The cover of Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present, with its photo of the massive walls of the Ark Fortress in Bukhara, is something of a bait and switch. The book flies through that period implied by picture: the “imperial conquests” of the subtitle are not those of Genghis Khan or Timur, but rather the later ones by China and Russia: conquests of Central Asia, not by.
Perhaps because Central Asia is still off the beaten track, it attracts its fair share of travel writers, maybe more than its fair share, from the venerable Colin Thurbon (who has two, The Lost Heart of Asia and Shadow of the Silk Road), two by horse (The Last Secrets of the Silk Road by Alexandra Tolstoy and On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads by Tim Cope) and the cleverly-entitled Out of Steppe by Daniel Metcalfe and Postcards from Stanland by David Mould. Fortunately for Erika Fatland, the region is changing so quickly that no one, not even Thurbon, remains definitive for long: there’s always room for a new entry.
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.
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.
The first Uzbek novel to be translated into English has been awarded the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize. Author Hamid Ismailov and translator Donald Rayfield will share the €20,000 award.
It’s pretty hard to compete with the invention of the chariot, the Silk Road, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, so Christoph Baumer’s fourth and presumably final volume in his magisterial history of Central Asia is something of a mopping up operation.
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.