The Great Game

The Great Game

Hamid Ismailov’s EBRD Literature Prize-winning Uzbek novel puts Central Asian literature in focus.

Writing Intrigues Hamid Ismailov. (Dani Ismailov)

On December 31, 1937, 20th-century Uzbekistan’s most popular novelist, Abdulla Qodiriy (1834-1938), had gathered around the dinner table for the New Year’s feast along with his family, when Stalin’s secret police, NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), broke into his house, overturned the dining table, ransacked his house, dragged him out and put him in prison. He was neither charged nor tried — just summarily executed at 44.

Qodiriy, who used the living language of the street in his writing, is credited for creating modern prose literature in Uzbekistan. The satirical pieces that he wrote for newspapers under various pseudonyms spared none — mullahs, bureaucrats, fellow journalists and even Communists. His novel, O’tgan Kunlar (Bygone Days), the first part of which came out in 1926, is a cult work of early Uzbek realism. Ten years after his tragic death, the novel was translated into Russian, though its major portions were cut.

Before he was arrested, Qodiriy had planned to write a novel about a real-life slave girl, claiming that it was going to be his best. That novel, however, remained in his head. In his novel The Devils’ Dance (2018, Tilted Axis Press, the UK), London-based Uzbek writer and journalist Hamid Ismailov, 64, brings to life the novel that Qodiriy never wrote, and revisits the days of Stalin’s Great Terror, when scores of Qodiriy’s fellow writers and poets were being “snatched away”, “like a field being weeded”.

The novel, which won the €20,000 EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) Literature Prize earlier this month, was published in Tashkent in 2016, four years after Ismailov finished writing it and put it up, chapter by chapter, on Facebook. The first major Uzbek novel to have been translated into English (by Donald Rayfield), The Devils’ Dance went viral and was subsequently smuggled into Uzbekistan in printed editions following the death of dictator Islam Karimov in 2016. Banned in his home country for “unacceptable democratic tendencies” (as described by the authoritarian state), Ismailov has been living in exile in London since 1992.


The trigger for The Devils’ Dance, writes Ismailov in an email interview, was his discovery of Uzbek poet Cho‘lpon (1893-1938), one of Qodiriy’s contemporaries, who also makes an appearance as a minor character in the novel, which alternates between the story of Qodiriy and Oyxon, a slave girl who married three emirs (kings) and was physically tortured by them. Replete with royal intrigue, succession of emirs and fratricides, the novel has been described as an Uzbek Game of Thrones, with each of its 10 chapters named after a game — chess, Russian roulette, pigeon racing, knucklebones, etc. Ismailov says he had named the novel “The Great Game” in Uzbek. There are games in different scenes, in different arenas — physical, intellectual, spiritual, religious and geopolitical. “The game is another way of describing the tradition. Sometimes, reaching certain levels in the game, we are either bored or ready to break it up. Sometimes the game starts to play us, like it happens in the novel with the Russian roulette and Vinokurov, the head of the prison in which Qodiriy was lodged, becoming the most vulnerable character from a monster all of a sudden. So, for me, both Qodiriy and Oyxon were trying to break these games around them,” says Ismailov, whose Russian-language books have also been translated into English, including The Railway (2006), A Poet And Bin-Laden (2012) and The Dead Lake and The Underground, both published in 2014.

Though The Devils’ Dance is a novel that might have been written by Qodiriy had he been alive, Ismailov says if he were to write a novel about the slave girl, it would have been a different novel in which Oyxon would not be the slave girl. When Qodiriy wanted to write his ‘ultimate’ novel, says Ismailov, he was planning to write it about a maid, a slave girl, and he was looking for a historic book about her life which he couldn’t find at the time. By the time Ismailov arrived on the scene, this book had already been published. “All of a sudden, I realised that she wasn’t a maid, or a slave girl, but came from a very noble family. Her father was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, a noble man, and a poet in his own rights,” says Ismailov, adding that he also had access to plenty of material from English and British archives related to the same epoch — reports of the English agents and spies from that time who were sent to the Bukhara, or Central Asia. With all these details and documents of that epoch, says Ismailov, he was “rather well-equipped” to write the story which Qodiriy wanted to write. “However, my love for him didn’t allow me to write that novel ‘instead’ of him. I rather decided to put this novel into his head. So, this novel is written, and, at the same time, it’s left unwritten; it belongs more to his mind than to mine,” says Ismailov.

Though one of the central figures in the novel is Qodiriy, Ismailov says it is closer to Cho‘lpon’s works than to the writing of Qodiriy. “For many, many years, I wanted to write a novel about Cho‘lpon, Qodiriy’s best friend, who was also shot dead in the same prison on the same day as Qodiriy,” says Ismailov, who discovered Cho‘lpon — “a poet of the same scale as Russian poet Osip Mandelstam or TS Eliot” — in the 1980s. Before that Cho‘lpon’s works were banned in Uzbekistan. “When I discovered him, I fell in love with his poetry and prose, to the extent that I translated nearly all of his work into Russian. I desperately wanted to write a novel about him, and in a way, maybe, The Devils’ Dance is a novel about him,” says Ismailov. But Cho‘lpon is not the main character of the novel, and seems to be on the sidelines, amid the novel’s 40-odd characters, including other poets, writers and rulers. “Sometimes, it’s more important what you didn’t say than what you said. Sometimes, a supporting actor is more important than the main character,” says Ismailov.

According to the author, what we usually receive from historical accounts, books, and memoirs are “polished marble monuments” rather than “live” characters. A specialist on Nodira, for instance, would write a monumental piece on how progressive for her time and circumstances was the queen. Another specialist on Uvaysiy or Umarkhan will write the same glossy portrait. So, ultimately, if we write about historical figures, says Ismailov, we have in front of us quite an “idealistic gallery” of their “historic portraits”. However, the most important part of their lives and their stories is how they interacted with each other in real life — whether they were good or bad to each other, supporting or betraying, backstabbing or protecting. “So, for me as a fiction writer, the most interesting part was to set up the interactions of these characters and see their flaws or virtues, merits or shortcomings, rather than follow the historical chronicles about their pious and dignified lives,” says Ismailov.

Being a writer in exile has its pros and cons, but Ismailov says he tries his best to adapt to his situation. “I feel that I’m not obliged to follow the set of conventional games of people who are living in their own countries. They have lots of pressures from their peers, literary industries, from the government, from their readers and so on. I’m free of that. I always think that everything I need is already in my heart and my mind rather than around me. So, here, I feel once again well-equipped for what I’m writing,” says Ismailov. Besides, he says, in the internet age, authors can reach their readers and vice versa. Another of Ismailov’s books, The Language of the Bees: A Tale of Hayy ibn Yakzan, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, will be published by Tilted Axis Press later this year.

In one of his early poems, Ismailov writes: “I lost my way, I went astray and found myself on this earth…”. Each of us, he says, find ourselves on this earth. He says: “Then, we start to play all these games of belonging to a certain race, nation, city, street, club, family, gender, etc…. It is a very strange game, especially when we know that our DNA is a mixture of everything. For instance, apart from my Central Asian genes, which are a mixture in themselves, I found out that I’ve got a part of South Asian genes, or even Irish ones. So, I could relate myself to the cultural span from Rabindranath Tagore to James Joyce. What a joy! So, yes, all belongings are good for your comfort in this world, but the more you leave the more you understand that you belong to humanity.”

Though his translator, Donald Rayfield, has done an outstanding job, if some nuances of Uzbek’s linguistic diversity were lost in translation, Ismailov, who has spent 20 years of his life as a translator himself, understands that very well. “I know how difficult it is to translate from one language to another, from one culture to a different one. It’s like putting an Indian sari onto an English lady. Obviously, the lady would look nice, but you wouldn’t expect her to dance or sing as, let us say, Vyjayanthimala,” he says, sharing another analogy related to translation.

When sending children to school, he says, Uzbeks usually say to teachers: “Bones of this child are ours, flesh is yours.” The author says: “Entrusting your novel to a translator is the same. You are giving your child to a foster family with different outlook, different rules, different traditions and culture. All you want is that your child is happy there. Obviously, he won’t be a ‘pure’ Uzbek anymore.” Arguing that one can’t, for example, translate the Bukharian accent with the Yorkshire accent or Samarkandi with Lancashire one, he says that he’s happy even if the English lady with a stiff upper lip in the metaphor above doesn’t give up her accent, but is nevertheless dressed in Bukharian silk clothes.

Among the pantheon of great Uzbek writers, Ismailov admires the writing of Alisher Navoiy (1441-1501) or Zahiruddin Babur (1483-1530), the Emperor of India, but also “a wonderful writer and a poet”. The two, he says, matched Shakespearean scale. Nodira and Uvaysiy — the heroines of Ismailov’s novel — were the poetic descendants of the great Zebunissa from the Baburids court. Ismailov’s favourite 20 th century writers are Qodiriy and Cho’lpon whose novels have recently been translated into English. Among the contemporary writers of his generation, he mentions the likes of Erkin A’zam, Murad Mohammad Dost, Tagay Murod. Among poets, the works of Rauf Parfi, Muhammad Solih, Usman Azim, Xurshid Davron, Kutlibeka and Halima Ahmedova have impressed him. There is a new generation of writers, like Muhammad Sharif, Isajon Sultan, Salomat Vafo, Nazokat Azim, and poets like Xayrullo, A’zam Obid and Faxriyar whose works must be read, says Ismailov. Two other “must-read” Uzbek writers who write in Russian today are Timur Pulatov and Shamshad Abdullaev, he adds.

The recognition for Ismailov’s novel may have put the spotlight on Central Asian literature, but the author says, “small literatures” are mostly disregarded in the world. “It’s quite a solitary attempt to bring Central Asian literature to the attention of other people, other cultures,” he says, adding that he primarily writes for his Uzbek audience in Uzbek or for the Russian readers in Russian, rather than writing a book in order to be translated. “Although I wish that the world is more acceptive of otherness, including the small literatures of different cultures, it’s a much bigger issue than me and my literature; it’s about the Otherness as such. In that sense, I wish that the world would be interested in otherness much more than it is now,” he says.