Almaty-Transit  by Dana Mazur

This is my book from Kazakhstan for the Read The World challenge, and it is, unusually, contemporary literary fiction (from 2010!). Which would be even more unusual if it had actually been translated from Kazakh or Russian, but it’s a novel in English by a Kazakh immigrant to the US. And the action moves between Los Angeles — where Aidar, a Kazakh man, lives with his American musician wife and son — and Almaty where his mother lives.

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[SPOILER ALERT, I guess; the event mentioned happens pretty early in the book, but if you don’t want to know the result, look away now]

The full title of the book is Almaty-Transit — A Ghost Story, and most of the action happens after the death of Aidar, when his spirit finds itself back home in Kazakhstan, but wanting to find some way to help his wife and child back in the States. It’s hard to give any more detail without getting even more spoilery, but I would say that for much of the book the supernatural part is handled well, and it seems like an extension of a character-driven narrative, rather than wacky stuff happening just to try and make the book more interesting. By the end, as the supernatural elements got more elaborate and more gothic fairy-tale in tone, I was starting to get a bit impatient with it, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me.

So, yeah, on the whole I enjoyed this, I thought it was well-written and the characters were engaging, even though the thing which is most distinctive about it — the supernatural side of the story — was in some ways the least appealing part, for me.

»The photo Almaty City is © Vladimir Yaitskiy and used under a CC by-sa licence.

The Blue Sky: A Novel by Galsan Tschinag

A book from the perspective of the youngest child of a family of nomadic Tuvan sheep herders in Mongolia. Apparently it’s the first book of an autobiographical trilogy,* along with The Gray Earth and The White Mountain.

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It’s set in the communist Mongolia of the 40s, although the politics is something remote in this book: both because the family is literally remote from the centres of power, and because it is seen through the eyes of a child, for whom it is much less important than the day to day life with the sheep. Still, the influence hangs over them: the father has been assigned quotas he has to meet, in wool and wolf hides and other things, that interfere with the proper management of the herd; the older siblings are taken away to be educated in town; and even the idea of becoming a prosperous farmer is dangerous because it risks being labelled a kulak.

Apparently the conflict between communism and the traditional way of life features more directly in the next volume, when the boy goes to school. Which actually sounds like a more interesting subject to me, so perhaps I’ll pick up a copy at some point.

Most of the book is from the very narrow perspective of a small child: his world is barely wider than his extended family and their cluster of yurts. So the book is about family dynamics: the tension between his father and uncles, the boy’s relationship with his parents, his grandmother and his dog; and about the details of daily life: the food, the sheep, the landscape, the weather.

All of which is interesting in a cultural/ethnographical sort of way; more importantly, it’s well written and evocative.

The Blue Sky was translated from the original German by Katharina Rout. It is my book from Mongolia for the Read The World challenge.

* That’s the author’s own description. But the book is also described as a ‘novel’. So I don’t know what the balance of autobiography and fiction is.

» The photo, ‘typical summer day’, is © Kit Seeborg and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

A Poet and Bin-Laden by Hamid Ismailov

This book tells the true story of Belgi, an Uzbek poet who fled the brutal regime in Uzbekistan and ended up in an Islamic militant/terrorist/dissident organisation up in the mountains of Tajikistan, just at the end of the 90s: in other words, as part of the same broad cultural movement as the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, just before 9/11.

The value of the novel is that it provides a more intimate perspective on that movement. Not that Hamid Ismailov was part of it himself — it’s not an insider’s view — but he’s an Uzbek poet and novelist who fled the country and ended up working for the BBC World Service, writing about an Uzbek poet who fled the country and ended up fighting with Islamic militants. There’s a cultural empathy there which is quite different to reading a book written by, say, an American diplomat or academic.

It’s more nuanced, more human, messier. The militants are not a faceless mass, they are a group of individuals. The religious cause is the primary motivation for some; but others are mainly concerned with opposing a particular Uzbek regime, or with personal ambition. And those who got caught up by accident and know that they are likely to be shot if they try to leave.

Belgi is well suited to being the human face of islamism, because his poetry offers the most direct possible contradiction of the stereotype. Most of the chapters start with an extract of his poetry, and it is modern, elusive/allusive… it is not the poetry of zealotry or violence. For example, picking one essentially at random:

Has summer come?
In your life you’ll still write another
Twenty-five books in the little square
among the mass of stone, ugly memorials.
Some concrete piece, the existence of a memorial
left by the builders,
turns into the absurd
as though, yes, say as though, in as far as
even if the thought ends
the yearning to continue it
does not end.
Shall I go into the dining room
and soak my hardened
brains in tea
so as to pour into my thought?
Here no one needs you,
but this is just the width and the length
of the fact that you need no one.

The poetry is not contemporary with him being a militant, it’s a different phase of his life; but still, the two things seem strikingly at odds.

So there’s a lot which is interesting about the book. But I do have some issues, mainly to do with form rather than content. The publisher’s blurb refers to it as a ‘reality novel’ and says that ‘in this book Hamid Ismailov masterfully intertwines fiction with documentary’. I don’t have a principled objection to mixing fiction and non-fiction, but in practice I found it confusing: I just wanted to have some idea of what was definitely true, what might be true, and what, if anything, was pure invention. No doubt the people who tried to teach me literary theory at university would despair at my naivety, but there you go.

What I found particularly confusing was that the book is an odd mixture of what reads like fiction with documents reproduced verbatim: press releases, transcripts of radio interviews and so on. And I was reading it thinking, well, the ‘documentary’ stuff must be genuine because anyone inventing it as fiction would make it a bit livelier; but the ‘fictional’ bits include events where the author wasn’t present, told as though from direct experience.

I ended up trying to google Belgi to find out whether or not he even existed; and to add to my confusion, couldn’t initially find any trace of him (I did eventually, once I worked out what to search for).

It’s not until chapter 32, halfway through the book, that Ismailov writes:

I think the time has arrived for me to interrupt my story and put in at least a brief word of clarification. Everything that I have written so far is documentary, and not only in those sections where I cite documents or eyewitness accounts, but also – even more importantly – in the parts where I tell the story of Belgi-Yosir, or rather, where I reproduce reality as seen through his eyes.

This is the point at which I must say that I have not made anything up, and while I am open to the reproach that I have not seen it all with my own eyes, nonetheless I have made it a rule in every case to rely on the words of those who did see things for themselves. Many of these people will never admit what happened to them: for instance Alisher, or Umar, who told me himself how he and Belgi came to be in Hoit, now works in a foreign cultural delegation.

If that explanation had appeared in the first few chapters it would have saved me a lot of fretting.

In fact I personally would have liked a generally simpler narrative. Inevitably there are a lot of unfamiliar names to keep track of — people, places, organisations — but it seemed to be made harder than necessary by the way it kept shifting around; not only the stylistic shifts between the documentary, ‘fiction’, and Ismailov’s first-person accounts of his own experiences, but also it felt like it kept hopping around in time and place.

So in various ways I found the model of a ‘reality novel’ awkward; it felt like the two impulses were fighting each other a bit, and I would have preferred either one thing or the other: a novelistic narrative or straight non-fiction.

But it’s an interesting and valuable book, despite that.

[Just in the spirit of full disclosure: the publishers, Glagoslav, sent me a review copy because I previously wrote a review of Ismailov’s novel, The Railway. Which was a first. So thanks to them for that.]

The Sands of Oxus by Sadriddin Aini

The Sands of Oxus is my book from Tajikistan for the Read The World challenge. Which is a bit of a cheat, in fact. Aini’s Tajikistan credentials would seem to be impeccable: according to Wikipedia, he is ‘regarded as Tajikistan’s national poet’. He wrote the first Tajik novels and a Tajik dictionary. He was a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Tajik SSR, the president of the Writer’s Union of Tajikistan, and the president of the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences. However, rather annoyingly for my purposes, he didn’t actually live there. He was born, and spent his whole life, in what is now Uzbekistan. He was ethnically Tajik, but not geographically.

This seems rather typical of Central Asia; my book from Uzbekistan, The Railway, was written by someone who was actually born in Kyrgyzstan. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is my book from Kyrgyzstan, but it’s set in Kazakhstan. I guess it’s partially because the Silk Road historically created a mixed, mobile population; and more recently because it was all part of the Soviet Union, and people moved from one SSR to another for all kinds of reasons, sometimes by choice and sometimes under duress.

If I come across a book which is a more perfect fit for Tajikistan, I might read that as well, I suppose. But The Sands of Oxus will do for now. It is the first volume of Aini’s autobiography; it covers his childhood in rural Uzbekistan — in what was then (1878-90) the Emirate of Bukhara. The book ends with him leaving to study at a madrasa at the age of twelve.

It’s a straightforward chronological autobiography told, at least in this translation, in fairly plain prose, but I found it very interesting; mainly for what you might call historical/ethnological reasons. It’s a vivid portrayal of life in a small village in Central Asia in the 1880s; the farming, the food, the customs. It’s occasionally a bit didactic — there are a few incidents which carry a suspiciously neat message — but not annoyingly so. The broadly political stuff, about venal magistrates, ignorant village mullahs, ruthless tax collectors and the arrogant aristocracy, might I suppose be influenced by his revolutionary politics as an adult and indeed the fact he was writing in Stalin’s USSR. Not that any of it is inherently implausible.

Reading it, it seems like an incredibly timeless world: the cycle of planting and harvest, Ramadan, a summer festival, circumcisions, marriages, funerals. There is no mention of any modern technology at all, not even the telegraph or the steam engine. It must have already seemed ancient by the time this book was written in 1949.

Here’s a fairly random sample:

Each year when the mulberries began to ripen, my father used to move us from Mahallayi Bolo to Soktaré. The year that the Shofirkom canal was choked with sand and Mahallayi Bolo was left without water, we moved to Soktaré early, even before the mulberries began to fruit.

In Soktaré my brother and Sayid-Akbar Khoka began to study with the village khatib, and I played in the many streams and canals with other boys my age. My father decided not to move back to Mahallayi Bolo that winter, since drinking water was scarce there and had to be drawn from a village well and carried to the house. Accordingly, he demolished our tumbledown living quarters and built a new house of mud brick, with a storeroom, a kitchen porch, a cattle stall and a barn for hay. Usto Khoja assisted him with the construction, and Ikrom Khoja and Muhyiddin helped as far as they could in mixing the mud; but despite his father’s pestering, Sayid-Akbar refused to help, claiming that he wanted to be a calligrapher and if he soiled his hands with mud and bricks they would be spoiled for the pen.

That year I and my playmates Haid Khoja, the nephew of Ibrohim Khoja, and the daughters of Usto Khoja, spent most of our spare time with Tūto-posho, who would tell us strange and wonderful tales. She knew by heart the stories of Rustam, Isfandiyar, Siyavush, and Abu Muslim, and would repeat them for us endlessly. We would each bring her bread, mulberry raisins, or some other delicacy to entice her to talk. She would lie back with pillows under her head and legs, and tell us stories.

Certainly worth a read.

» The images are two sides of a 5000 tenga note from Bukhara in 1920. So the period isn’t quite right, but I like the pictures, so why not. From the British Museum.

Born in Tibet by Chögyam Trungpa

Born in Tibet is the story of Chögyam Trungpa’s early life in Tibet, as told to Esmé Cramer Roberts. He was a year old when some monks turned up and announced he was the eleventh Trungpa Tulku and hence the supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet; at twenty he managed to escape the Chinese occupation and make his way to India.

So the book really has three main subjects: his traditional religious education, the increasing impact of the Chinese on Tibetan life, and the adventure/survival story of escaping cross-country into India. The escape is remarkable, since it involves dozens of people trying to secretly cross some of the most difficult terrain in the world; but the portrayal of traditional life in a Tibetan monastery is what interested me most.

It is slightly ironic that many westerners treat Buddhism as a kind of antidote to organised religion, because this was organised, institutional religion on the grand scale: an elaborate formal hierarchy, large, expensively appointed buildings with hundreds of people, elaborate rituals, explicitly supernatural practices like divination, all supported by large scale land ownership and tributes offered by the local population. It’s rather how I imagine the middle ages in Europe must have been: a basically peasant population loomed over both by the houses of feudal aristocrats and by the abbeys and monasteries of the great religious orders.

The fact that comparison sounds like a criticism says something about the glowing image of Tibetan buddhism — mainly I guess down to the personal qualities of the current Dalai Lama — and the bad image of medieval Catholicism. The reasons for which are more tangled, although the largely Protestant history of the English speaking world is clearly relevant. Personally I have a soft spot for medieval monasticism; and my scepticism about human nature means I bet there were a few Tibetan monks over the centuries who were, let’s say, more worldly than they should have been.

Though it has to be said that Chögyam Trungpa was not living the life of a Medici pope. His life in Tibet seems to have been austerely lived and completely devoted to spiritual practice. The childhood in particular sounds tough; being taken away to a monastery at three and spending pretty much all his time from then on in study and devotion.

Anyway, it is fascinating stuff.

Our travelling party was organized with a good deal of pomp. There were thirty monks on horseback and eighty mules to carry the baggage. I was still only twelve and, being so young, I was not expected to preach long sermons; mostly I had to perform rites, read the scriptures aloud, and impart blessings. We started from the highlands and traveled down to the cultivated land; I was able to see how all these different people lived as we passed through many changes of scenery. Of course I did not see the villagers quite as they were in their everyday lives, for wherever we went all was in festival, everyone was excited and looking forward to the special religious services, so that we had little time for rest. I missed the routine of my early life, but found it all very exciting.

When we visited Lhathog, the king had to follow the established tradition by asking us to perform the religious rites according to ancient custom. We were lodged in one of the palaces, from where we could look down on a school that the Chinese had recently established. A Communist flag hung at the gate, and when it was lowered in the evenings the children had to sing the Communist national anthem. Lessons were given in both Chinese and Tibetan, including much indoctrination about the benefits China was bringing to Tibet. Singing and dancing were encouraged and I felt that it was a sign of the times that the monastery drum was used to teach the children to march. Being young myself I was keenly interested, though this distortion worried me; a religious instrument should not have been used for a secular purpose, nor for mere amusement. A detachment of Chinese officials sent from their main headquarters at Chamdo lived in the king’s palace together with a Tibetan interpreter, while various teachers had been brought to Lhathog to organize the school, which was one of many that the Chinese were setting up in all the chief places in Tibet. The local people’s reactions were very unfavourable. In the town the Communists had stuck posters or painted slogans everywhere, even on the walls of the monastery; they consisted of phrases like ‘We come to help you’ and ‘The liberation army is always at the people’s service.’

Born in Tibet is my book from Tibet for the Read The World challenge. Chögyam Trungpa wasn’t actually born in what is now the Tibet Autonomous Region; when the Chinese took over Tibet, large chunks which were culturally Tibetan were assigned to different provinces.

We ourselves always considered that the people who speak Tibetan and ate roasted barley (tsampa) as their staple food are Tibetans.

Which is good enough for me.

» The top thing is a ration ticket for 500 g of cereals, issued by the People’s Liberation Army – Tibet Military Region. It’s from 1996, so not even remotely contemporary with this book, but sort of an interesting object, I think. From the British Museum. The C18th Tibetan scroll painting is from the V&A.

The Railway by Hamid Ismailov

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.

» Le pain rond ouzbek is © Mon Œil and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov

This novel tells the story of Yedigei, a worker at a remote railway junction in the middle of the Kazakh steppes. There’s a refrain which is repeated at intervals throughout the book:

Trains in these parts went from East to West, and from West to East . . .
On either side of the railway lines lay the great wide spaces of the desert — Sary-Ozeki, the Middle lands of the yellow steppes. 
In these parts any distance was measured in relation to the railway, as if from the Greenwich meridian . . .
And the trains went from East to West, and from West to East . . . 

Yedigei is taking the body of a friend to be buried at a traditional cemetery out in the steppes, and his life story is told in flashback. The railway junction is near a rocket launch site, and running in parallel to Yedigei’s story is a strange subplot about cosmonauts making contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation.

Aitmatov was from Kyrgyzstan, and The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is my book from Kyrgyzstan for the Read The World challenge. In some ways, though, it’s very much a book of the Soviet Union. It was written in Russian and is set in Kazakhstan, and one of the themes in the book is the tension between the traditional Kazakh culture and the Soviet bureaucracy.

Which isn’t to say it’s some kind of radically dissident novel; according to the introduction, Aitmatov (who died earlier this year) was a firmly establishment figure, a correspondent for Pravda, winner of a Lenin Prize and a State Prize for literature, and a winner of the Hero of Socialist Labour medal. The material which is most critical of the government is about things which happened under Stalin; presumably by 1980, when this novel was published, that was fair game.

Incidentally, this English edition was published in 1983 and it’s really strange to be reading all this stuff in the present tense. ‘He is a member of the Supreme Soviet, was a delegate to the last four Party Congresses…’ I wouldn’t say it makes me nostalgic exactly, but it is a bit of a throwback to my childhood.

In 1952 the summer was even hotter than usual. The ground dried out and became so hot that the Sarozek lizards did not know what to do; they lost their fear of people and were to be found sitting on the doorstep, their throats quivering, with mouths wide open, trying somehow to find shelter from the sun. Meanwhile, the kites were trying to get cool by soaring to such heights that you could no longer see them with the naked eye. Just now and again they gave themselves away with a single cry and then once more they became silent in the hot, quivering, mirage-laden air.

I really enjoyed this book. The setting is striking and atmospheric; the steppes of central Asia, punishingly hot in summer and snow-covered in winter, inhabited by foxes and eagles and camels, with just this one railway line running through it. And the fairly conventional human drama which anchors the book is intertwined with the science fiction subplot on one hand and bits of Kazakh folk myth on the other.

Here Yedigei is dealing with his magnificent but difficult camel, Burannyi Karanar:

That snowfall heralded the start of winter in the Sarozek, early and chill from the very first. With the start of the cold weather Burannyi Karanar became restless, angry and irritable, as once again his male instincts rebelled within him. No one and no thing could be permitted to encroach on his freedom. During this time even his master had to retreat on occasions and bow to the inevitable.

On the third day after the snowfall there was a frosty wind blowing over the Sarozek, and suddenly there arose a thick, chilly haze just like steam over the steppe. You could hear footsteps crunching in the snow far away, and any sound, even the faintest rustling, was carried through the air with exceptional clarity. The trains could be heard coming along the lines when they were many kilometres away. And when at dawn Yedigei heard the waking roar of Burannyi Karanar in the fold and heard him trampling and noisily shaking the fence behind the house, he knew only too well that he was in for trouble. He dressed quickly and stepping out into the darkness, walked over to the fold. There he shouted, his voice hoarse from the astringent air, ‘What’s this all about? Is it the end of the world again? You want to drink my blood? You lecherous beast!’ 

But he was wasting his breath. The camel, excited by his awakening passions, took not the slightest notice of his master. He was going to have his was, come what may. He roared, snorted and ground his teeth threateningly and broke down part of the fence.

Really it’s exactly the kind of book I hoped to find during this exercise: one I’d never heard of and would probably never have read otherwise, which introduces me to a part of the world and a culture I knew little about, but which is above all a really world-class novel. I’d recommend you buy a copy without extensive scribbles in biro all over it, though.

And one last thing, since I think it’s important to give credit to translators: translated by John French.

» the photo of a camel in front of Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is © alexpgp and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Steppe eagle, Kazakhstan, posted to Flickr by and © rtw2007.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner was really the obvious choice from Afghanistan for the Read The World challenge, since my mother had a copy already. I have to admit I was sceptical about it; the very fact it became so popular at a time when Afghanistan was in the news made me wonder whether its success was based more on topicality than merit. Also the UK edition has a very wishy-washy cover with a sepia-tinged photograph of a small boy on it, and while covers are often misleading, they do at least tell you something about what the publishers think is the market for the book.

And so I rather expected The Kite Runner to be a bit like the book I read for Iran, also written by a refugee who has lived for many years away their home country: nostalgic and rather insubstantial. In fact, it is much darker than I was expecting.

It tells the story of the narrator Amir’s childhood in Kabul, particularly focussing on his relationship with his father and his friendship with the servant boy Hassan; then his life with his father as a refugee in California in the 80s after the Soviet invasion, and a trip back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to do a favour for someone. Some of the darkness comes from the brutality of the past 30 years of Afghan history, but Amir’s personal story is one of betrayal and guilt even in his childhood in the relatively peaceful pre-Soviet days.

Generally I thought it was successful: the childhood stuff is gripping and moving; the portrayal of the refugee experience, and the contrast with their life in Afghanistan, is very effective; and the vision of an absolutely shattered Afghanistan under the Taliban is also pretty good. I found the book to be a genuine page-turner; I was reading until 2am a couple of times. Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s a literary masterpiece. But it is a well-written novel that tells a good story.

Hosseini isn’t afraid to pile on the emotive material, and most of the time he manages that without tipping over into corny or melodramatic, but towards the end of the book he did trigger my own personal cynic a couple of times. There’s a confrontation with a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan where the coincidences got a bit too Hollywood for me, and I never quite got pulled back into the book again in the same way after that. I also think he fluffed the last few pages.

So having been thoroughly gripped by the book initially, I was a bit disappointed at the end; even so I would recommend it.

» the photo of boys flying a kite in Kabul is AFG_20071109_169.jpg, posted to Flickr by AndyHiggins.

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