Hamid Ismailov: Ялмоғиз Гея ё мўр-малаҳ маликаси (Gaia)
Hamid Ismailov’s novels tend to be generally serious but certainly include a dose of humour. This one follows the same pattern, starting off, with perhaps a larger dose of humour than in his earlier work but then becoming more serious. (Note that I am using earlier as regards publication date. His books have not always been published in the order they were written). The serious themes are ones we are familiar with: the issue of exile, relationships between peoples of different cultures, both the good and the bad, religion, study of the culture of Uzbekistan, both present-day and older myths and legends, and condemnation of the authorities in Uzbekistan, both Soviet and post-Soviet, being very much to the fore.
The eponymous Gaia is Gaia Mangitkhanovna. She is Uzbek but when we first meet her she is living in a flat in a high-rise building – in fact the tallest building in the town – in Eastbourne. Eastbourne is on the South coast of England and is known as a place where a lot of retirees live, particularly those in genteel circumstances.
There are four things we learn early on about Gaia. She is cantankerous. She is very determined and very much likes to get her own way. Despite (or, maybe, because of) her age, which is old but we do not know how old, she still likes sex. She is dying.
We see her cantankerous nature straight away. She is highly critical of her neighbours and of the town and its facilities. We also see her determination, as she goes out walking and carries on, up a steep hill, when clearly this is a great effort for her.
The second key character is Domrul. Domrul is a Meskhetian Turk. The origins of the Meskhetian Turks are in dispute but it is known that they were in Georgia but were driven out in the Stalin era, with many of them going to Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan. In 1989 there were riots, with conflict between the Meskhetian Turks and the native Uzbeks. Many of the Turks were killed and their properties destroyed. Domrul’s mother was killed and his father disappeared, presumed dead. He and his grandmother fled and ended up in Eastbourne. He studied Uzbek and Russian at university in Britain and has now ended up as a carer. At the beginning of the novel, he is a carer, and one job he is assigned is looking after Gaia, who needs care because of her health.
The book is about their stories, both their back-stories, their relationship and their current stories. It also about two other characters we meet: Emer, Domrul’s Irish girlfriend, and Kuyuk-baxshi. (Baxshi is a traditional musician from Central Asia). Emer has very much taken to Kuyuk.
Gaia is an Uzbek. Her father was imprisoned when she was young but released to serve in the army, where he was killed in the war against Finland. Her mother was a teacher but lost her job for being a rootless cosmopolitan, denounced by her daughter. Gaia went to university as the daughter of a Soviet hero, and joined the Communist party. She married a fellow communist, they had two children and she helped promote his career. When he cheated on her, she got her revenge.
Domrul, as we have seen, escaped Uzbekistan and now lives with his grandmother. He met Emer in an evangelical church but she now lives in Paris, not least to escape her very Catholic mother but also she and her fellow evangelicals are trying to convert the Parisians to their faith. Her father was killed by an IRA-like group and Emer and her mother, Bryher, fled to Sarajevo, where Bryher’s sister, Boudicca, was teaching. Clearly that did not work out well and they ended up in London, where Bryher still lives.
Finally we have Kuyuk-baxshi who was a bus driver but is now a professional, travelling musician and story-teller (yes, there is a long story attached to the reasons why he changed profession). Domrul is somewhat jealous of Emer’s interest in him.
In the present, Domrul has become Gaia’s carer. She has him in bed in the opening paragraph and later wants him to help her kill herself when the time comes. He is able to travel to Paris to visit Emer, at Gaia’s expense to see what the legal situation regarding euthanasia is there.
Things are very complicated in the relationships and in their lives. Who exactly is Gaia and why has an Uzbek, who seemed part of the system, ended up in Eastbourne, where she seems financially well-off but not particularly happy? What exactly is the relationship between Domrul and Emer, not least because he seems attracted to Gaia as well? What is Emer’s attraction to Kuyuk? Is it sexual? Is it reciprocated?
The relationship between Domrul and Gaia is particularly complicated. At one time we are told An interesting sensation suddenly descended over him. He had gotten used to the old woman but then, later, we learn He had been her care-taker for half a year now, which felt a bit like sinking into an inescapable swamp.
The whole issue is made even more complicated, as each of the characters seems to have wildly differing religious views, which, on occasion, leads to conflict. Matters are made more complicated by the fact that Emer has lost her father and is estranged from her mother, Domrul has lost both parents and Gaia seems to have lost both her husband and children.
Domrul struggles with his life. What this young man was striving for was calm and quiet. In reality, this means the absence of petty complaints, ambitions, and boastful struggles but Later, he observed that he himself, just like Emer, was empty inside.
Things get really complicated when Emer heads off to Uzbekistan to try and get a visa for Kuyuk to visit the UK and things go horribly wrong.
The humorous bits are Gaia’s mockery of Eastbourne and her neighbours, Ismailov’s mockery of Uzbek and UK officialdom and the somewhat odd relationship between Domrul and Gaia. However, for much of the book, he is seriously exploring the themes mentioned above – are people from different cultures different (yes, but…), can they learn to live together in harmony, particularly when the religious element is factored in (yes, but…), do the different cultures have more in common that we might think (yes, and he shows the overlap between Irish and Turkic mythology), how easy or difficult is it to cope with exile, what exactly is involved and what adaptations need to be made, and is modern-day Uzbekistan corrupt (yes)?
In passing, I will mention that, as usual with Ismailov, the book has various Uzbek stories to liven the main plot. I would also mention that, as in his Hayy-ibn-Yakzan (Of Strangers and-Bees), where bees play a key role, we also have a key insect in this book: ants. Ants need to be destroyed, too, whether with lime or with boiling water. If you don’t destroy them, they’ll swarm all over you, head to foot and that is probably one of the other themes of this book.
This is another wonderful book from Ismailov. While he may come back to many of the same themes, his books are all very different as regards the plotting and story. We get a set of interrelated stories, which, at times, get quite complicated and messy, not least because the stories of all of the four main characters (and one or two of the minor ones) merge in an unexpected way. However, as with his other books it is a wonderful story, augmented with his own side-stories, humorous in parts but very serious as well, giving us lots to think about, and a joy to read.
First published in English in 2019 by Syracuse University Press
Note that the book has not been published in the original Uzbek
Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega