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Perhat Tursun: Chong shähär (The Backstreets)

This work is clearly partially autobiographical but only partially. Our hero/narrator is not named but we know that he is, like Tursun, a young Uighur man who had grown up in a village, and spent five years studying in Beijing, where he learned Chinese. He returned home but is eager to escape the village. (I thought that my desperation to escape from that village came from my desire for the luxuries of the big city. But actually, my desperation to escape was just the urge to escape my memories.)

He has now gone to Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. He has been given a job in an office as Uighurs are entitled to a certain amount of jobs, though primarily menial ones. The book is set over a period of one night with our hero walking the back streets to find lodgings, though, of course he looks back at his life in the village, in Beijing and on arrival in Ürümqi.

It is not entirely clear what his job entails but we do know that his boss and colleagues (they looked like the faces of bloated corpses floating in water) continually mock him because of the mistakes he makes in Chinese. It is also made very clear to him that he is on his own as regards finding lodgings. He had tried sleeping in the office but is thrown out.

He has been given a desk. However all but one of the drawers are locked as they were used by a the previous user of the desk – who retired eleven years ago. However, till he comes to collect his stuff from the drawers, our narrator cannot have access to them. So he has the one drawer and this drawer becomes very precious to him as it contains all of his meagre property.

He also has to give to worthy causes , which leaves him short of money. When he declines to participate, it is made difficult for him.

Throughout the book though he is, of course in the capital of his own country, i.e. Xinjiang. Most of the people he comes into contact with are Han Chinese and they are viciously racist towards him. When he is out on his night-time search for lodgings, he is abused, ignored when asking for help and, towards the end, viciously attacked . Clearly the Uighur are very much considered an inferior race in their own, colonised country. Indeed,the appropriate word, is used in the introduction to this book – dehumanised.

This is certainly a key part of the novel but what makes it a fascinating work is his wandering round the town both at night and in the fog. The fog is, of course intimidating as he is not sure where he is going and cannot clearly see where he is going. The fog gets worse and makes it more difficult for him. I wasn’t clear on whether or not my body was becoming fog or the fog was enveloping my body.

He will comment on his life as he wanders around. He mentions his zero sex life. He will compare his life to that of a rat, scurrying around looking for food and a place to sleep. He thinks about why he came – in theory for the luxuries that the city has to offer – but also thinks of the negatives of cities. There is the risk of getting lost (which he does) and of women who can be an asset but also dangerous. He reflects that cities are known as a place where murders and excessive violence often happen. He also mentions that throughout history people have felt animosity towards cities and destroy them, specifically referring to Pol Pot and his forcible removal of people to the country.

One thing that sustains him is numbers.He is somewhat obsessed with numbers and is always trying to make connections between various numbers and linking them, for example, to his birthdate or some other significant number. The building he is looking for is 6891 and this is one of he numbers he plays with.

Smells are also important – he has a very good sense of smell – and he frequently comments on smells, good and bad. Some of the smells come from the rubbish which seems to be scattered all over the city. It is not just rubbish. There are abandoned houses and houses probably still in use but very dilapidated.

Above all he is alone. Nine times he will repeat the same phrase: I don’t know anyone in this strange city, so it’s impossible for me to be friends or enemies with anyone. Even in Beijing, it was the same. Apart from the few other Uighurs he knew, he had very limited contact with anyone. Only those twelve classmates existed as a part of my life. It was as if, except for them, the ten million people in the city didn’t exist for me.

He even loses his sense of time. What century is it now? In the end I gradually lost my sense of what era I was a part of. I was lost in time. It is not just a sense of time he loses. My consciousness was gradually fading. I had already lost the very concept of my identity. Now I sensed that I couldn’t become anything. I felt it possible that other people wouldn’t even let me be myself. I was lost in the infinite crowds of humanity.

The introduction makes reference to several works that may have influenced Tursun or, if not, resemble this work. Specific reference is made to Albert Camus‘s L’Etranger (UK: The Outsider; US: The Stranger) which we know Tursun knew and loved. The introduction also suggests J.M. Coetzee‘s Life and Times of Michael K and Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man, both excellent suggestions. I would add Gogol’s The Overcoat, which he may have read as we know he did read Russian writers such as Dostoevsky. I would also suggest the fifteenth episode, the Circe/Night-time one, of Ulysses. This is not to take anything away from the originality of Tursun’s work but just to show that the theme of the outsider is a common one in literature.

This is certainly a remarkable work, clearly showing an outsider, how much he is an outsider and why he is an outsider in his own country. The description of the city and the people, seen through the haze of the fog, all reinforce this feeling we have of a man lost amongst people who see him as an outsider and not one of them. Apparently Tursun was working on five unfinished novels when he was disappeared. Sadly, it seems unlikely that we will ever see them, a great loss to world literature.

Publishing history

First published in 2021 by Shärqi Türkistan Hörriyät näshriyat
First English translation in 2022 byColumbia University Press

Translated by Darren Byler and Anonymous

Other links

The Uyghur Novel Published by Columbia University Press That Everyone Is Talking About