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Sadriddin Aini: Марги судхур (Death of a Money Lender)

Of those novels that I have read from former Soviet Central Asian countries, there seem to be two main themes. The first is a heroic young man, who fights against the system and his (relatively) disadvantaged background, overcomes all odds and more or less triumphs, generally after the Russian Revolution. The second is a satire on various people, often pre-Russian Revolution rich people, bourgeois and the like, who get their comeuppance after the Revolution. This is the second of the two and the ultimate fate of the rich man can be seen from the title.

In 1895, our narrator is a young student who has come to Bokhara to study at a madrasa. He was advised to speak to Kori-Ichkamba, a man who apparently had many spare rooms and might even let our narrator have one for free. He was intrigued by the name, as Ichkamba means animal’s stomach. On further inquiry, he learned that this was a nickname, as Kori-Ichkamba had a large gut. One day he was out walking with the friend who had recommended Kori-Ichkamba to him, when the friend pointed out Kori-Ichkamba walking in the street. As Kori-Ichkamba hurried off, he decided to wait for him outside the barber’s and, sure enough, Kori-Ichkamba returned and entered the barber’s. As his hair was very long. the barber said he would have to pay more but Kori-Ichkamba insisted that, as the barber would still only have to make one pass with the razor, he should pay the same. Indeed, as he had a bald patch, he should pay less. While the barber was cutting his hair, Kori-Ichkamba explained how he ate. He attended funerals all over the city, not just of those whom he had known but any funerals he could find. As it was the tradition to feed mourners at funerals, he ended up getting a nice meal for free. When the barber had finished cutting his hair, Kori-Ichkamba quickly left, saying he was short of money and would pay double next time. The narrator is so flabbergasted by this behaviour, that he has no time to catch him.

He does find him the next day, taking tea. When a passing pancake vendor comes by, he buys two of the pancakes without bargaining. The narrator is shocked, till be finds that Kori-Ichkamba conveniently has no money and, after having eaten the pancakes, asks the tea shop owner to pay for them. Much of the rest of the book describes how Kori-Ichkamba cheats, lies and cajoles to get free food and make money through lending. He offers the narrator a free room, in exchange for regular meals but the narrator sensibly declines. Kori-Ichkamba is not always that smart. On more than occasion, he, too, is cheated out of his money or robbed, which, of course,makes him furious. He has two wives but they seem to have to pay their own way, as Kori-Ichkamba is always out looking for opportunities for free food.

The narrator also has a friend who is the son of a rich merchant. The merchant is illiterate, so his son is always trying to cheat his father and steal from him, which he does. However, the merchant is also something of a crook and manages to cheat the family of his late (and badly treated) servant out of a lot of money. The narrator refuses to see his friend after this. Meanwhile, World War I has arrived and Kori-Ichkamba and others of his kind exploit the situation and he makes a lot of money. However, he is worried where to keep his money as various pranksters advise him that this or that bank is going to fail or be seized. However, it is when the Revolution comes that his comeuppance arrives as well. It is a very amusing tale and well written and gives us an excellent portrait of pre-revolutionary Bokhara.

Publishing history

First published 1937
First published in English in 1960 by Raduga Publishers in Bukhara: Reminiscences
Translated by Holly Smith