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Hamid Ismailov: Железная Дорога (Railway)

If you have read Fazil Iskander‘s Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem) and its successor Новые главы, Сандро из Чегема (The Gospel According to Chegem), you will have some idea of what this novel is like. There is no single dominating character like Uncle Sandro in the Chegem tales but there is a whole range of characters, centred around a particular town – in this case, the fictitious town of Gilas. Gilas, as the title shows, has a railway station and the railway is the source of information, from arriving passengers, as well as a means of entry and exit. As with Iskander’s novel, the people of Gilas want to get on with their lives in their way and their way may not be everyone else’s way and almost certainly is not the Soviet way. They are, as Ismailov calls them, a lost and ill-assorted tribe of the debauched and the depraved. And, as this is Central Asia, we are not dealing with just one nationality but a whole range of nationalities – Armenians, Chechens, Germans, Jews, Koreans, Kurds, Persians, Russian, Tatars, Ukrainians and a host of smaller nationalities from Siberia and Central Asia. They live life but they also fight and trade and intermarry and cheat and lie, just as they do in Chegem.

The railway holds the thread together, as does the story of the boy, which appears between the main chapters, who acts as an observer of events as well as a participant in some. We learn of the days when men were men, as we hear of the voracious appetite of Maike, who eats prodigious quantities of sheep and onions, washed down with large quantities of water. We hear of Obid-Kori who, as a teenager, enjoys himself by decapitating passing travellers, till, one day, he decapitates an important ambassador and his father has to pay large compensation. His father takes him to a seer and he will follow in the seer’s footsteps, studying the Koran and learning till he is forty when he sees a sixteen year old girl whom he wants to marry. It will cost his father much of the rest of his fortune. Sadly his fate will not be a happy one as he suffers as many did in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. We hear of Kara-Musayev, whose family is traditionally the head of police. His wife seems to be barren but when he tries to determine, with two twin sisters whom he has arrested on somewhat trumped up charges, whether it is in fact he or she who is barren, things go very wrong.

We follow the stories from the early twentieth century to 1980, that is from pre-Soviet Union times to the end of the Soviet Union. Corruption is rife as we see with the tale of Oppok-Lovely, the wife of Mullah-Ulmas-Greeneyes. Oppok, who is anything but lovely, manages to buy the position of head of the passport office, where, for a fee, of course, she is happy to alter people’s details – their past crimes, previous marriages and divorces and their ages. One man ends up drawing his pension well before his older brother, as Oppok has altered his date of birth. The brother is furious. Religion is also key. Islam dominates but we learn about Father Ioann, known to all as Ivan. Father Ioann keeps annals of the inhabitants but his annals are often incomplete as he has been exiled several times, not for any particular reason but merely to keep up the quotas of exiles of class enemies. He has one issue that really matters to him – the restoration of the Cathedral. Sadly, it is not going to work out for him.

Ismailov tells some wonderful, imaginative and colourful stories of the region. His characters are larger than life, debauchers, often up to mischief, always finding ways either around the Soviet system or to use it for their own ends and enjoying life as much as they can, given the difficult life many of them have to live. As with Iskander, we must be grateful for giving the opportunity to see into the lives of the people of an area so little known to the West.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Voskresenye
First published in English 2006 by Harvill Secker
Translated by Robert Chandler