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Day of Uzbek literature at the Edinburgh Book Fair

23.08.2006 10:16 msk

Staff correspondent

Arts

Hamid Ismailov. Photo by Ferghana.Ru
Day of Uzbek literature was arranged at the Edinburgh Book Fair. Excerpts from the works by Mamadali Mahmudov and Dadahon Hasanov were read aloud within the framework of Writers In Custody program. Writer Mahmudov had been in custody for years and not even appeals from the world of literature or international general public seem to be helping. Hasanov, singer and poet, is under house arrest. He will face trial on September 5. Participants of the program adopted a petition to Uzbek President Islam Karimov demanding these prominent writers' instant release.

Excerpts from their works were read aloud by Hamid Ismailov, the Fair's guest of honor. Ismailov is presenting his latest book The Railroad (translated by Robert Chandler, it was published by Random House in London earlier this year).

Organizers appraised the reading of The Railroad in Edinburgh as "the event of the Fair". Along with the names of Kate Atkinson, Iain Banks, Robert Fisk, Per Petterson, Asne Seierstad, and some other writers, Ismailov's was put on the list of Ten Best Recommended Authors. Here are some reviews of The Railroad from the British media.

The Independent

The Railway, by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Robert Chandler

A shining satire of orphans of an empire beside Russia's iron road

Hamid Ismailov's scintillating novel is set in Gilas, a fictitious small town on the ancient Silk Road in his native Uzbekistan. The town owes its existence to the "iron road" (Russian for railway) - "a never-ending ladder whose wooden rungs and iron rails lay stretched across the earth". At its heart is the station, which in the Soviet era is also the Party headquarters, the scene of arrivals and departures that mark the inhabitants' destinies.

Gilas has drawn people from all over - Armenians, Kurds, Persians, Ukrainians, Jews, Chechens, Koreans, gypsies, Russians - a "Noah's Ark of humanity", and a "microcosm of the Soviet Empire". The Railway tells the stories of some of them - a teeming "ill-assorted tribe" of funny, eccentric, sinister, charming characters, known by nicknames.

Umarali-Moneybag has become rich through money-lending; Uchma-Prophesies is the gypsy fortune-teller; Mefody-Jurisprudence is the alcoholic intellectual. A lesser writer would have produced several volumes of stories; instead, Ismailov weaves them into a rich, many-coloured tapestry where every strand shines.

Ismailov belongs to the tradition of Russian satirical novelists, from Gogol to Bulgakov and Platonov. Like their novels, The Railway is in turn ironic, hilarious, tender and full of "toska", an "untranslatable word" indicating melancholy and longing. Despite "Russification" and the "indigenisation" of tyranny, the people of Gilas keep their identities through beliefs, customs and ingenuity. The book abounds in vivid scenes as they try to foil the Party apparatchiks.

At the heart of the novel is the Boy, an orphan being brought up by relatives. He represents the millions of orphans the Soviet Union produced as a result of wars, mass deportations and forced collectivisation. Their state was idealised in children's books and schools - "An orphan's father was Stalin, his grandfather was Lenin."

In a wonderful scene of redemption we see the Boy, angry and miserable, dreaming by the railway line. The whistle of a train startles him, but as it passes, he finds himself blowing a kiss at an unknown girl passenger, crying, "I love you!"

The Railway is a poet's novel, full of memorable descriptive passages and heart-wrenching asides. Robert Chandler's translation admirably renders the exuberance, humour and richness of its language.

Hamid Ismailov's scintillating novel is set in Gilas, a fictitious small town on the ancient Silk Road in his native Uzbekistan. The town owes its existence to the "iron road" (Russian for railway) - "a never-ending ladder whose wooden rungs and iron rails lay stretched across the earth". At its heart is the station, which in the Soviet era is also the Party headquarters, the scene of arrivals and departures that mark the inhabitants' destinies.

Gilas has drawn people from all over - Armenians, Kurds, Persians, Ukrainians, Jews, Chechens, Koreans, gypsies, Russians - a "Noah's Ark of humanity", and a "microcosm of the Soviet Empire". The Railway tells the stories of some of them - a teeming "ill-assorted tribe" of funny, eccentric, sinister, charming characters, known by nicknames.

Umarali-Moneybag has become rich through money-lending; Uchma-Prophesies is the gypsy fortune-teller; Mefody-Jurisprudence is the alcoholic intellectual. A lesser writer would have produced several volumes of stories; instead, Ismailov weaves them into a rich, many-coloured tapestry where every strand shines.

Ismailov belongs to the tradition of Russian satirical novelists, from Gogol to Bulgakov and Platonov. Like their novels, The Railway is in turn ironic, hilarious, tender and full of "toska", an "untranslatable word" indicating melancholy and longing. Despite "Russification" and the "indigenisation" of tyranny, the people of Gilas keep their identities through beliefs, customs and ingenuity. The book abounds in vivid scenes as they try to foil the Party apparatchiks.

At the heart of the novel is the Boy, an orphan being brought up by relatives. He represents the millions of orphans the Soviet Union produced as a result of wars, mass deportations and forced collectivisation. Their state was idealised in children's books and schools - "An orphan's father was Stalin, his grandfather was Lenin."

In a wonderful scene of redemption we see the Boy, angry and miserable, dreaming by the railway line. The whistle of a train startles him, but as it passes, he finds himself blowing a kiss at an unknown girl passenger, crying, "I love you!"

The Railway is a poet's novel, full of memorable descriptive passages and heart-wrenching asides. Robert Chandler's translation admirably renders the exuberance, humour and richness of its language.

The Times

Robert Chandler, who translated this extraordinary patchwork of a Russian novel, compares the task to “restoring a precious carpet”. Each thread makes up one great story of a small town in Uzbekistan, through the upheavals of 20th century history with its wars and revolutions. The centre of Gilas is the railway station, which is also the political party headquarters. The stories of the people clustered around it are all shades — tragic, brutal, funny, vulgar and lyrical. The pages of maps and notes look a little daunting but are an essential guide to this strange and beautiful world.

New Statesman

Reviewed by Craig Murray

Like almost all decent Uzbek literature, Hamid Ismailov's The Railway has been banned in Uzbekistan. It is not a political work, but it presents a kaleidoscopic view of the extraordinary ethnic, cultural and political mix of Uzbek society across a period ranging from about 1880 to about 1980. It consists of a series of tales structured loosely around a remote village, Gilas, and the effect on the lives of the inhabitants of the railway built through it.

This mixture is, like Uzbekistan's ethnic composition, so rich as to be almost indescribable. However, the two main strands are the folklore of the Asiatic peoples of the steppe, desert and mountain, and the subversive literature of communist states, with their suppressed individualism. We have mythic stories of heroic nomads performing impossible physical feats alongside the tale of Ulmas Greeneyes, nicknamed Mullah, a naIf swept along by events beyond his comprehension, who becomes a cog in both Stalin's and Hitler's interchangeable machines. Ismailov's text is itself a product of Uzbekistan's remarkable history. Discernible influences range from Omar Khayyam to Bulgakov, all overlain with the country's cultured and tolerant version of Islam.

Indeed, Ismailov's writing appears deeply infused with a rich heritage of Sufic thought. The translator, Robert Chandler, has brilliantly reproduced the rolling rhythms of the incan-tatory, mesmeric prose. Some of these stories could have been told by Scheherazade. Ismailov is a skilled craftsman, completely aware of the tradition on which he draws, and the book is peppered with scholarly allusion, but brilliantly done in a manner not distracting to the uninitiated. If you are familiar with central Asia and its literature, you will find the foreword masterly and will wallow in the footnotes. If not, I would advise you to ignore both and just drink in the novel.

The society Ismailov paints is recognisably still the Uzbek society of today - it made me yearn to go back. While the novel makes no direct criticism of the current regime, many of the incidents described, often casually, are features of modern Uzbekistan. In particular, The Railway details the sexual blackmail of women by the police, the huge corruption in the state cotton industry and the capriciousness - sometimes lazy, sometimes vicious - of the government (a poet is executed).

Thanks to the human-rights campaigns of the past couple of years, far more people in Britain now know something of Uzbekistan. Ismailov's novel will further advance our understanding of this fascinating land. It is a work of rare beauty - an utterly readable, compelling book.

Craig Murray is Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan

Literary Review

April, 2006

LAST EXIT TO UZBEKISTAN

One redeeming fact about the USSR was that in order to maintain the fiction of fifteen free republics and dozens of autonomous regions the Communist authorities saved a number of languages from extinction by providing alphabets, grammars, education and media services, and promoted poetry and fiction by minority writers, who if they behaved themselves could become famous and rich from translation into Russian. To demonstrate the lack of Russian chauvinism in the USSR, such non-Russian writers were given more rein than their Russian colleagues and could write with less ideology and more originality. As in every superannuated empire from the Romans to the Soviets, while the heartwood rotted, the remotest branches of the tree still sprouted green leaves. Just as Naipaul, Walcott, or Soyinka write English literature more vigorously than, say, Anita Brookner, so Russians found more stimulation in the Abkhaz Fazil Iskander or the Kirgiz Chingiz Aitmatov than in the big names of Moscow. Some non-Russians, like Iskander, never even bothered to write in their native language; others, like Aitmatov, began in Kirgiz but switched to Russian to save themselves the trouble of translation. Why write for a few hundred thousand readers when there is a market for millions? Their non-Russian material and their outlook, however, remained excitingly exotic.

With the collapse of the USSR, most ‘republican’ and ‘regional’ literatures have vanished. Russians now read literature translated from English, not from Kirgiz or Avar. Writing in Central Asia or the North Caucasus is moribund, and there is even less freedom of expression than under the Soviets. The last thing that the dictators who have taken over the empire want is literature. This is why Hamid Ismailov has not published his novel in Uzbek, and why the English translation, not the Russian version, promises to make him famous. President Karimov would happily reduce both this book and its author to pulp, should either appear in Tashkent. The Russian version of The Railway (which Hamid Ismailov himself wrote) was published nine years ago under a pseudonym on cheap paper, with a print run of just 500 copies.

The Railway is an extraordinarily rich chain of anecdotes, some as fanciful as an Arabian Night, others pleasantly humorous, and a few (notably a teenage rape and murder at the end) that even Hugh Selby Junior might have hesitated to describe.

What emerges are strategies and tactics for survival by a group of remote Uzbek townspeople who preserve, however corrupted and degraded, their own relationships and values under Russian and Communist rule – symbolized by the railway that is laid across the desert to their town —, so that their rulers haunt them but do not subdue them. The Railway thus begs comparison with Fazil Iskander’s Uncle Sandro from Chegem which, in a more leisurely way, uses a string of connected anecdotes to show how three generations of Abkhaz contrive to remain unsubjugated by Russian colonialism or Stalinist terror. Fazil Iskander’s remains the greater novel (perhaps the greatest novel in the Russian language in the last fifty years), but it is, for all the bloodshed, an idyll compared with The Railway.

Hamid Ismailov has different talents: he has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground; he is utterly free from any patriotic illusions about his people. If Iskander’s Abkhaz emerge from the novel as the last inhabitants of the Golden Age led by a wise uncle, Ismailov’s townsmen have no leaders and few ideals apart from securing immunity from persecution, the freedom to piss on house walls and unrestricted access to mutton, vodka, tea and sex. To compensate for this spiritual bleakness, Ismailov unleashes improvized fantasies that make the reader devour the book at a sitting, despite the enormous cast of improbable characters, the apparent incoherence of the stories and the bizarre culture — superficially Islamic, profoundly superstitious, and unshakeably egocentric — of his Uzbekistan. The preference that Ismailov’s anti-heroes show for inactivity and their refusal to believe in anything or anyone, against the background of Soviet work ethic and Marxist cant, makes them, in the end, oddly sympathetic.

Robert Chandler has, now he is working with the living and not the dead, raised his role from translator to virtual co-author. Not only has he worked closely with Hamid Ismailov, but also with a wide sample of potential readers. Possibly the unpublished Uzbek is better still, but to my mind this English version supersedes the Russian text. Chandler’s preface is a superb essay on the problems of translation and the various solutions he has employed, while his end-notes give us useful bearings in a world as weird as Terry Pratchett’s but, one fears, nearly as horrible as twentieth-century Uzbekistan.

Time Out

Ismailov's wonderful, ironic, sometimes devotional novel details, through the course of the last century, the lives and stories of the multi-ethnic inhabitants of the Uzbek railway town of Gilas, on the ancient Silk Road some miles north of Tashkent. Ismailov, who writes in both his native language and Russian, has seen a lot of his work languish unpublished or banned; he suffered expulsion in 1994 for his 'unacceptable democratic tendencies', and now lives in London, where he heads the BBC's Central Asia and Caucasus Service.

The language he uses in 'The Railway' is as extraordinarily rich as the traditions he draws from; there are ethnic folk-tales, Communist-era jokes, ancient Sufic allegory, Marxist dialectics, Muslim poetry, alongside literary antecedents from fellow Russians Nikolai Gogol to Andrei Platonov. The book's readability is a tribute to his translator, Robert Chandler.

Teeming with a daunting army of characters from a vast array of peoples and races - Uzbeks, Tatars, Persians, Koreans, Ukrainians, Jews and Kurds - the book interweaves their adventures, building a portrait of a country that is as full of lightly held historical and political erudition as it is of affectionate bathos, playful puns and satirical barbs. Chandler, correctly, describes the book as 'exuberant', but underneath there's no mistaking its moving, melancholy spine.

The Daily Telegraph

Imagine Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude on the empty plains of central Asia, in a two-bit town called Gilas by the "iron road'' - the standard Russian term for railway. Centuries earlier it was on the Silk Route, a cosmopolitan thoroughfare from East to West. In the 20th century, it is home to dozens of ethnic groups - Uzbeks, Kirghiz, Germans, Greeks, Jews, Russians, and many more I had never come across: Sarts, Dungans, Yomuds, Karaists - who now float in the isolation of the steppe, a pastoral, semi-literate population unprepared for the arrival of Bolshevism.

The arrival of modernity - represented by the train, the Revolution, and the Russian language - is a culture shock of incredible violence. The town's experience spills out in a series of tangled, wild tales, brutal, absurd and transformative. At times, the narrative takes on the form of myth. At others, it breaks out into episodes of magic realism: torrents of vomit, tears that rise up to the level of cinema seats and wash away the carpets, a penis that batters down a whole district. The characters loom large and strange, the heroes of folk tales perhaps, most of them either frightening or pathetic. At first sight, the squalor and cruelty of life in Gilas has few redeeming features; it's not a read for the fainthearted.

Yet we slowly build up a picture of life by the railway in the details that sprinkle the text: the "snuff spiced with chicken droppings and a little mint'' that one of the inhabitants sells; the description of the town's addiction to Bollywood movies in the 1970s; the arrival of a mysterious contingent of Koreans; a touching picture of family life in a little two-room house, whitewashed every year, with a paraffin lamp on the table and the Thousand and One Nights read out aloud in the evenings.

The hero, as far as there is one, is an unnamed orphan whose passionately felt responses lend the book a powerful vein of humanity. A series of episodes charts his progress towards adulthood. He sees his grandfather's funeral and later runs away from home. Growing up culminates in circumcision, a practice that, though frowned upon, is carried out privately none the less. A huge party is arranged, and the boy is prepared for his ordeal by being deprived of sleep and given cognac. He feels sick, ashamed, disgusted, afraid - as well as in great pain. This is the formally sanctioned initiation into adulthood, a violent and disturbing process.

The other children of Gilas suffer still worse fates. Many have been orphaned by the revolutions and wars of the 20th century and have little protection in this clannish society. Orphanages of the time are tough, dominated by street children. In the outside world, adults seem to treat children almost as though they could be dispensed with. Paedophilia and child murder are not investigated very vigorously, if at all. The disabled - of whom there are many, veterans of war and revolution - are scattered through these pages, scratching a living as best they can. There is even a moment when a cult springs up calling upon inhabitants of the town to mutilate themselves: "only the one-legged will stride forward into eternity'' - providing them with a moment of glory, at least. On the whole, however, the weak must fend for themselves.

This is how, far from Moscow, the ideological content of Communism translates itself: everyone for himself. The "friendship of nations'' is merely a particularly unscrupulous form of occupation, and as for Soviet Man, judging by the specimens in Gilas, you wouldn't want to bump into him on a dark night. The Railway is a bold and inventive, if damning, whirl through Central Asia's 20th-century history. It is a mark of its power, no doubt, that the Uzbek government has banned all this talented writer's work.

Newsquest Media Group Newspapers

Hamid Ismailov's novel about a village in Uzbekistan has introduced people around the world to life in the former Soviet Union. MARCUS DYSCH spoke to the author about fleeing his home country, and setting down roots in Barnet.

They say life begins at 40, but in 1992, Hamid Ismailov's milestone year was marked by expulsion from his native Uzbekistan. As the country discovered the realities of independence from the Soviet Union, ethnic tension rose throughout the central Asian state, and more than a million Russians were forced to leave the country.

"I was expelled from Uzbekistan because I was a writer and a correspondent for a literary magazine published in Russian," he said.

"I was suspiciously followed because it was the first year of Uzbekistan's independence. All my material was looked through and they had a criminal file on me. I wanted to support democracy in eastern Europe, so the police tried to prosecute me. They made it clear that if I did not leave I would be arrested.

"It was more because of my personality than because of the book itself they thought I had become an enemy of the president."

The book in question is The Railway, a novel Ismailov wrote 15 years ago in Uzbekistan, but only recently published in English following translation. The book has been widely welcomed by critics and those with an underlying interest in eastern Europe.

Looking back, the author said: "I was having a sleepless night and I was trying to remember my granny's neighbourhood. I thought of it as a traditional Uzbek one, that is how I remembered growing up, in a traditional Uzbek atmosphere. But I realised there were so many different people, Koreans, Jews, Gypsies, there was every kind of people there.

"I was amazed to discover that I lived in such a diverse neighbourhood, which I thought of as a normal Uzbek one.

"For example, during Ramadan all the children used to sing the Ramadan songs regardless of their religion, and at Easter the same children would sing songs about Jesus. It was so funny that we lived like that."

Although The Railway is set in the fictional village of Gilas, it is clearly reflective of Ismailov's own childhood. Gilas exists for its railway, with the station at the centre of the village also providing the headquarters for the Soviet army. The villagers come from far and wide and provide a mix of cultures, ethnic backgrounds and politics.

"The book is very satirical," said Ismailov. "There is a lot of 'Uzbekness' in it."

The novel contains an underlying sadness, recognised in an Uzbek term with no direct translation 'toska'. Ismailov believed it was important to convey this traditional national feeling in his story.

"Toska is a longing, a nostalgia, an eternal sadness. When you go to countries like Uzbekistan it is a desert mostly, so there is a longing in the very nature. The sand is so ruthless. We are close to Jerusalem and the biblical parts of the world and that longing is toska." He says the book is 'selling well', and he has been particularly happy with its reception. The former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, called it an utterly readable, compelling book'.

Ismailov said: "I am pleased with what Mr Murray says, because when he says that he wanted to be back in Uzbekistan that is what I wanted to do, to put my readers into the real Uzbekistan."

Ismailov's love for his country is evident throughout The Railway, but he is happy with his new life in Barnet. He arrived in Britain via Russia, France and Germany, and was directed by an old friend to a contact in Oakleigh Park. He was impressed with the area, and decided to settle in New Barnet with his family.

"My wife and my daughter moved with me my daughter was 14 at that time," he said. "My wife was pregnant and my son was born here. My boy, he does not want to move from Barnet to somewhere else, even in London. He was born here and wants to live here."

Ismailov now works as head of Central Asia and Caucuses Service at the BBC World Service, a job which allows him to travel, but he does not know where he will end up in the future.

"I had never planned to come to Barnet, it just happened to me. So it makes me think it is beyond me where I will end up living. Sometimes my perceptions prove wrong, so I am fatalistic," he said.

With one novel behind him, Ismailov is taking his next literary steps, and has already completed a second book.

"It is about a poet in Uzbekistan who ended up in the Taliban's ranks when the Americans bombarded Afghanistan. It is being translated at the moment, and will be called Comrade Islam it will be very topical," he said.

The Sunday Telegraph

Hamid Ismailov's careering, widely peopled, digressive The Railway is, in the writer's own phrase, a 'folkloric novel', a book about the history and fate of peoples as much as individual characters. Ismailov's collage of the lives of the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Jews, Russians, Chechens, and Tatars who inhabit his fictional town of Gilas features an ensemble of some 150 characters - bright blots of personality who both exploit and fall foul of the prevailing Soviet party line, a line 'as clear and undeviating as the railway that cut through Gilas'.

Ismailov's jagged narration, spanning a large swathe of the 20th century, is held together by certain reappearing characters (such as the one referred to only as 'the boy'), the writer's own sly, irreverent voice, and the image of the railway, 'the iron road'. Ismailov's description of the railway - 'a never-ending ladder with wooden rungs and iron rails that lay stretched across the earth from horizon to horizon' - evokes both a journey and an ascent. He has a gift for striking metaphors. When some inhabitants of Gilas are arrested by the Soviet authorities and sent to a distant camp, the prisoners see the railway line with its crossbars through a hole in the floor of the wagon, 'and it seemed as if the earth herself had been put behind bars, framed, bound, confined, arrested'.

The novel continually shifts between different registers. Its main key is that of a comedy that itself shuttles from the exuberant to the deadpan, from bright wordplay to Soviet-speak. Every now and then there comes a chapter or a passage written at the raised pitch of poetry: a character named Oyimcha sits spinning cotton: 'In their broad white line sleeves her arms were like fluttering wings and the cotton wool clinging to the slow, slow, slow switches flew high into the air, into the air, like celestial clouds... clouds...' Ismailov's sentences are in fact never far from the realm of the mystical: 'Is there another way in the world, or is that just a dream people dream?'

Robert Chandler has translated several other writers from the Russian, including Pushkin, Vasily Grossman, and Nikolai Leskov. His tenderly attentive rendering of The Railway perfectly captures the dreamy, circling music of Hamid Ismailov's prose.

Sunday Herald, 16 July, 2006

Catherine Lockerbie, Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival

FROLICSOME holidays do not loom large in the lives of festival directors - well, not ones who are in full-on countdown to the world's biggest book festival while saner mortals are happily paddling in turquoise seas.

Books themselves do the trick though: transport to other countries without all those pesky airport queues, immersion in other cultures and lives without packing a single suitcase. So I will always seek out, for myself and my festival, books which fling open doors, unveil new vistas, reveal an otherwise unglimpsed horizon.

Often that means international fiction, seizing on the paltry few translated books which make it to these parochial shores, illuminating other lands.

Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses (Vintage, pounds-7.99) is a novel which implants itself in the soul, as darkly entrancing as the Norwegian forest in which it is set - a boy on the cusp of adulthood, a transformative summer of tragedy, the air and light of Norway captured in clean, spare prose.

Or how about a little-visited land, mysterious and contradictory - Uzbekistan. In the absence of a trip there, try Hamid Ismailov's The Railway (Harvill Secker, pounds-12.99) instead, all picaresque exuberance, a jumble of influences from Persian to Soviet and beyond. EasyJet just simply can't compete.

Recommeded authors appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival: Kate Atkinson, Iain Banks, Jenny Colgan, Robert Douglas, Robert Fisk, Janice Forsyth, Richard Holloway, Hamid Ismailov, Alexander McCall Smith, Jack McConnell, Pauline McLynn, Iain Macwhirter, Andrew O'Hagan, Per Petterson, Asne Seierstad, Edward St Aubyn, Mark Thomas, Irvine Welsh and Louise Welsh.







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