The latest addition to my website is Hamid Ismailov‘s Manaschi. This is another highly colourful book from Hamid Ismailov. The basis of the book is the Kyrgyz national epic Manas. (A manaschi is a reciter of the legend, which is primarily oral.) Baisal, a manaschi, has just died and his his foster-son Bekesh, returns to his village, now on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border. Bekesh meets his nephew Dapan, who can also recite the Manas and Tumor, Baisal’s eagle. However, there is soon conflict, between the Islamists and those that favour the Manas legend. Things get worse when the Chinese move in to construct a road through the mountains. Some of the events are paralleled in the Manas legend (the Chinese were Manas’ main enemy). Gradually, the curse of the manaschis and the clash between the various sides gets out of hand. Hamid Ismailov is a wonderful story-teller and this book very much confirms that.
The latest addition to my website is Hamid Ismailov‘s Ялмоғиз Гея ё мўр-малаҳ маликаси (Gaia). This is another wonderful book from Hamid Iamailov, the Uzbek author resident in the UK. Gaia Mangitkhanovna is an Uzbek national, living in a high-rise in Eastbourne in the South of England. In the opening part of the book, she has sex with her carer, a man substantially younger than her, mocks her neighbours and the town of Eastbourne and tells us that she is dying. We follow her life and back-story, as well as the life and back-story of her carer, Domrul, a Meskhetian Turk, his girlfriend, Emer, an Irish evangelical living in Paris and Kuyuk-baxshi. (Baxshi is a traditional musician from Central Asia), whom Emer very much admires. The complicated relationships, exacerbated by their different nationalities, different religions and their often traumatic pasts, the issue of exile, and Uzbekistan, good (the people and their culture) and bad (officialdom – Soviet,and post-Soviet) all create a complex but fascinating tale.
The latest addition to my website is Hamid Ismailov‘s Hayy-ibn-Yakzan (Of Strangers and-Bees). This is another superb book from Hamid Ismailov, the Uzbek novelist, about exile and, indeed about bees. We follow the travels and travails of the fictitious Sheikhov (possibly an alter ego of the author) but also of the Uzbekistan-born, Persian philosopher Avicenna who may have died in 1037 in real life but continues on in this book. Sheikhov is both studying Avicenna but is also keen on finding the travelling Avicenna who may be held in prison in France or the US. It is both a very serious book about exile, faith and politics but also, at times, very funny, as we follow Sheikhov’s travels in Europe. In particular, it is a superb read.
The latest addition to my website is Hamid Ismailov‘s Jinlar Bazmi (The Devil’s Dance). It tells the story of the last nine months of the life of Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy, spent in a Stalinist prison in 1937-38, prior to his execution as a bourgeois nationalist. Just prior to his arrest, Qodiriy had planned to write a novel set in mid-nineteenth century Bukhara and Kokand, about Nasrullah Khan, Emir of Bukhara and Madali Khan, Khan of Kokand, both distinctly unpleasant men, and the unfortunate Oyxon, who was married to both of them as well as Madali’s father, all against her will. We follow Qodiriy’s time in prison, while he writes the book in his head, changing the emphasis a lot, in the light of his discussions on the history of the period with his fellow prisoners, particularly as regards the Great Game. Ismailov superbly shows his creative process and how Qodiriy’s plight overlaps with that of Oyxon and other victims of that time, as well as telling us about nineteenth century Bukhara and Stalinist prisons.
The latest addition to my website is John Williams‘ Stoner. This novel got into the news again, when Ian McEwan rediscovered it, though it had never been out of print since it was first published and was certainly not unknown, at least in the United States. It is a first-class campus novel about a man, William Stoner, who comes from a poor farming background in Missouri, goes to college to study agriculture and discovers and falls in love with English literature. His great joy and great achievement is to transmit his love of English literature to students. However, not everything goes all right for him. He has a disastrous marriage and his wife essentially declares war on him, and tries, with some success, to alienate their daughter from him. The pain is not mitigated by a loving affair. Almost as importantly, he has a run-in with his departmental superior over the assessment of a graduate student and the superior holds this against him for the rest of his carer and makes life difficult for him. Despite this, he continues teaching English literature and gains great pleasure from sharing his love of it. It is the life of an ordinary man who, despite adversity, manages to keep going and doing what he loves. It is a superb book and Williams tells his story brilliantly.
The latest addition to my website is Gafur Gulom‘s Shum bola [The Rascal, a light-hearted Uzbek novel which has been translated into German but not into English. This tells the tale of a fourteen-year old Uzbek boy from Tashkent, who because of his lies and mischievousness, gets himself into a series of amusing scrapes. He has to run away from home when he is caught by his mother stealing butter and an egg and, from then on, he gets into all sorts of trouble, including misfeeding his uncle’s favourite birds, mistakenly slaughtering a donkey instead of a cow, stealing a cow, twice being wrongly accused of stealing at a bazaar, being involved in a prayer-selling scam, spying on a harem, lying to his friend, losing sheep he was meant to be guarding and even working in an opium den. He and we get a picture of Uzbekistan, as he travels around the country, frequently visiting bazaars. We know when it is, as World War I is going on but, apart from some prices rise, it seems very remote and virtually irrelevant to the Uzbekis. It is, however, all good fun. Sadly, the book seems to be only available in Uzbekistan (I got my copy in Khiva, if that helps) and not available, at least as yet, in Western Europe or North America.
Hoja Nasreddin in Bukhara
At one point, the questionable morality of our hero and his fellow Uzbeks is referred to with the phrase Everything that has no owner belongs to Hoja Nasreddin. This is a reference to an Uzbek folk hero, subject of many Uzbek stories. Nasreddin is generally believed to be of Turkish origin but the Uzbeks are determined that he was Uzbek. As you can see to the right, there is even a statue of him in Bukhara. Many of his stories have been translated into English. You can read a few here. As with the hero of Shum bola, he is a loveable rogue. Here is one which was told to us while we were looking at the statue on Bukhara.
Nasreddin was boasting to people that he could teach a donkey to speak. The people were used to his ways, so ignored him but word got to the Emir. The Emir summoned him and asked if it was true that he could teach a donkey to speak. He confirmed that this was the case. The Emir then produced a donkey and ordered Nasreddin to teach him to speak. I am afraid that it will take a very long time, Nasreddin said. I will give you one year, the Emir responded. Oh no, it will take me ten years, was Nasreddin’s response. Ten years? Are you mad? screamed the Emir. It is very complicated teaching a donkey to speak, Nasreddin retorted. I will need ten years to do so.
The Emir reluctantly agreed to the ten years. And it will be very expensive, Nasreddin added. Very well. I will give you one hundred gold coins, said the Emir. Oh no, that is not nearly enough, Nasreddin replied. I will need one hundred thousand gold coins. One hundred thousand gold coins? Out of the question! Then I am afraid that I cannot teach a donkey to speak, Nasreddin responded.
The Emir reluctantly summoned his vizier and ordered him to give Nasreddin the hundred thousand gold coins. However, he concluded, if you do not teach the donkey to speak within the ten years, I will have you beheaded.
Nasreddin joyfully went home and threw the coins onto the kitchen table in front of his wife. She was impressed but asked him where he got them from. He explained the story of the donkey and the Emir. Nasreddin, she said, others may be taken in by you but I know you well. You cannot teach a donkey to speak. In ten years, the Emir will have you beheaded. Oh don’t worry, my love, Nasreddin replied, In ten years either the Emir or the donkey will be dead.
I have just returned from two weeks in Central Asia, which was highly enjoyable and a lifelong dream but, from the literary point of view relatively disappointing. I found only three bookshops, the last two on the last day. The first was, somewhat surprisingly, in the middle of Khiva. (Khiva is essentially a preserved small and very old town). It was small and mainly had textbooks. The books that it had in English were exclusively for Uzbeks wanting to learn English. However, it did have a couple of Uzbek novels translated into German, one of which I bought and plan to review shortly. I have since checked them out and they do not seem to be readily available in Europe or North America. The other two bookshops were in Turkmenistan, close to one another, on the edge of the Russian market. Both sold mainly textbooks in Russian and few books in Turkmen or Western languages. One thing we did notice was that, apart from tourists, we did not see a single person reading – books, magazine or newspapers. When I asked about this, I was told that people do not read all that much, despite (officially) a high rate of literacy, and when they do, they do so at home. In the museums, virtually the only book displayed was, not surprisingly the Koran, including the oldest Koran in the world, though there now appears to be an older one.
President’s Niyazov’s book
Turkmenistan was described by our Uzbek guide as a cross between North Korea and Dubai (or, perhaps, North Korea and Las Vegas). It single-handedly keeps the Italian marble industry in business as the president has directed that all buildings must be covered in white marble and all cars must be white. They are not there yet but are certainly making good progress. What makes it even more peculiar is that, though you do see cars, you see very few pedestrians, so it looks like a gigantic mausoleum. The previous president, Niyazov, was even more (much more, in fact) megalomaniacal than the current one (Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a former dentist). A few years before his death, he built a massive mosque (it can hold around 25,000 people) as a tribute to himself, covered in gold and white marble, with a mausoleum for himself and his family next door. Both together cost several hundred million dollars. Most mosques have quotations from the Koran on them but this one has quotations from Turkmenistan’s greatest writer (in his view), i.e. Saparmurat Niyazov. In particular, the quotations come from his book, Ruhnama, which means Book of Soul. In Independence Square, there is a statue of it at least 30 feet (10 metres) high (see photo above right). And, yes, you can read it in English. I do not recommend it.
The Turkmens do recognise their other writers and there was a section in the museum devoted to a few poets. (Incidentally, the museum is very large. When we visited (with a local guide – you cannot go anywhere without a guide), we (a group of eight) were the only ones in the museum apart from the dozen or so staff members we saw.) Magtymguly is their great poet. He did not write his poetry down, coming from an oral tradition but it was so well-known that others did and it has been preserved. His poems are available in English. The statue of him (photo above) is in Independence Square along with the statues of other Turkmen poets, including Kemine, Mollanepes and Mätäji. Sadly, for me there is not much much of a novel-writing tradition in these countries.
The latest addition to my website is Hamid Ismailov‘s Железная Дорога (Railway), a novel from Uzbekistan. Ismailov actually lives in London and works for the BBC, having left Uzbekistan in 1992. This novel is a series of interconnected stories around the fictitious Uzbek town of Gilas and is similar in form to Fazil Iskander‘s Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem). The stories are set from the early twentieth century to around 1980 and deal with how the Uzbeks cope with Soviet domination, the various races that live in the area and, of course, their culture. They are funny, colourful and very well told.
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