chapter in this story, as is Ismailov’s forced expulsion from his homeland. As Qadiriy thinks to himself in his damp prison cell: ‘Every generation says, “we have come anew to the world, we shall create the world anew!’’’, yet ultimately, it is ‘the same old wooden tub built over the freezing cold.’ Despite its modern maladies, Central Asia appears mired in an endless cycle of imperial intrigue and domestic repression. Few bodies of work register this historical burden more trenchantly, or more beautifully, than Ismailov’s.

Read on: Dmitri Furman, ‘Imitation Democracies’, NLR 54.