A frequent dilemma when you’re trying to read a book from every country in the world is deciding which of the many perspectives in each nation to choose literature from. This is particularly tricky in the case of states that ban books on certain topics or viewpoints and so have two literatures: the official stories and the books released underground or outside, away from the reach of the law enforcers.
The journalist in me tends to be drawn to the illicit, banned books, partly because they’re more intriguing but also because I tend to assume that they will somehow be more authentic and truthful. However, as I found with my North Korean book (My Life and Faith by ardent patriot Ri In Mo), this tendency to favour marginalised voices over the official line can have the paradoxical effect of excluding the authorized stories and making them the ostracized, radical accounts on the world literature stage.
But what about a book written with a view to mainstream publication in the author’s home country but banned at the last minute? That was the situation Hamid Ismailov faced when the Uzbek translation of his Russian-language novel The Railway was due to be published in Tashkent. The first half of the novel had already appeared in a journal in 1997 when the Uzbek government, jumpy about the work’s irreverent attitude to authority, pulled the plug.
The book spans the first 80 years of the 20th century and is set in the small town of Gilas, a settlement on the old Silk Route and now a stop on the railway line ploughing its way across Central Asia. Presenting a portrait of the myriad narratives woven through this remote backwater, which has seen Uzbeks, Russians, Persians, Jews, Koreans, Tartars, gypsies, mullahs and Bolsheviks pass through and make their marks, it bombards the reader with a host of extraordinary, grotesque and often hilarious tales. There are the pregnant twins in a race to give birth after a town official promises to marry the first-born’s mother, the landowner bankrupted by paying off his pugnacious son’s blood debts, the Kirghiz teacher driven to absurdity by his desire to fit in and the orphaned boys who assume prominent positions in the town’s music scene despite one of them being deaf.
Translator Robert Chandler describes his work on the book as being like ‘restoring a precious carpet’ in his excellent preface and it’s easy to see why. Not only is the book structurally elaborate with a cast of more than 100 named characters, but it is linguistically and culturally complex too. Labyrinthine sentences thread themselves through clause after clause, teasing the reader with puns, digressions and asides, and the narrative bristles with references to events, ceremonies, bureaucratic formalities and rites of passage that will be unknown to most Western readers.
At its best, the humour and brilliance of this chronicle of ‘the inhabitants of Gilas: that lost and ill-assorted tribe of the debauched and depraved’ shines through. The puns are witty and the narrative glitters with insights – in particular it presents us with a ruddier and much more jovial face of Islam than we are used to seeing in the West.
Chandler manages to smuggle a lot of the linguistic jokes across in one guise or another. The scene early on in the book, for example, where Ivan the train driver misunderstands Umarali’s prison Russian and gives him fuel instead of alcohol is great.
However, there’s no denying the fact that this book is hard work. Even with the list of characters and Chandler’s end notes, it’s impossible to keep track of everything and everyone, at least on a first attempt. At times reading it felt like being at a lively party where people batted around in-jokes I could only half understand.
The narrative expresses this sense of being on the outside looking in too. One of the most striking moments in the book, where a nameless boy blows a kiss to an unknown girl on a passing train, evokes a sense of extreme wistfulness. For this book, shut out from the readers who would appreciate its subtleties without referring to the footnotes, it seems a powerful metaphor: a connection attempted but somehow missed.
The Railway by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler (Vintage, 2007)