“The Devils’ Dance” by Hamid Ismailov

The Madali Khan Madrasa in Kokand, taken in the 1860s (Wikimedia) The Madali Khan Madrasa in Kokand, taken in the 1860s (Wikimedia)

Might Hamid Ismailov’s The Devils’ Dance open Central Asian literature to the world as Gabriel García Márquez’s novels did for Latin America? Probably not—things rarely work out like that—but perhaps it deserves to.

On New Year’s Eve 1937, Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy is hauled off by Stalin’s NKVD to prison. He carries in his head an unfinished history novel set in nineteenth-century Kokand and Bukhara featuring emirs, harems, poetry, British spies, executions and the Great Game. This Soviet prison has all the deprivation, violence and depravity that might one expect, but Abdulla’s cellmates (there are several dozen) also include a fair smattering of intellectuals with whom, via conversations and storytelling, he shares the protagonists, plot and dilemmas of his novel-in-progress, while being regularly taken out for unpleasant interrogations.

The Devils’ Dance defies description. It is, at one level, prison literature reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn except that Hamid has set his book in the now relatively distant past; it does not reflect, at least not directly, current memory or experience. The Arabian Nights-like world that Abdulla conjures up for his novel is, on the other hand, veiled and exotic. It is a world of shimmering light and malevolent shadows, filled in equal parts with beauty, erudition, brutality and duplicity. He creates several memorable characters, notably Oyxon, “an unhappy woman who was wife to three rulers”, whom her creator and his characters compare to Helen of Troy.

The novel is packed with poetry.

The Devils' Dance, Hamid Ismailov, Donald Rayfield (trans) (Tilted Axis Press, March 2018)
The Devils’ Dance, Hamid Ismailov, Donald Rayfield (trans) (Tilted Axis Press, March 2018)

As Abdulla works out the kinks of the novel in his head, the characters and plot start reflecting his daily prison existence and vice versa and, with hints of magic realism, start invading his current reality. Abdulla, it should be said, is rather prone to this: he played a game with himself where he imagined people passing by as if they were judges, butchers, serving maids or pickpockets in the Bukhara of a century earlier. The tables are turned on him in prison where characters from the past seem to be imagining themselves in his present. And when his interrogator starts acting the part of a writer using scenarios that could only have come Abdulla’s unpublished manuscripts, we—along with Abdulla—are left to wonder what is real and what might be a dream, and exactly who is the writer and who is a character.

But the novel’s narrative present and imagined past are also linked symbolically. Abdulla’s own novel is a work of historical fiction: Nasrulla, the emir of Bukhara, the poet emir Umar and his son Madali Khan of Kokand, Umar’s Queen and renowned poetess Nodira Beg, the two British spies (if that is exactly what they were), Colonel Charles Stoddart of the British East India Company and Captain Arthur Conolly of the Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry were all very real people. Oyxon is less immediately identifiable but her backstory parallels that of a young woman that was forcibly married to Umar and then forcibly married to her stepson, now ruler in turn.

But these are not the only real people in this novel. Abdulla Qodiriy was himself a writer arrested on that New Year’s Eve, imprisoned and—there being no real point in being squeamish about plot spoilers when the plot is based on actual events—ultimately shot. The real Qodiriy was at the time reportedly working on just such a novel when he was arrested. The other poets and writers that Abdulla references and meets, in particular the poet Cho’lpon, are also real and well-known.

Given that Ismailov, himself in exile in Britain, is writing a novel about a real writer in a brutal prison who is writing a novel about other writers in a previous century subject to similar brutality and (somewhat gilded) prisons of their own, with references up and down about works being lost, manuscripts burnt, the unfortunate nexus between literature and politics and life imitating art, it is hard not to see Ismailov drawing lines—Uzbek lines as well as literary and political ones—that extend from the present day back beyond the Soviet era to the time of the Uzbek emirs.

Translating Uzbek poetry into a readable English equivalent is quite an extraordinary achievement.

The emirs of 19th-century Uzbekistan are known in Western recountings, if they are known at all, for their benighted rule in general and their barbarism in particular: Nasrulla held Stoddart in the so-called “bug pit”, which was reportedly pretty much as it sounds. This might these days be put down to British and Russian imperialist propaganda—each had designs on the region and thus reasons for making these rulers out to unworthy—but it seems, if Ismailov is any guide, that latter-day Uzbeks didn’t and don’t think very highly of them, or their ministers, either.

It is, on the other hand, the women that stand out: they are the ones with feelings other than mere greed and lust; they are the ones in which humanity and talent—literary talent, for that is what is at issue here—reside. Nodira has spates of jealousy, but she excels at poetry. Abdulla would have Oyxon surpass her, but her poems are hard to locate. The Uzbek talent for poetry is funneled through the generation now in prison, and in particular through Abdulla’s friend Cho’lpon.

The novel is packed with poetry: the characters quote it to each other, citing couplets as epigrams; the women of the harem use it for answering questions; poetry flowers in all the languages of the Silk Road. Do people, did people, actually speak this way? It is abstruse and indirect, but a mere line brings in layers upon layers of meaning as it references other lines, couplets, poems and context. Poetry seems to be to Ismailov what French is to Tolstoy: everyone, at least everyone of a certain upbringing, will break into it when there is something important to say or when searching for le mot juste.

Translating a novel from Uzbek would be challenging at the best of times; but translating poetry into a readable English equivalent is quite an extraordinary achievement. Much of it even rhymes:


Moscow’s not the place you, man,
Oh, the thirst of ‘Cotton-Stan’!
Sixty years you’ve been her friend
But ‘take, not give’ is Moscow’s end.


The 19th-century poetry, or at least purporting to be from the 19th-century, can on occasion seem oblique and formulaic. But translating it must have required particular effort. One poem ends each couplet with “you did”


You turned a tryst into a parting, oh heaven,
You made spring die into autumn, you did.


Until the last, when the words changes:


    You have suffered so in secret, Nodira,
    Your lonely heart from strangers, you hid.


One can’t help but wonder about the original wording that lent itself to this English rhyme scheme.


The Devils’ Dance is full of tales; someone is always telling a story to someone else. One captures the essence of the novel: when Abdulla was a boy, a teacher in his school had brought a large mirror to class, and boys being boys, they swung it about and it shattered:


Leaping up to try and hold it, Abdulla was the last to see his reflection in the mirror; that reflection shattered into pieces, one holding an ear, another his neck, and a third his eye, and yet another an eye… the sum total of the shattered pieces somehow managed to preserve the whole of his face.


The novel’s shattered pieces somehow manage to preserve the whole of not just one story, but several.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.