Having set myself the modest enough goal for 2010 of reading a few more books for the Read The World challenge than I did in 2009… I’m already behind schedule. We’re into March and I’ve only just finished my first. Ho-hum.
The Railway (translated by Robert Chandler) is my book from Uzbekistan. I was slightly peeved when I received the book to read in the author bio that Hamid Ismailov was actually born in Kirghizstan, but his Uzbek credentials appear to be otherwise impeccable. His parents were just working in Kirghizstan when he was born, at a time of course when both countries were part of the USSR anyway. In some ways it’s quite fitting for this novel, because it is a book full of a patchwork of different nationalities and ethnicities, and full of people moving from place to place, for traditional reasons like pilgrimage and trade; or as part of the army or civil service; or sent to labour camps; or forcibly relocated en masse by the government, like the ethnic Koreans from the far east of the USSR who were moved to Central Asia for some paranoid reason that presumably made sense to Stalin.
One of the reviews quoted on the cover says ‘imagine Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude on the empty plains of Central Asia’, and although it’s perhaps not quite so overtly magical as 100YoS, it is certainly of that ilk, full of strange happenings and grotesquerie. It also has many many characters, all with long Uzbek names — there’s an eight-page list at the back to help you keep track of them, although I can’t say it helped me much — and it shifts around in time and place in a way which, to be honest, just meant I was usually a bit confused. It almost would have been better if I’d read it as a book of short stories, I think, because it would have saved me that sense of being permanently unsure what was going on. I have a relatively high tolerance for non-linear narratives and that sort of thing, but I found it hard going. I didn’t help myself by the way I read it; rather too many long gaps between picking it up.
On the positive side, the world it conjures up is an interesting one: a traditional Central Asian culture rubbing up against Russia and the Soviet bureaucracy, an Islamic culture in a sometimes aggressively secular state, petty local politics in the middle of it. It was one of those books where I kind of thought that maybe, if I had read it in a different place or a different mood I might have really enjoyed it, because it certainly had interesting stuff going on and I can’t put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy it… but there you go.