There is, or at least was, a family style restaurant in Queens, a not-always fashionable part of New York, grandiosely styled “The Uzbekistan Culture Center”. The owner, a former pop star on Uzbek national radio, served his friends, neighbors and curious visitors like ourselves pilafs and kebabs with a mixture of post-Soviet sadness, oriental forbearance and a twinkle of raffish self-assurance.
He could have stepped right off the pages of Of Strangers and Bees.
Hamid Ismailov is a noted poet and translator of classical Turkish and Persian poetry as well as Russian poetry into Uzbek, English, German and French. The author’s relish for words and images are in evidence in this new novel, his most recent to be translated into English.
Of Strangers and Bees is built on three overlapping narrative lines.
The first is that of Sheykhov, an Uzbek intellectual in exile. Sheykhov is a man of the world despite himself—forced out of the cocoon of Soviet Uzbekistan, he learns to survive if not thrive in the alien, capitalist world of France, Germany and the United States. His experience with Westerners, with his fellow exiles, are recounted with a combination of weary worldliness and affection. Sheykov pretends to be a friend of Ismailov, though it is pretty clear he is the author’s avatar.
The second story is unusual. It the autobiography of a bee. It describes his birth and upbringing in the warm and fuzzy intimacy of the hive. It is told with naiveté and nostalgia. It suggests a Soviet person’s growing up with the certainties of collectivism, and the deep sense of belonging this bestows. This story is also tinged with Sufi mysticism, with the life of the bee as a symbol for the stages of human self-enlightenment.
The third story concerns the obsession of Sheykhov. The exiled poet justifies his own wanderings by imagining that he is in pursuit of Ibn Sina, the medieval philosopher known in the West as Avicenna. Like the prophet Hizr in Islamic tradition, Sheykhov’s Ibn Sina wanders the world as an immortal, a Sufi master, the One in whose existence you must lose yourself to find yourself. This story is narrated in a series of 1001 Nights-like episodes, set in Caliphal Baghdad, Savonarola’s Florence, Tulip-era Istanbul, Uzbekistan of Stalin’s purges and an American insane asylum.
Many of the episodes are beguiling. One could characterize the overall effect as Master and Margarita comes to the Uzbek Cultural Center of Queens, NY. The poet’s profusion of words underscores his passion for his experience as a child growing up in the fields of Transoxiana, the insouciance of being a state-sponsored intellectual, the desperation of being a stateless person in rigidly bourgeois Europe.
The level of structural and symbolic integration between the three stories is not however at the level of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The three stories all narrate in parallel the world view of the author, but the switching from one thread to the other is not always successful. Moreover, the writer’s color and style are much less rich in his oriental story-telling than in the contemporary narrative or that of the bee.
Despite these shortcomings, Strangers and Bees gives voice to the Eastern Other as he tries to understand the West through his own ancient wisdom, and looks for validation that his concept of what it means to be a human remains valid during his long exile.