Few contemporary works of fiction from Uzbekistan are translated into English directly. Those that have found their way into the English language are usually classical texts or themselves translations of Russian translations of the Uzbek originals. Given this scarcity of accessible modern Uzbek literature, the casual English language reader could be forgiven for not knowing upon what basis to judge the relative worth of a novel like Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov.
However, so impressive is the novel that one need not be familiar with other Uzbek works or culture, or even other Central Asian writing, to recognize its high quality. Any patience the novel may demand from the reader is an effort well-rewarded. As goes one of the novel’s many—likely fictitious—aphorisms:
One who has not built a home in the eyes of patience
Will have difficulty building one on the Jayhun river
Such proverbs can be found throughout Gaia, Queen of Ants. Sometimes captured in the speech of its protagonists, sometimes as stories within stories, fables within fables. It is almost impossible to know which are authentic, and which are the author’s own creation. As with the tales themselves, much of the novel is elusive, just beyond our immediate understanding. Some scenes occur on an epic scale of gods, myths, wise men. Others echo the mundanity of everyday life, with the pouring of tea, trips to the cinema. Ismailov creates a world alive with witches and mermaid, although it is a challenge to sort the literal from the figurative.
However, what grounds the novel is its two main characters, both of whom are exiles—in one way or another—like the author himself. The pivotal relationship in the novel is that between septuagenarian Uzbek émigré Gaia and Domrul her young Turkish carer. Readers may recognize hints of Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby’s 1971 film about a teenage boy’s unique romance with a 79-year-old woman.
Gaia’s character slowly reveals itself as the story unfolds, uncoiling like a snake. She is depicted as a formidable woman living in self-imposed exile in England, having lived a long, tough life. Her son, husband and daughter can all be counted among the many whose lives she has destroyed in pursuit of her own self-interest. Perhaps most dangerous of all though is her assertive, destructive brand of sexuality—dimmed neither by age nor shame.
In contrast stands her young carer, Domrul. The kind of “modern Muslim” who, “repeats the holy names of Allah in the zikr as he jogs down the stairs to the tube”. Having fled his Central Asian homeland in early childhood he is still trying to reconcile his inner and outer worlds, his traditional values with the contemporary world. Contact with Gaia brings up conflicting feelings of lust, shame and longing, and through their complex relationship, Gaia draws the young man into her dark world of infidelity, sexuality and secrets.
Whether he was an unripe melon or an immature apricot, now that Gaia Mangitkhanovna had chosen her young Turk, she would steam him, stew him, cook him…
While the novel’s focus does shift at times—speaking from the perspective of Domrul’s girlfriend at one point—if there can be said to be a third central character it is language itself. The world Gaia and Domrul inhabit is both multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. Reflecting the complex identify of Uzbekistan itself, linguistic and cultural influences commingle in new and unexpected ways. Various languages are woven into the novel’s fabric—Turkish, Russian, Uzbek and English. Some being the residual traces of colonialism ties, the others links to ancient cultural exchange. Identity is revealed as a fluid, ever-changing beast—whether national or personal.
Characters wield their language like a weapon, with code-switching between languages and formal/informal forms of address used to indicate and dictate shifts in power and relationships.
For the monolingual reader, this insight into the inner life of the multilingual mind is illuminating. Much credit must go to translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega who does an impressive job of capturing not just the content of each language, but its spirit and culture. She also displays a deft hand at selecting when to leave words and phrases untranslated.
Despite the impression of an impenetrable tract that this description may give, the novel is surprisingly accessible. This accessibility is aided by the setting, which takes place largely in a seaside town in the United Kingdom, aside from a few pivotal detours to Uzbekistan and continental Europe. As such, those looking for an exotic tale of Central Asian life may come away disappointed. Ismailov is far more concerned with the Central Asian mindset and the impact of history and mythology on the ways Uzbeks perceive their world. In this regard, the novel has much to recommend it.