Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Railway - Hamid Ismailov

One of the best novels I have read in recent times. To be frank, I haven't read many reviews about this book earlier, neither I have heard his name before. It caught my attention as I was glancing through the shelf in the bookstore, and it accompanied me home. One of the captions on the book compared the book to the great "One hundred years of solitude" and may be that would have helped my decision.

As we started the comparision with the "One hundrder years of Solitude" , let me tell you upfront that the book resembles the story telling in many ways. The period covered may not be over 100 yrs , but nearly 80 yrs ; the Macondo (did I spell it right?) is replaced by Gilas ; the Buvendia family is replaced by Obid-Kori and his extended family. This novel too is filled with lot of fables , folklore ( the translator calls it a folkloric novel), attached historical and social perspectives and a touch of magical realism ( it does appeal to me even after all these years).

This gifted Uzbeck writer takes us through the life and times of the people in the Central Asian Republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Set in Uzbekistan between 1900 and 1980, The Railway is about the people of the small town and surrounding villages of Gilas , lies on the ancient Silk Route. There are many characters , with their funny nicknames, of various culture and language and religion , all intermixed in the small place. People of Uzbeck , Armenian, Khazakh , Georgian, Korean settlers, Tadjicks, Arabs, Persian and other communities ; people speak and communicate in various languages , Russian, Arabic, farsi , uzbeck and other local dialects ; Muslims ( shiites and sunnis and sufi practitioners) , Christians, Jews and the new religion of communism living in harmony. People endures various wars and skirmishes -first and second world wars and attackes of various rebels in the region ; are also caught by the soviet authorities and being sent to Siberia or on exile. The time after the 1917 revolution and the forced spread of communism has its own effect in the people. As Obid-Kori reacts : "One proclamation told Obid-Kori how the mullahs of Turkestan had decided to create an Islamic state free of distinction of tribe and birth; the other told him, in Russian, about sone "classless" society in which everyone would be equal. Obid-Kori pondered all this for a long time.The two documents seems to be talking one and the same thing, so what was the difference between them?"

The railway is the silent witness to all. Like a never-ending ladder with wooden rungs and iron rails and that stretched across the earth from horizon to horizon ( I quote). There is a scene where the boy, with all his contempt of the world , wanted to lift his cloth and show his insult to the all enduring, all witnessing railway. When the train arrives and passes him, all he could do was to shout "I LOVE YOU" the the girl standing near the door of the last compartment.

This book was banned in his native land Uzbeck , and he was named a persona non grata there ( unacceptably democratic tendencies), had to flee and move to London, where he works with BBC.

This paints the 20th century Central Asian population so beautifully, almost like a kaleidoscopic view. The original prose and a methodical , painstaking translation makes it a fantastic book to read. There is explanatory notes at the end of the book, without which it would be difficult to understand some of the aspects of their life and the introduction by Robert Chandler, the translator, helps to prepare for this read. The last pages also includes a part of interview with the writer by the translator.
Incidently, Robert Chandler has been named in the list of "The 50 outstanding literary translations from the last 50 years " list by The Translators Association of the Society of Authors.

The book is full of lyrical prose like this one, "He himself was now burning on the straw, along with these half open books whose pages were now being turned not by the hands but by fire, and he could see words rising from these books in the shape of flames and their ashy shadow was falling back down beneath his burning bare feet. ' Sumari yerga urdi'(his fruit fell on the earth) he whispered for the last time - and these words were the last words to burn in with him, their dazzling sweep was the last thing he sensed."

Bollywood movies are popular in many parts of Central Asia, Arab , Persia, Afghan and in Russia. There is a chapter on the effects of "shri 420" of Rajkapoor ( who is very famous in that part of the world) and I find it quite interesting. Of course, there are few mistakes with some words and some meaning, but that does not matter. "Once, on the day of Yom Kippur, after writing the film title "Shri 420" with his own urine on the wall of Huvron-Barber's little shop, Yusuf-Cobbler went to see the film itself. Why he went is unclear- he may have wanted to laugh at those who were weeping, or he may have hoped to see a size 420 shoe - but the film affected him more deeply that he expected. Stealthily weeping thousands of years worth of Jewish tears onto the floor, he saw his tears join streams of other tears flowing across the dank carpets Ortik-Picture-Reels has accquired after they had been written off by the party; these rivulets rose to the level of his clients' ankles, to the level of their calves, to the level of their bottoms - and soon Yusuf-Cobbler was thinking not only of the Great Flood and Noah's Ark but also the Mount Ararat of salt-corroded soles and heels that he would soon be required to repair. Be that as it mey, he was so shaken that he decided never again to piss against the wall of Huvron-Barber's little shop. Such is the power of Indian Films."

This is one brilliant book and I am not equipped to bring the whole beauty of this work in this small paragraph. To know more you may visit these reviews:


S Varma said...

nice review and even nicer links!

Stephen said...

I really like your blog Jayan and value your opinions. I did not like The Railway by Hamid Ismailov. I think it is very poor and it does not deliver it's promise of a cultural adventure.

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