Hamid Ismailov: The Devils’ Dance

Old Uzbek language has one hundred words for different manners of crying, and special verbs for gestures like gazing imploringly into a lover’s face. 

Elif Batuman writes about this in The Possessed, and I reacted to this information as a reader would and thought, “How rich Uzbek literature must be!”

So here I am. Few things are more appealing to this reader than a scarcely-translated and relatively scarcely-read novel by an author whose works are banned in his own country.

It is intense in both intellectual and emotional degrees, and probably not too easy for those who are unacquainted with the Arabian Nights fashion of telling stories within stories within stories. This is one of those jealous novels that demand your full attention, but also one of the most masterful I have read for my Silk Route Reading Project.

The characters are real figures from Uzbek history. It chronicles the arrest of the nation’s prominent writer, Abdulla Qodiriy, by the Soviet secret police in the 1930s. His abduction interrupted the work on what he himself believed would be his greatest masterpiece, a novel about 19th-century poet-queen Oyxon. Abdulla Qodiriy’s manuscripts were subsequently burned and his last novel remained unwritten, but this is where Hamid Ismailov spins an imagined tale of Abdulla Qodiriy who, despite being in prison and enduring its horrors, continues to write the novel in his mind. 

In this book we have Hamid Ismailov telling a story about Abdulla Qodiriy who is telling a story about Queen Oyxon.

“Wasn’t the concoction of endless misfortunes that made up Oyxon’s life a reflection of the nation? …when and how had Oyxon’s tragic life-story turned into Abdulla’s own?” Concerning betrayals or intellectual persecution, perhaps Ismailov’s, too.

Yes, it is absolutely political, but how the Uzbek character is laid bare, their superstitions, their literary traditions, the exceptionally moving ending that had a cinematic quality which inspired a soundtrack in my mind, and most of all the tormenting pleasure of a writer’s thought process and how it is like a dance with jinns; these are the reasons why I think this is the perfect initiation to Uzbek literature — albeit complete with figurative hazing.

Expect no less from a people who has a hundred words for crying.