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Hamid Ismailov: Jinlar Bazmi (The Devil’s Dance)

Abdulla Qodiriy (there are lots of spellings of his name but I will use this one, as that is what is used in the book) was an Uzbek writer, author of the first full-length novel written in Uzbek. None of his novels is available in English but his best-known novel (Oʻtgan kunlar (Days Gone By)), available in English since 2018. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1926 but then released. He was again arrested, in 1937, in Stalin’s Great Purge, when many other intellectuals were arrested, particularly those from the various regions of the Soviet Union. He was executed the following year.

At the time of his death, he was apparently going to write a historical novel. Ismailov, in this book, does two things. He takes the basis of the novel – the story involves Nasrullah Khan, Emir of Bukhara (called Nasrullo-xon in this novel) and Madali Khan, Khan of Kokand, who lived in the middle of the nineteenth century – and imagines how Qodiriy might have handled it. He does not write the story that Qodiriy might have written but we follow Qodiriy as he imagines how it might work out. He constantly goes off on tangents, changes his mind about the plot and gets various suggestions from fellow prisoners who are, in a few cases, very knowledgeable about the period. The book, of course is never written.

At the same time, we follow Qodiriy from just before his arrest to just before his execution, essentially his life in prison. We actually first meet him in his garden, tending his vines and imagining the opening lines of his planned novel, involving a bunch of grapes. Shortly after, to his surprise, he is arrested and the grapes never get written about. However, many of his fellow writers have also been arrested. He is arrested on New Year’s Eve and beaten up while being arrested. Vinokurov, the guard who beats him, will later apologise and feel remorseful.

There are around fifty men in the cell with him and naturally it is not easy. He makes friends with a soldier who helps him but struggles with the food offered. Things get worse when thieves are put into the same cell as they bully the political prisoners. He is interviewed several times. They bring out others they have arrested who swear that Qodiriy belonged to an illegal organisation (of which he has never even heard). He is amazed at how much they know about him. It is clear that he is not going to get away, as other prisoners disappear, never to be heard of again.

At the same time as we are following his life in jail, we are following the stories of Nasrullah Khan and Madali Khan. Neither of them could be described as pleasant people. Nasrullah had five brothers when their father, the ruling emir, died. Nasrullah manages to dispose of the two who succeed to the throne and of the three who did not (to make sure that they did not try to overthrow him).

Nasrullah may be the best known emir/khan of the region in the English-speaking world, as it was he who had Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly imprisoned and then executed. The two were British diplomats/spies (depending on your point of view) and Qodiriy discusses them in great detail, getting a fair amount of information from a fellow prisoner, Muborak Kukhanov, who had been to London a few years previously (and, as a result, was arrested as a British spy). There he had met the grandson of Joseph Wolff who had gone to Bukhara to find Stoddart and Conolly but had arrived too late and nearly been executed himself. Qodiriy gradually realises that he will have to incorporate their story into the book, something he had not originally intended to do.

On the other hand, how could he write about the nineteenth century and leave out the Great Game?, Qodiriy says to himself and the Great Game creeps more and more into this book. Indeed, Qodiriy seems to be getting hold of manuscripts relating to it from strange sources.

Madali Khan is as unpleasant as Nasrullah. If there is a heroine in this book it is the unfortunate Oyxon. She was a beautiful and talented woman. Her father had been beaten in battle by Umar Khan, father of Madali, and she and her father lived a very difficult life. It was intended that she would marry her cousin Qosim, which she was ready to do but then Umar saw her and took her as his second wife. She did not have a happy time. Umar’s first wife, Nodira (mother of Madali) was not a nice person, though Qodiriy gives her a mixed review, not least because she was a talented poet.

After Umar’s death (possibly by poisoning), Madali, who had always been attracted to Oyxon, rapes her and takes her as his wife. They have two sons. When Nasrallah defeats Madali, she becomes his wife. Qodiriy clearly has a lot of sympathy for her and, indeed, she was meant to be the main subject of the book, till he made his changes. (He had to keep Oyxon in mind. After all, she was the heroine!). Madali’s downfall stems at least in part from his marriage to her, as Islamic law does not allow marrying a stepmother.

But Qodiriy’s book will never written and we know what his fate will be. Eventually, he is taken to a cell which, he believes, is reserved for those about to be executed. He is surprised to find two men there who seem to be English spies, speaking English to one another and giving him some of the manuscripts he needs.

Quite apart from the two sets of fascinating stories, the one set in the mid-nineteenth century, the other in 1937-38, what makes this book so interesting is how Ismailov merges the two sets of stories. He makes comparisons, directly and indirectly, between the two. Sometimes they merge into one another and his fellow prisoners contribute a fair amount. The fate of, for example, Oyxon and other victims of Nasrullah and Madali is compared to his fate and that of his fellow prisoners and there seems no doubt that Ismailov is showing that the Stalin regime is as bad if not worse than Nasrullah and Madali.

The other interesting aspect to the novel is Qodiriy’s creative process. As we saw, he was intent on writing with the focus on Oyxon but this changes during the course of the book. He is influenced by his fellow prisoners, who provide him with information about the period he was unaware of but he also often drifts into a daydream and tries various approaches, some of which he accepts, others he rejects and others he modifies. At times the book goes off one tangent, only to come back and go off on another. And I have not mentioned the many minor stories that are considered for the book. As a insight into an author’s creative process, this really works well and is done superbly by Ismailov.

This is a wonderful book, not least because you are getting three for one: the nineteenth century story, Qodiriy’s own story and how the two merge. Ismailov does all three superbly and I cannot recommend this novel too highly. Most of us will know little of Central Asian politics of the nineteenth century and will learn a lot, even those who know something about the Great Game and Stoddart, Conolly and Wolff. While you will certainly learn about the history, a gripping subject, it is as a novel that this book works and it deserves to succeed.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Hertfordshire Press.
First published in English 2018 by Tilted Axis Press
Translated by Donald Rayfield