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An Uzbek trilogy    

The key to commercial success for authors writing mainstream fiction in the West often comes down to their craft in maintaining narrative traction involving psychologically interesting characters.

 

Sean Sheehan

 

Emotional empathy is often established with one or more central character or, in the case of villains and psychopaths, a vicarious engagement with the dark side of human nature.

Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov teases such an approach to the writing of fiction in his novels, three of which have now been translated into English for the first time: “The Devil’s dance” (2018), “Of strangers and bees” (2019) and “Manaschi(2021).

Ismailov’s upbringing in a number of Soviet Central Asian republics introduced him to Uzbeek poetry and the narrative tradition found in the folk tales of books like “One thousand and one nights”. His literary and political awareness deepened in the years of perestroika but Uzbekistan’s independence saw a return to government repression and his democratic instincts would have landed him in serious trouble had he not gone into exile. He finally settled in Britain and worked for the BBC.  His books are banned in Uzbekistan.

In “The Devil’s dance” an imprisoned author, who had been researching the life of Oxyon, the second wife of an emir early 19th-century Central Asia, yearns for his family existence. His predicament mirrors that of the writer, Abdullah Qodiriy, who had been locked up by Stalin’s secret police and his unfinished novel destroyed.

Ismailov, reimagining Qodiriy’s situation and conversations he has with other prisoners, interlaces stories, fables and verses of various kinds.

“Of strangers and bees” charts the life of a fictional Uzbek writer travelling in the West as the Soviet Union implodes and once again various narrative traditions overlap and inform the novel.

The life and times of 10th-century philosopher and physician Avicenna is interwoven with the autobiography of a honeybee that finds itself exiled from its hive. Space is also found for an encounter with Uzbek cyclist Jamal  Abdoujaparov.

The third and most recently published novel, “Manaschi”, is set in present-day Kyrgyzstan, where Ismailov was born in 1954.

It tells of a radio presenter, Bekesh, who is convinced he will become a manaschi, a venerated  Kyrgyz storyteller and shaman who recites and performs a revered epic poem, “Manas”.

The eponymous hero of the epic is a warrior who brought together various Kyrgyz tribes to oppose a common foe. When Bekesh returns to his home village he is confronted with the reality of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and border disputes with neighbouring Tajikistan.

Isamailov’s three novels explore myth and parable, nationalism, the burden of history and the forces of modernity, mysticism and nostalgia, exile and belonging.

This is quite an ecumenical cocktail and readers have to wean themselves off the current fashion for hip and putative psychological verisimilitude if they are to enjoy a deep draught of Uzbek literature.

“The Devil’s dance”, “Of strangers and bees” and “Manaschi”, by Hamid Ismailov, are published by Tilted Axis Press.

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