Tales from Uzbekistan
January 29, 2011 1 Comment
Review of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway
By Rob Packer
I first bought a copy of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway when I was freshly returned from my three-month stint in Central Asia at the end of 2009; but one thing led to another, the book was left at home when I headed to Colombia and Mexico and I didn’t read the novel until this week.
The book is one of those rarities you sometimes stumble across in a bookshop, or in the literature section of the Lonely Planet to an obscure destination, a post-Soviet novel by a dissident Uzbek émigré living in London and writing in Russian. Rather than a novel, it’s really a collection of fables set around Gilas, a fictional railway town in Uzbekistan and each chapter is the story of a family or individual from the village. The book covers so many parts of Central Asian life during the Soviet Union that I recognized from living there: the patchwork of ethnic groups (Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs), the internal exiles brought by Stalin from other parts of the Soviet Union (Koreans with their kimchi, Germans or members of groups from Siberia), and the universality of Bollywood films that everyone watches but no-one understands—and which are now being copied on very low budgets by Uzbekistan’s post-independence film industry. But when it comes down to it, as much as I wanted to enjoy the book, it never grabbed me and I kept feeling that there was something missing.
The book is full of fantastical elements, which reminded me of an essay by Declan Kiberd on Irish Literature and Irish History I recently read where he makes the link between the inner world of fantasy of several Irish writers and the “fabulistic techniques” of post-colonial literature in Latin America and India. And the post-Soviet fantastical mind makes compelling stories for a handful of the hundred or so characters—all of which have hyphenated nicknames. I enjoyed the story of Mullah-Ulmas-Greeneyes, an Uzbek who spends his life being mistaken for Jewish both by the German army in the Second World War and by the Brezhnev regime who lets him emigrate to Brighton Beach. A high point of fantastical storytelling is reached in the story of Mahmud-Hodja’s journeys across Central Asia to Mecca and back with Maike, a Kyrgyz hungry enough to eat half a flock of sheep and thirsty enough to drink rivers nearly dry. Meanwhile, the story of Oppok-Lovely, who becomes the local passport officer and can be bribed to change all kinds of details in internal passports, is a sad example of the corruption that plagued the Soviet Union. But a lot of the characters fell flat and seemed no more than ciphers for bawdy humour, like the drunkard village intellectual whose drinking partner urinates on his hair; outsized physical attributes, such as a penis mistaken for a battering ram; unexplained mass movements, like a self-mutilating religious cult; or the theme of violence and rape that seems to build throughout the course of the book.
I think my fundamental problem with novels of this type is that they start out with the premise of a novel but the substance of a collection of stories. A novel doesn’t necessarily need a central plot, so much as a central framing device, like the group of storytellers of the Decameron or a continual physical presence such as Ivo Andrić’s bridge on the Drina; the only thing that comes close are the recurring fragments of the story of an unnamed boy. But at the same time, I don’t really feel that the chapters—there are exceptions—stand up as individual short stories. This is a shame: the book had a lot of potential but fell short of my expectations and its Central Asian subject matter is fascinating, especially given the epic storytelling that flows deep in the region. For an introduction to the region, I’d still stick with Colin Thubron’s Lost Heart of Asia or the perfection of Chingiz Aimatov’s incredible Jamilia.
Hamid Ismailov, The Railway, Vintage 2006