Hamid Ismailov and the “Reality Novel”

By Rob Packer

The new novel by Hamid Ismailov

The new novel by Hamid Ismailov

“A Reality Novel” is a bold subtitle for any novel: the very act of writing slices up reality in a particular way, creating lacunae and juxtapositions. It’s an especially bold claim with political subject matter or somewhere relatively unknown, such as Central Asia. In the three months I lived in Kyrgyzstan, it seemed that half the facts were half-false, all lies contained a grain of truth and reality, if it existed, was somewhere in between.

For English-speakers, one of the best people to make sense of the conflicting and interlocking narratives of Central Asia, it’s probably Hamid Ismailov, Uzbek journalist, poet-novelist, BBC World Service Writer in Residence and head of the Central Asia service. In September, Glagoslav—a new publisher of literature in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian—published his 2005 novel, A Poet and Bin-Laden.

Personally, the title feels a little sensationalist (the original Russian means ‘the road to death is greater than death’) and even misleading in a literary world where the Taliban write poetry.

The novel tells the story of Belgi, an internationally-renowned Uzbek poet with an American girlfriend, who leaves Uzbekistan after his brother is murdered by the police. He is delivered to and joins the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the mountains of Tajikistan; and he is later sent to the Taliban’s Afghanistan to make a (propaganda?) film about Uzbek refugees, where he does briefly encounter Bin-Laden, before being found by American troops in 2001.

Unlike Ismailov’s previous novel, The Railway, which I sometimes found a little whimsical, this an overtly political novel and draws on Ismailov’s own coverage of Islamism in Central Asia (this article by Ismailov is a good summary of much of the historical detail of the plot). It touches on the gutting of the Uzbek secular opposition and the growth of Islamism; a bombing in Tashkent in 1999, which may have been the work of the Islamists or the Karimov government itself; the hopelessness of life in parts of Uzbekistan that made young people see Islamist groups as a way to earn a steady wage; the casual violence of the mujahidin camp where prisoner-fighters are executed for desertion or talking back.

Newspaper articles and research papers are mixed with a nameless narrator’s account of Belgi’s story, as well as sections of Belgi’s poetry. It shifts constantly in register, but the book is held up throughout by the translation that feels slapdash: in places like Vaziristan, the Marakana stadium in Brazil or Kandagar (transliterations from Russian for places English-speakers know); or in odd or periphrastic sentences like “he several times denied categorically having anything at all to do with them”, where the adverbs are in the wrong place.

This is a shame (I read an extract in the original Russian online, which felt far more fluid), because in the parts of the book seen from Belgi’s perspective, Ismailov creates some beautifully tangible images, which shine through the translation. Here, for example, where Belgi and his two friends are heading to the mountains of Tajikistan to escape Uzbekistan:

The road was invisible now, especially from the height of the truck’s cabin. The only reference point that the driver—a morose mountain Tajik—had to guide him was the wall of the mountain just an arm’s length away and in this total darkness that not even the huge headlights could pierce, it seemed to Belgi that the driver was literally groping his way along, holding one arm out of the window in order not to lose contact with the rock face and go plunging into the formless, impenetrable abyss.

Elsewhere, Ismailov works in a Soviet-style joke with a Central Asian twist:

— In our department of scientific communism we used to have a poster on the wall with Marx’s words: “In science there is no broad highway, and only he who scrambles up its rocky paths, fearing no weariness, will attain its radiant summits…” exactly like what you said. I hope this Attar of yours wasn’t a Marxist?
— It’s probably the other way round, Marx was a secret Sufi…
— Well, he certainly had the beard for it!

This interplay between Soviet and Islamic influences is what makes Central Asia so fascinating and Ismailov references both Pushkin and Attar, the Sufi poet. In fact, through Belgi’s eyes it seems the region’s mountains become something like the mountains of The Conference of the Birds (surely one of the most beautiful epics), where Attar’s birds fly across on their way to a sublime religious paradise.

But no-one in the book is crossing mountains to get to this paradise: there is too much killing on all sides. The journalistic sections come into their own here when journalists pick holes in Uzbek government, IMU or Taliban ideology during interviews; but towards the end, Belgi protests loudest saying “the Koran says, let him who has killed an innocent person know that he has destroyed his own soul”. It is one of the last appearances of Belgi, as he disappears into an ambiguous silence that fits with the enigma of Belgi’s motivation in the IMU. Was it really just a chance ambush, acquiescence and grief at his brother’s death? Has the poet realized his film will be used to encourage people to kill? We don’t find out.

But should a “reality novel” even try to offer these answers? Should all the details be journalistic or historical, or should the book try to paint a more plausible, novelistic reality? I´m not sure. While history or journalism should be based on objective and verifiable sources, a novel can enter its characters’ minds and think for them—its only real limitation is commitment to its artistic vision. But in the murderous political atmosphere of 1990’s Uzbekistan, an approach that deviates too far from fact could be glib and Ismailov resolves this by mixing reportage and narrative. However, the appearance of a journalist called Hamid Ismailov makes you start to wonder where exactly reality and fiction meet.

Things became more complicated when I started researching this blog on the internet: I came across the novel in Russian under the pseudonym of Mir Kaligulayev and then this page (in Russian), where Hamid Ismailov introduces a group of Uzbek writers that includes Belgi and Mir Kaligulaev. The names started to sound suspicious: Kaligulaev had echoes of Ancient Rome and Sokrat Sharkiev of Ancient Greece, Noumen Smaylz sounded too English and Belgi means sign. Their books, such as The Railway, are Hamid Ismailov’s in English and doesn’t that photo look a bit iffy?

These are more than pseudonyms: they write in different fields, clearly have different biographies and feel more like a group of Pessoa-like heteronyms. I could be wrong, but it feels this “reality novel” takes reportage to explore and instruct the reader, while the fictionalized narrative shows the ease with which Belgi, a symbol (for an Uzbek everyman? the author? the reader?), becomes enmeshed with his enemy’s enemy.

But if we’re a the world of everymen, signs and pseudonyms are we in the real world? Maybe in Central Asia—where writers need pseudonyms to survive, you might have a moral choice between wrong and wrong, or (as I felt while I was there) nothing is what it seems—we really are.

Hamid IsmailovA Poet and Bin-Laden, published by Glagoslav, 2012

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One Response to Hamid Ismailov and the “Reality Novel”

  1. Brilliant and insightful review, Rob. The points you raised notwithstanding this could arguably be a good reference on Afghanistan

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