Authors: Hamid Ismailov
Tags: #FICTION / Literary, #FIC019000, #FICTION / Cultural Heritage, #FIC051000, #FICTION / Historical, #FIC014000, #Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Russia, Islam
Restless Books | Brooklyn, NY
I first met Hamid Ismailov after a lecture at the Pushkin Club in West London. A colleague was talking to me about his experience of reading Andrey Platonov, a writer I have spent many years translating. As I listened, I realised that two other people, a man and a young woman, were listening no less intently. We introduced ourselves. The woman was Rosa Kudabaeva, a BBC journalist with whom I was later to travel to Uzbekistan. The man was Hamid Ismailov, who also worked for the BBC â as well as being a poet and novelist who wrote in both Uzbek and Russian. Hamid said that Andrey Platonov was one of his favourite writers; he had wanted to translate him into Uzbek but had found this impossible. He also said that many years before, after first reading
, Platonov's novel set in Central Asia, he had felt so depressed that he fell ill. This had not been because the novel was itself depressing but because Platonov seemed to have said all there was to say about Central Asia. Nothing was left â Hamid had felt at the time â for him to say himself.
A few weeks after this first meeting, Hamid and his wife Razia came to supper with me and my wife Elizabeth. It was a June evening, we ate and drank in our small walled garden, and it was as if they had brought something of Uzbekistan with them. Hamid told stories about his grandparents and great-grandparents, while Razia raised her eyebrows in mock-scepticism. I myself was captivated â both by the exotic quality of the stories and by their strange familiarity. Hamid and I evidently had much in common. His maternal grandfather, who was shot long before Hamid was born, had been a mullah; my maternal grandfather, who died of cancer a year before I was born, had been a canon at Salisbury Cathedral. Both of our families had owned land. Hamid's family had lost theirs because of the 1917 Revolution; we too had lost our estates, though as a result of high death duties rather than of violent revolution. And both Hamid and I were living lives very different from those of our parents and grandparents. We both wrote and translated; we both loved Platonov.
In 1997, a year or two after these first meetings, Hamid gave me a copy of the first Russian edition of
â a charmingly produced volume with a picture of a little train at the bottom of each page: a locomotive, one coach and one goods wagon, the page number printed in white in the middle of the goods wagon. He said that he had also tried to publish
in Tashkent, in the main Russian-language literary journal, but that the Uzbek authorities had fired the editor and blocked publication of the issue containing the second half of the book. Hamid's generally sceptical attitude towards authority had, it seemed, alarmed a government that takes itself very seriously indeed. The Uzbek translation of
, completed in 1997, remains unpublished to this day.
I soon realised that â for all his anxiety after first reading
Hamid had found his own voice and his own subject matter. I translated three chapters of
and began looking for a publisher. I am grateful now that this proved difficult, and that I had the chance to learn more about Central Asia before returning to the novel. Most important of all, it was around this time that I was commissioned to translate
â and Hamid and Razia were among many people I turned to when I had questions. Hamid helped me with regard to the work's religious and philosophical aspects; Razia, a musicologist, helped me to understand Platonov's treatment of song and music â an important theme of both
And then, shortly before
was published, Hamid â who was by then Head of the BBC Central Asia Service â phoned to suggest I visit Uzbekistan; he wanted me to travel, together with Rosa Kudabaeva, to the area where
is set and to make a series of programmes to be broadcast in Russian by the Central Asia Service.
What has stayed with me from my two weeks in Uzbekistan is a sense of the age and sophistication of Central Asian culture. I sensed these qualities vividly in the Shah-e-Zindah in Samarkand, a steep narrow street which â unlike the city's over-restored grander monuments â embodies both the continuity of tradition and the continuity between art and nature. All twenty-two of the modest buildings, built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, are mausoleums for the city's rulers. Walking round behind them, I found blades of grass growing from cracks in the walls; the street is sunken, so poppies and yarrow flowers in the fields beyond were at eye level. Perhaps half of the mosaic and majolica tilework has disappeared from the faÃ§ades and even from the inside walls, but what remains is astonishingly fine. Beyond the shrines, which are still regularly visited by groups of Sufi pilgrims, stretches a whole series of cemeteries: Muslim, Jewish, Korean Christian and Soviet. The Koreans, I learned, had mostly entered the Soviet Union during the Second World War, to escape the Japanese; Stalin had sent them to Uzbekistan. As for the Sufi pilgrims, they seemed tolerant and welcoming, glad if I joined in the gestures they made as they prayed.
I sensed this age and sophistication no less vividly in the Friday Mosque in the silk-road city of Khiva. This was built in the eighteenth century, but many of the carved black-elm columns supporting the flat roof were taken from a tenth-century mosque nearby; one column, worn by time and silky to the touch, looked as if it had evolved from tree to work of art and back again to tree. I was oddly pleased to learn that the columns' silkiness came from their being treated for five years with chicken dung before being worked. There was clearly no substitute for natural processes and the work of time; impatient Soviet restorers, unwilling to wait five years, had replaced missing columns with new columns that felt painfully rough.
In the old centre of Bukhara I talked to a blacksmith by the name of Sharif Kamalov; like most educated adults in Central Asia, he spoke Russian and we were able to understand one another easily. Despite the decline in tourism since 11 September 2001, his business was clearly successful. He had a line in scissors made to look like birds; when closed, they resembled the profile of a cock, or a stork, or a pelican. He began by speaking enthusiastically about the freedom he had enjoyed since Uzbekistan became independent. He could make what he wanted, and he had travelled to blacksmiths' congresses in England, France, Germany and Pakistan. When I asked about his life under the Soviet regime, his tone changed. All he had done, he said sadly, was to turn out three different kinds of agricultural implement; he felt particularly sad about his father, whose whole life had been lived under the Soviet regime.
After a while, I ventured a few words in Farsi â a language I had been studying for only a few years. Although Stalin chose to incorporate them into Uzbekistan, Samarkand and Bukhara are really Persian cities; the first language of most of the inhabitants is Tadjik, essentially the same language as Farsi. Kamalov was delighted by my stumbling attempt to speak his mother tongue â and still more delighted when I said I was learning it in order to read the poetry of Hafez. He began to recite one of Hafez's most beautiful ghazals; I happened to have been studying this very ghazal only two weeks before, and so I was able to join in with him. We were both moved by this unexpected discovery of another, seemingly deeper, shared language. And I was astonished at how quickly we had moved back in time. Beneath the enterprising businessman was a dissatisfied Soviet worker, and beneath that â a man familiar with a tradition of mystical-erotic poetry going back seven or eight centuries.
is as multi-layered as the cemetery of Shah-e-Zindah or the cultural inheritance of Sharif Kamalov. There are several different narrators, and it is an open and tolerant novel that has room for crude sexual jokes and sophisticated multilingual puns, for allusions to Soviet political slogans, Sufi philosophers and to Claude LÃ©vi-Strauss; it is this linguistic breadth, this variety of perspective, that enables Hamid to give a truthful account of the history and politics of twentieth-century Central Asia without slipping into mere polemic. Such complexity, however, is not easy to translate; I could not have unravelled the sometimes baroque syntax and deftly interwoven stories without Hamid's help. There were many points that I found bewildering, many references to details of everyday life â or matters of philosophical or political controversy â with which I was unfamiliar. In one chapter, for example, somebody comes âunder salty fire' from a nightwatchman; I had all kinds of ideas about what this might mean, but it never entered my head that the nightwatchman was simply firing pellets of salt. It was, Hamid explained, common practice for guards and nightwatchmen at collective farms or small factories to be issued with an air rifle and salt bullets â to wound but not kill.
More often, however, the answers to my questions were more complex than I had expected. Near the beginning of the circumcision chapter, for example, Hamid writes that the boy didn't want to leave the house and lose his
his “name-day specialness.” I asked Hamid whether it really was the boy's name day â or perhaps birthday â or whether the phrase was being used more loosely, to mean the sense of importance one feels at any time that one is the centre of attention. Hamid's answer was that the term “name-day” was, in effect, a code word. Circumcision, though widely practised, was the object of official disapproval; the boy would have heard his parents inviting friends and neighbours not to his circumcision party but to his “name-day party”... There were scenes I did not understand because I did not know enough about Muslim life, scenes I did not understand because I did not know enough about Soviet life, and scenes â like the above â where I was confused by the complexity of the interface between the two.
Towards the end of my work on the novel I began to feel as if I were restoring a precious carpet. Patterns I had sensed only vaguely, as if looking at the underside of a carpet, began to stand out clearly; seemingly unimportant details in one chapter, I realised, reappeared as central themes of other chapters. Colours grew brighter as I sensed their inter-relationship. Occasionally I even felt able to suggest to Hamid that a particular thread should be moved from one part of the carpet to another.
The world of
â like that of Andrey Platonov's work â contains a large number of orphans. Hamid has said to me many times that there is nothing in
that is not based on reality, and there is certainly nothing exaggerated about this emphasis on the theme of orphanhood; throughout the twentieth century a huge number of children in all the Soviet republics were brought up in orphanages. Many lost their fathers during the First World War and the Civil War. Others were orphaned during Stalin's purges; still others in the course of the Second World War. During the first decades after the Revolution there was a sense, encouraged by Soviet children's literature, that orphanhood was the ideal state; an orphan's father was Stalin, his or her grandfather was Lenin, and there was no rival father whose influence might corrupt.
The world of
and the world of Andrey Platonov are also both home to a surprising number of cripples.
even contains a chapter about a false messiah who encourages his followers to mutilate themselves, proclaiming that only the limbless can enter paradise. I asked Hamid what had inspired this. After saying that he had indeed witnessed a short-lived cult of this nature, Hamid talked about the Soviet faith in what was known as dialectical materialism or
; he thought that, in truly dialectical fashion, this faith masked its opposite: a profound contempt for the material, for the earth and for the human body. Not all of the many amputees â he went on â had been injured in the Second World War; many were the victims of industrial accidents, often caused by alcohol abuse and a disregard for safety precautions.
â though not Platonov's other stories and novels â have at least one other shared feature; they are among the surprisingly few Soviet novels that engage with one of the favourite concepts of Soviet propaganda: “the brotherhood of nations.” Platonov describes the
, the heroes of
, as “a small nomadic nation, drawn from different peoples and wandering about in poverty. The nation included Turkmen, Karakalpaks, a few Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Persians, Kurds, Baluchis, and people who had forgotten who they were.” As for Gilas, the small town where most of
is set, its inhabitants include Armenians, Chechens, Germans, Jews, Koreans, Kurds, Persians, Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, a variety of smaller nationalities from Siberia, the Arctic and the Caucasus â and, of course, representatives of all the main nationalities of Central Asia. Gilas is a Noah's Ark of humanity â and a microcosm of the Soviet Union. Once again, there is nothing fictitious about this emphasis; for several decades after the Second World War, Tashkent was a thriving and cosmopolitan city. Some of its inhabitants had freely chosen to make their home in Central Asia; others had been exiled or deported there.
The path that has brought most of these people to Gilas is, of course, the “iron road” (the standard Russian term for a railway) that provides the novel with its title. Hamid's iron road, however, is not only an actual railway but also a symbol that brings together the novel's Soviet and Sufi themes. To a group of pilgrims returning from Mecca not long before the 1917 Revolution, this twentieth-century equivalent of the silk route is “a never-ending ladder whose wooden rungs and iron rails lay stretched across the earth from horizon to horizon.” To Obid-Kori, the mullah who is imprisoned in the 1930s and then taken off in a goods wagon to be shot, the two rails and the sleepers that bind them together are like a seemingly infinite extension of the iron grating of his prison window. To a young woman born in exile, the railway is an inexorable force that “warps the earth and its people, twisting lives out of shape.” To Gogolushko the ex-Party functionary and failed mystic the railway is a spiritual path that has gone rigid and that has led him nowhere; it is covered in shit from the toilets of passing trains.