Tajikistan: imagine

‘Is Tajikistan a real country?’ asked someone when I said it was next on my list. ‘Are you sure it’s not one of those made up places?’

I don’t know what ‘those made up places’ are — are we talking Neverland, Utopia or Walford here? — but strangely enough I think the citizens of Tajikistan might have chimed in with my companion’s sentiments back in the early nineties, when ‘one day everything, literally in a single instant, tore away irrevocably from its old bearings and went careering downhill like a snowball, picking up more and more atrocities on its way’.

Charting the outbreak of civil war in Tajikistan following the collapse of the USSR, Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad, which is named after a mythical city of joy and happiness, portrays the eviction of ethnic Russians who ‘suddenly found [themselves] in exile without having to move anywhere’. This is told through seven interlinked stories, each revealing the private calamity of a different individual and the way it contributes to the undermining and toppling of a collective reality that had existed for 70 years.

Anti-Booker prize-winner Volos is usually considered to be a Russian writer (and he writes in Russian), yet he was born in what is now Tajikistan, where his family had lived since the 1920s (his father suffered a heart attack and died when they were evicted). His personal perspective on the tragedies and atrocities he describes — from the man using all he has in the world to buy a gravestone for his brother before he leaves his homeland for good to the man coerced into kidnapping and sex-trafficking young girls to Afghanistan for arms — gives a muscular, biting edge to the writing, which at times launches vicious attacks on the authorities that stood by while their citizens were robbed, raped, ruined and rejected.

What is extraordinary, however, is the way that Volos has been able to sublimate and channel this emotion into a towering work of art in such a short space of time (the original text appeared in 1998). Indeed, the things described are so shocking and so far removed from anything that we in Western Europe have had to deal with for decades that I found my brain reordering 1992 to read 1929 the first few times I encountered it, as though it simply couldn’t entertain the proximity of these events.

While the constant switching from one story to another can be a little tiring and disorientating, the pieces themselves are immensely powerful. For my money ‘The House by the River’, in which Yamninov, having been forced to sign away his property to a government thug, embarks on a desperate and soul-destroying attempt to save the family house he spent seven years building, is in a league of its own. But each piece is compelling.

Over and above this, though, Volos’s use of imagery (aided no doubt by Arch Tait’s excellent translation) is among the very best I’ve read. The text glitters with spine-tingling similes and metaphors. From the ‘low overcast sky… like a hat pulled down over someone’s eyes’ to the abandoned assumptions that ‘immediately leapt back the way mountains do when you take the binoculars from your eyes’ and the heat ‘like a poultice slapped over the eyes’, Volos demonstrates time and again his ability to reach out from this forgotten corner of the world and take you to his characters.

The result is engrossing and shaming. With this book, Volos makes the experience of being evicted from your homeland by force — an experience to which many of us have been deadened by reams of newsprint and the blue flickers of the nightly news — immediate, human and real.

It left me feeling I’d been living in a fairytale until I read it.

Hurramabad by Andrei Volos (translated from the Russian by Arch Tait). Publisher (this edition): GLAS (2001)