Poetry and Intrigue in Uzbekistan: On Hamid Ismailov’s ‘The Devil’s Dance’


In Hamid Ismailov’s book The Devil’s Dance, one Uzbek prisoner says to another, “It’s time for afternoon prayers, I think. Are you a believer, or one of the moderns?”—a familiar and false dichotomy that intellectuals in Muslim countries have had to contend with for a very long time. From the very start of the The Devil’s Dance, Ismailov’s fictionalized version of the late Abdulla Qodiriy, a celebrated Uzbek writer, lives in defiance of this dichotomy, shown to be doing his daily prayers in the cell where time seems punctuated only by prayers. There is, however, one concession given to the conventional wisdom that secular people guard culture against the believing masses: Qodiriy remembers how an Uzbek janitor beat him when he attempted to join in the Christmas celebrations in his Russian school and how his Russian literature teacher saved him. Still, Qodiriy remains a believer and one of the modern ones. His and Ismailov’s modernism, above all else, is in the way they engage with history, by bringing different strands of it together to create more of a myth than a “real version of events.”

The Devil’s Dance is set in Tashkent, where Qodiriy has just been taken to prison for the second time in his life, for an offense yet to be revealed by the secret policemen who question him. The book has a third-person narration with Qodiriy as a very strong focalizer, and we watch him contemplate his life, pray, talk to other prisoners, and work—in his head—on a historical novel about the courts of Bukhara and Kokand. For the uninitiated, the ‘Translator’s Afterwords” explain that Qodiriy spent most of 1938 in an NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) prison during Stalin’s Great Terror, and that the title of Ismailov’s novel comes from one of his short stories.

The Devil’s Dance, as the translator Donald Rayfield says, is Ismailov trying to imagine Qodiriy composing Emir Umar’s Slave Girl, the drafts of which were destroyed by the police. As you can imagine, Ismailov imagining Qodiriy writing the novel in his head soon turns into a metaphor for Ismailov’s own writing process, and the book sometimes gets too meta for its own good.

Ismailov’s book has a stellar cast. While Qodiriy gets to know his cellmates and awaits his fate, we take trips with him to the emirates of Bukhara and Kokand of the 19th century, where there is much warring and woe going on, accompanied always by poetry. There are scenes of poetry-offs in the Kokand court in particular, where Nadira, Emir Umar’s first wife, and Oyxon, the 18-year-old beauty he has just married, drop bars, as it were, about the conditions in the court—calling to my mind a particular scene from the 1960 Indian film Mughal-e-Azam, set in the court of Jahangir, who himself was the descendant of a dynasty that ruled Uzbekistan. In fact, Mughal-e-Azam becomes my go-to when Ismailov describes particularly opulent settings. In attendance are princes and princesses aplenty, who vie for power in these emirates that have not yet succumbed to Russian influence.

Qodiriy composes his work by checking in often with both himself and the reader as to what ought to be in an Uzbek historical novel. He concludes that he cannot fail to include the Great Game and parades all the usual suspects before us. Alexander Burnes, Charles Stoddart, Arthur Conolly, and lesser-known characters such as Jan Prosper Witkiewicz all get a look and take on dramatic importance in the little vignettes he composes around them. Apart from these diversions, the reader struggles to hold on to the reins of the three main theaters of action in the novel: Tashkent prison, Kokand and Bukhara courts. Ismailov keeps second-guessing the reader’s efforts throughout his novel and makes Qodiriy muse about his narrative exertions: “Alas, had it all now merged into a meaningless mass? If he could set it down to paper he would never confuse Umar’s Kokand palace with Nasrullo’s fortress in Bukhara.” The book is saved from merging into the feared meaningless mass by Ismailov’s storytelling gusto and Donald Rayfield’s translation, even at points where the narrative’s back is bent with too much history and too many characters. The metatextuality of the novel straddles that line between witty and exasperating.

One thing that kept me engaged as I tried not to lose the plot was the mystery of the translation itself: “As an academic, primarily qualified in Russian and Georgian, I should explain why, with little Turkish and less Farsi, I have translated this novel from its original Uzbek,” says Rayfield in the afterword. I wonder: Why does he apologize for not knowing Turkish, and not for not knowing Uzbek? Is he using the two words interchangeably? He adds that he has studied the Russian version of the novel:
Fortunately, the resources available to me—the Akobirov Uzbek-Russian Dictionary, the internet corpus of  Uzbek, Redhouse’s Ottoman and Steingass’s Persian dictionaries, but above all the patience of Hamid Ismailov … have I hope, been sufficient to mitigate the arrogance of my translating the novel from an initial position of deplorable incompetence.
I feel an almost Persian sense of decorum seep into Rayfield’s English. This confession does nothing to clarify whether he can actually read Uzbek but is very good at giving you a panorama of the cultural and linguistic realm we are in: Uzbek, Russian, Persian, Ottoman. In a novel about the writing and rewriting of history, the language hoops that the text had to jump through before it reached me becomes even more crucial. What’s more, The Devil’s Dance is a text that actually makes constant references to the different languages and dialects spoken both in the Tashkent prison and the Turkic courts.

The Uzbek language certainly is odd. You can hide yourself as a pronoun at the end, but that’s also where the emphasis lies: It is marked. But if we look at the language of Navoi or Babur, which was influenced by Farsi, we find pronoun and predicate changing places, all much earlier than the Russian influence. Abdulla’s thoughts reverted to Professor Zasypkin’s narrative or, to evoke one committed sacrilege, to Zasypkin’s narrative reverted the thoughts of Abdulla.

Between me and the English translation of this Uzbek text are, moreover, the ghosts words and sayings that I recognize, that I translate back to Turkish in my head. The book is rendered into beautiful English, and I particularly appreciated Rayfield’s efforts with the long sections of poetry that Ismailov has thrown in, to give us a sense of the kind of discourse used in the courts. In fact, one of the most palpable linguistic ghosts for me was the refrain of one of the poems that Cho’lpon (another Uzbek poet in prison, and with whose poetry the book opens) shows to Qodiriy: the work of Oyxon. “What did I do to you?” sounds a bit awkward in English as a refrain, but my mind promptly translates it into Turkish, and I realize it is one of the very common supplications in Turkish folk songs.

Language both as barrier and bridge is there in all the strands of the story. Ismailov imagines Conolly, the British envoy/spy sent to Bukhara in 1841 to secure the release of Stoddart (who himself had been sent there on an intelligence mission), and Oyxon flirting, enabled by the fact that the emir did not consider European men as men at all. Conolly, while still a respected guest at the court, offers Oyxon a couplet in English, but realizing she doesn’t understand the language, he puts it into Ottoman Turkish. “Then they all tried to work out the original couplet,” the narrator says, tongue firmly in cheek. Throughout the novel, characters shift their discourse as circumstance demands it. When Abdulla encounters Conolly in a dream, their exchange happens in similar linguistic humor:
“I am a lover of my nation,” Abdullah put it in Farsi. The sinewy Englishman raised his eyebrows again.

“I’m a nationalist,” Abdullah said, in Turkish this time.
The directness of Turkish and the poetry of Persian—and Uzbek, somewhere in between—is alluded to all the time.

Both Oyxon and Conolly, and indeed Stoddart, through their own stories of incarceration, are imagined as fellow prisoners in Qodiriy’s cell. As he is writing his novel in his head—no paper and pen allowed in Stalin’s prisons—Qodiriy laments time and again that he cannot access Oyxon’s writing, but he imagines what her poetry must have been like all the same, quoting stanza after stanza. He imagines Conolly might have recorded some of them in his memoirs and that these lost gems might be waiting for his discovery at the British Library among his diaries. “Here he was in prison in Tashkent, contemplating a trip to London; worrying about a lost manuscript,” he says, and I chuckle, knowing one or two academics who’ve had bad luck getting visas to look for lost manuscripts in Tashkent.

Although at times it feels as if Qodiriy’s Russian teacher hangs over the whole venture, telling both him and Ismailov to “show their work,” the novel manages to transport you to all the settings that have been recreated in great detail. It made me check Wikipedia at several points to understand the Byzantine goings on at the various Uzbek courts, and it also made me realize that there is scope for a dozen more historical novels to be written about the characters that make an appearance in Ismailov’s. As another modern once said, “human kind / cannot bear very much reality,” and it is this dictum that Ismailov seems to be coming to terms with in this epic rendition of Uzbekistan’s literary history.

Writing Back to Guy and Harriet Pringle

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I met Guy and Harriet Pringle in the winter of 1987. In those days, Turkish public television had a rather ingenious arrangement with public radio; they would show the dubbed series, and the radio would play the original soundtrack. I do not remember who had alerted me to the fact that a new series called Fortunes of War was to go on air that week, but there I was, placing the radio right under the TV set, turning down the volume of the latter, and shushing the whole family who had gathered in the one stove-heated living room for the winter evening.

I must have been learning English for a couple of months. Being a diligent student and wanting to get ahead in class—I was at the language prep year of a high school that had most of its curriculum in English—I did all I could to fill my head with English words. British Council Library (now defunct), BBC World, and BBC series on Turkish Television. I was doing this “for school” and so my family indulged me as I watched Guy and Harriet Pringle travel through the Balkans and the Middle East. It was a very strange feeling, traveling with them to places that I had been taught used to “belong to us.” What kind of connection could a British couple possibly have to lands where songs began with “aman” and the men played backgammon? This, to me, was the central mystery of the plot, and with its very delicate hands Fortunes of War would lead me through the history of the British and Ottoman Empires, in a language that I was only newly beginning to understand. The characters I got to know through its seven episodes have stayed with me, and I still come across their avatars both in England, and the places where the English like to travel. Guy Pringle, Prince Yakimov, Dubedat, Aidan Sheridan…Watching the series again to write this piece, I am once again struck as to how perfect and lean the production is—the acting, the dialogue. (Also, how sweet Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson playing the young Pringle couple are—I still resent their divorce).

Fortunes of War was adapted from a series of novels written by Olivia Manning under the titles The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80). The books were in many ways fictionalized accounts of her travels with her husband Reggie Smith, who worked in the British Council. The story starts with Guy Pringle, having just been married in London, returning with his wife, Harriet, to his English Literature post at the University of Bucharest in 1939, as Nazis are advancing in Europe. We first see a shot of a train traveling through Mitteleuropa, with a beautiful arrangement of a Romanian song in the background that becomes the series’ theme tune, a tune that has accompanied me on the pilgrimages I have made to the Pringles’ various posts. I don’t remember how much of Fortunes of War I understood back in 1987, but I know I absorbed the whole thing like a sponge, and to this day I have déjà vu moments when a place, a song, a bit of a conversation will take me back to the story of Pringles. This could of course mean two things: that Manning was a brilliant observer of character and situations, and/or I have actively been seeking the company of Pringles’ reincarnations and their milieu. In fact, I have managed to do almost all the legs of Pringles’ journey except for Bucharest, where it all begins.

After the shot of the train going through the Balkan countryside, the camera goes inside a compartment where Guy Pringle is sharing a German joke with another, elderly passenger, and Harriet Pringle looks on bemused, setting the tone of their relationship. The atmosphere of camaraderie dissolves when soldiers come into the compartment and ask for the passengers’ papers. The old man claims he has lost his, along with his wallet, and is forcibly removed from the train. Guy gives him all the money in his purse as Harriet looks on incredulously. When Guy explains that the old man is probably Jewish and without papers, Harriet asks what will become of him. Guy’s “What is to become of any of us?” now rings a bit “all lives matter” but I am constitutionally incapable of finding fault with Guy Pringle.

Fortunes of War is, at its heart, a story about people trying to find a safe place to live—only, in this story it is Europeans going eastwards, looking for a place where the war has not yet arrived. The Pringles are hounded by the Nazis through Bucharest, to Athens, to Cairo. But of course, they are among the lucky few who can actually leave. There is a scene that I had not thought about much in 1987 but that has come back to me in recent years. Europeans scrambling to get on a ship from Athens to Cairo to face a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, threatened by German submarines. The Nazis almost catch up with the Pringles towards the end, and the ship Harriet is supposed to have been on from Cairo is torpedoed while she is safely sightseeing in Damascus.

In Bucharest, the Pringles get a flat in one of those turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that haunt world literature like The Yacoubian Building and The Flea Palace. We are in ex-Ottoman territory after all—a fact that the book, but not the series, fleetingly touches upon—and the aesthetic stretches all the way to Bucharest. Like the Yacoubian Building, this Levantine apartment has a rooftop with a shed, which becomes the hiding place for Guy’s Jewish student Sasha, whom they manage to protect only for so long. It is also in Bucharest that we meet Dobson, head of the British Legation, played by the perfectly cast Charles Kay; the stiff upper and lower lip, forever the face of British Foreign Office for me. Guy spends most of his time with his students and rehearsing for Troilus and Cressida, and when we see the poster hanging from the National Theatre in Bucharest, I learn my first (and hitherto only) Rumanian word, “şi,” meaning “and.” After the performance, dressed as they are in togas, and in heavy stage makeup ready to party, the British contingent in Bucharest learn that Paris has just fallen to the Germans.

The foreigners are leaving Bucharest fast, and one of the more persistent among their number is Prince Yakimov, the embodiment of that class of people that get stranded after the collapse of Empire. A general worldliness of having seen better days, frayed at the edges, almost certainly with an alcohol problem (this will forever link him in my mind with Charles Stringham of A Dance to the Music of time and Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano). It is, however, not quite certain which Empire once claimed Yakimov, rumored as he is to be of Russian and Irish extraction. Yakimov comes to represent “old Europe” and when he hears Paris is fallen looks wistfully and says “Such times we had in Paris,”as if he’s had one of Proust’s madeleines. You want an entire series based on his adventures as a young man. Yakimov, slow on the uptake when it comes to geopolitical awareness, asks all the questions we want to ask and becomes the vehicle for background information. While other Europeans are fleeing, he travels to the countryside to pay a visit to one of his old friends who now works for the Germans, pretending he has information he can sell him.

On his way back to Bucharest, a rich lady in a fur coat tells Yakimov “I go to Istanbul. In Bucharest they shoot you.” Yes, I once thought, here is my moment come, they will come to Istanbul, they will have to acknowledge that I live in the centre of the world. “Lush and Dubedat (two disreputable English teachers) have run away to East-anbul” we hear Pringle say, despairing. They’ve probably done a stint teaching at my high school, I fantasize. Even Yakimov leaves: “We had a letter from Turkey this morning. Yaki says he’s weighed down with loneliness and kebabs.” But Pringle will not let go of his castle. “We represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideal,” he says—a remark my 11-year-old self would have taken as par for the course, but watching in 2018 tastes sour. Back then, I am only interested in seeing them come to Istanbul.

Instead they flee to Athens, and I am heartbroken. But then Harriet goes to the Acropolis and considers whether she can be unfaithful to Guy, who has repeatedly preferred other people’s company to hers through the first three episodes, and her melancholy communes with the Parthenon’s perfect columns. My 11-year-old self vowed to visit the Acropolis one day. And I do. In 2014, after I pay my respects at the Parthenon I look for the Zonar’s Café, and find it is under renovation. Another “site” that is etched in my memory—which I didn’t try to locate—from the Greece episodes is the villa of Gracey, the head of the British School. The Pringles visit this mysterious man in his villa to ask for a job for Guy. The building is perched on a promontory and seems to be populated by life-sized statues. So much of the furniture in my literary imagination has been laid there by Fortunes of War. This villa was the inalterable décor when I read The Magus many years later.

Guy does manage to get the job, but the Germans advance and so the Pringles leave. Surely to Istanbul this time. Or at least to Izmir, which is right across the water. The journey takes forever as Pringle reads John Donne on deck in the inviolable silence as everyone else is terrified about passing German U-boats. The fourth episode finishes. The fifth opens with the sound of the adhan, surely now we’re home, surely now I will see them walk the streets that I walk. But the minarets look wrong. The camera zooms out and we see camels. They have bypassed Istanbul and made straight for Cairo. I feel cheated. People are wearing fezzes, the street vendors are calling out “bordogal” but it gives me no joy.

Then, Rupert Graves appears, in uniform and with long vowels that seem to have several Rs in them. He is playing Simon Boulderstone, a young officer just posted to Cairo. Harriet explains the lie of the land to him when he protests that he is there for something akin to Kurtz’s redeeming idea:
Boulderstone: We’ve brought them justice, prosperity…
Harriet: Prosperity? Nothing’s changed for them for a thousand years.
Boulderstone: But we’re protecting them now
Harriet: We’re protecting the Suez Canal. The route to India. Clifford’s oil company.
All the discourse you need to know about the Middle East in a nutshell. The liberal position of understanding the political aims of Empire, but remaining blind to any local transformation that might have occurred between the time of the Pharaohs and the British protectorate. But I understand the impact of this much later. In 1987, I only admire the graceful way Harriet climbs the pyramids, making another promise to self to climb them just as she did. By the time I arrive in 2008, tourists are not allowed to climb them at all.

It wasn’t all geography, colonialism, and the erasure of the traces of the “receded Ottoman Empire,” as Manning puts it in the book, that I learned from Fortunes of War. It also taught me a lot about a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of man. “When we first met, you made me feel I was the centre of the universe,” says Harriet as they are having a conversation about an affair Guy may or may not have had with a Rumanian woman. “And so you are,” replies Guy. “But you make everyone feel like that,” answers Harriet. This conversation has often come back to me in the intervening years, when I found myself in the company of a Guy. I think often, also, of the conversation between Harriet and one of Guy’s friends from Cambridge in a café in Alexandria, where Guy is teaching Finnegans Wake at the university, to the two remaining students. Finnegans Wake is a title that would’ve meant nothing to me at the time, but now I think, Alexandria is the perfect Levantine port to teach it, as Trieste was the perfect Levantine (okay, Balkan, if you insist) port that inspired it, with their Babel of languages.
Aidan: Are you waiting for Guy Pringle?
Harriet: Usually, yes.
Aidan: My name’s Aidan Pratt. I’m on leave from Damascus.
Harriet: Damascus? How do you know Guy?
Aidan: Last time I was here somebody told me a story. Two men were shipwrecked on a desert island. Neither knew the other but they both knew Guy Pringle
You know who he’s talking about. Yes, him. The one everyone’s besotted about. The one who organizes the parties and is great in a crowd. Also he whose magnanimity gets him or those around him into trouble. The two Palestinian Jews that Guy recruits to teach at the American University of Cairo turn out to be assassins. I wonder if I paid any attention to the identity of the assassins when I was watching in 1986, but now the subplot seems to be that they might have been related to the Irgun. This is how the Pringles discuss the event:
Guy: The whole thing’s ludicrous.
Dobson: This is the Levant after all.
Harriet: You used to say that about the Balkans.
Watching now, this conversation seems like the coda to the series, a sentiment that falls in line with my initial reaction to seeing these people that really belonged in a Merchant-Ivory production traipsing about in my lands. From Bucharest to Alexandria, I am or know every “native” they speak to. From the demurely made-up middle class women around the dinner table in a banker’s home in Bucharest (several aunties come to mind), to the wistful man in Damascus trying to explain to Harriet the meaning of hijab…When the latter happens, I am at the edge of my seat, thinking, “He’s botched it,” as I often do nowadays, not least when I am the one trying to explain. I was 11 when I watched the scene, and I would have years, a decade to think about it, to work out the perfect explanation, before I would be released upon the English speaking world:
Harriet: You can’t make men chaste by keeping women out of sight
Damascene Man: You are an unusual lady, you have a mind of your own
Harriet: Where I come from it’s not unusual
“But I have a mind of my own too,” my 11-year-old self shouts. “Just you give me time and I’ll come to England and talk to you about how it is not unusual where I come from, either.”

Everyone has their demons. Watching the series again I realize I have spent my entire life writing back to the Pringles.

Armchair Traveling Across the Russias

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“I did not really know where I was going, so, when anyone asked me, I said to Russia,” says Evelyn Waugh in his account of his travels along the Mediterranean coast. During my graduate studies at Oxford, I became friends with a group of people of Waughian tendencies, Russophiles to whom admitting that you spoke no Russian and had not ridden the Trans-Siberian Railway made you a pariah (though they did make allowances for those who had not gone to public school).

Last summer, when I was home in Turkey, some of my Oxford friends asked me to join them on a hiking trip to Georgia. I was excited about visiting an ex-Soviet country, and even started learning the alphabet. But then the Turkish coup attempt happened on July 15, and I had to cancel the trip. When one’s travel plans are thwarted, one naturally gravitates towards bookshelves, and there, in the upper reaches, I saw John Massey Stewart’s Across the Russias, with onion domes of Orthodox and Muslim extraction on the cover, bought in a second hand bookshop in North Carolina during a particularly acute streak of compulsive travel-book purchases. A quick check revealed that “the Russias” in this 1969 book included Georgia, and I started reading.

Stewart and his friend David set off in a Mini lent to them by the British Motor Corporation, with hundreds of rolls of film and 200 model BMC cars in tow. Both items feature heavily in the story: the model cars win hearts and minds in Tbilisi, and the book is generous with photos, which are uncannily crisp for a book of more than 40 years.

In his prologue, Stewart gives a pedigree of his Russophilia: his father had been a tutor to a Russian family in Tsarist times and had written two books about the country, and he himself wrangled a job with the British Trade Fair in Moscow in order to secure the permits required for this trip. Try and out-Russian that, I thought, of my Oxford friends. And, oh, he is a Cambridge man.

The whole text is written in excellent humor; Stewart comes across as the sort of travel companion that no hardship will sour and who will always find something to appreciate in the places he visits. Still, now and then a “Western” condescension comes through, as in when one of their guides in Moscow asks why the Americans want war: “I was horrified that this intelligent woman who had spent years in the States should believe such a thing.” In a way, such outbursts on the part of Stewart make the text endearing, as they are counteracted by precious moments when the anthropologist’s or “world-traveler” lens is turned back upon himself. Nowhere is this as delicious as when, in Kiev, they are forced to have a theological conversation where, as opposed to contemporary travel accounts, it is the “locals” who are surprised at the tourists’ gullibility on matters of faith:
The conversation turned to religion, and Leonid asked if we believed in God, obviously wondering if we could possibly say yes; when we both did, he looked incredulous.
As Stewart travels trying to access “the soul” of the “Russias,” there are many such through-the-looking-glass moments, and he is constantly humbled by the friendliness and the curiosity of the people he encounters. The Mini draws crowds wherever they go, and they try to diffuse political questions—ordinary people praise communism and pity them for living in a capitalist country—by showing pictures of the Royal Family and Prince Philip’s hobnailed soles.

In Kiev, just as their cruise boat on the Dnieper is about to leave one of the landing stations, Stewart watches a peasant woman running for the landing, calling out “Dyadya Volodya!” [“Uncle Volodya!”] to the ticket officer who makes the boat wait for her, like a scene from a romantic novel. Stewart’s narrative covers long stretches of road and airspace where we take in the scenery, but it is punctuated with these moments when times compresses and people have to rush to things. In Odessa, he tries to deliver a coat he has brought from London from a Russian emigrée for her elderly mother. This is where the story gets a bit John Le Carré, as he runs late trying to lose the secret police car tailing him, responds as politely as he can to the mother’s protestations of hospitality, and makes it just in time to catch the boat to Yalta.

“Of all the places we had visited,” he says, when he makes it to Tbilisi “Moscow’s heavy hand seemed to fall lightest on Georgia.” He talks about the town as the “Paris of Russia,” but also speaks of “a transfusion of oriental blood,” the “Georgian beauties rated highly by Persian and Turkish harems.” It is in the Caucasus that, for him, the two “easts,” Muslim and Soviet, seem to meet. Accordingly, Stewart is drawn to the famous hammams of Tblisi and there, with the masseur, has the sort of conversation that every Englishman fantasizes about once he has travelled beyond the Suez and/or the Urals:
Did he have many people from England? “Not since the Revolution.” I was the first Englishman since the Revolution? “Yes” and uninterestedly motioned me to turn over.
However, conversation with another visitor who can actually speak English reveals that Stewart is not the first, and dispels his illusions about having been massaged by a man who has massaged Alexander Pushkin and Joseph Stalin. Stewart punctuates his text with incidents detailing how he is disabused of several notions about communism, and of his own place in the grander scheme of things, giving the narrative a light touch of the picaresque. Mirroring the motions of the woman who called back the ferry in Kiev, Stewart—having left his friend David to take the Mini back to England—is late for his flight to Tashkent and hails the plane from the tarmac. The plane duly halts and the flights of steps are put out a second time, for him.

Then we’re off “to the East,” as I, with Stewart, push on towards Vladivostok, leaving my hiking friends in Caucasian mountain passes. After the usual orientalist descriptions of women drawing their veils over their faces in order not to be photographed, Stewart is astonished to find, along with other European paintings “a Poussin and collections of Wedgwood” in Tashkent’s art museum, just when he had thought he had accessed the real East. In Samarkand he wonders how the Soviet regime has managed to reduce the number of the faithful to a few old men who still go to Friday prayers. As he marches east, “eastern” features seem to become even more elusive: “Alma Ata seemed to have no oriental flavor whatsoever—apart from donkeys pulling carts and the high cheekbones of the native Kazakh population.” There, he encounters a girl who has read Jane Eyre and David Copperfield in class, and who is reading The Forsyte Saga at home for pleasure. In Turkmenistan, the adjective he uses for local color changes from “oriental” to “picturesque” when he talks about people keeping to more specific aspects of Turkic custom, like eating on the floor and wearing brass filigree “helmets,” rather than adhering to some diffuse image of the “East.”

Everywhere, the inhabitants of the Russias confront Stewart with their own version of the stiff upper lip; a being content with one’s lot, thoroughly seasoned with “the love of Russia,” a kind of patriotism, he says, that is difficult to find in any other people. In Irkutsk, a Siberian says, “It’s easy cold here. There is no wind and no damp. But Leningrad’s winter is only fifteen degrees below zero, and it’s so damp that it’s much worse than here.” Stewart speaks of the free spirit of the Siberian, a place where people, already exiled, have little fear of the authorities in Moscow. The cold is so sturdy, in fact, he tells us, that before 1906, the Trans-Siberian used to run on Lake Baikal in the winter. We learn that “one train, risking the melting ice during the Russo-Japanese war, plunged through.”

Earlier in the book Stewart explains how he decided not to “do the Trans-Siberian Railway” (he himself uses quotations to alert us to the importance of this item of coolness) in order to take in Ashkabad, Baku, and Yerevan. In Khabarovsk he tells us ceremoniously that he will board the train for his last lap of the journey:
But the forth-coming twenty-four hours would, I felt, be a wonderful opportunity for heart-to-heart conversations with the three Soviet occupants of a fourth-berth compartment, and the most famous train in the world, I knew, would be a splendid climax to my journey.
However, he enters his coach to see that it is filled with Japanese tourists he’s encountered earlier on his travels, and the obligatory German. Not only that, a conversation with a guard reveals that the train is not the Trans-Siberian at all, but the local from Khabarovsk to Nakhodka. “The bottom fell out of my world,” he says, as it does a bit from mine, for I feel that the experience is barred equally to me. As we are prepared to end our journey on this anticlimax, Stewart makes his way to the restaurant car and makes friends, visits the officers’ carriage, gives them picture postcards of London, becomes emotional, and tells the carriage that though he may not agree with their system he is won over by these open-hearted people (it must be contagious).  In turn, the captain, unable to find something to give to Stewart rummages his pockets and gives him a key: “Here is a key, I will not lock my heart to you.” Stewart is duly overwhelmed by this gesture, and as an epilogue, reconsiders the moments when people he met questioned him about his life in the West. “Would I be converted to communism as Leonid had predicted in Irkutsk? I hoped so in that it would mean that communism had become better than my own system” he says, unlocking his own heart.

Image Credit: Pexels.

Freezing White Men for Posterity

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When I heard that there was another book by Don DeLillo, I thought, here we go again, another book that is going to be praised by my peers and betters, another book I’ll find pretentious and hard to get into, another book about which I’ll have to reserve judgment. “Visionary,” said one blurb. “Prophetic,” said another. The reviews also revealed that DeLillo was covering ground I had been writing about for the past year, in its reincarnation in Michel Houellebecq’s novels: terrors of the ailing white male body, a resurrection cult, a clandestine headquarters, a narrator that feels at once pulled and repelled by the idea of preserving his body forever. This sounded so much like Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island that I felt compelled to read Zero K to see just how much DeLillo and Houellebecq’s respective obsessions with death and resurrection converged.

On the fourth page of Zero K, the narrator’s father is taking his sick wife to an embalmment and rebirth facility so as to freeze her until a time that her illness might be cured. His son asks, “This is not a new idea. Am I right?” The line is a sly comment on the conception of the book. It is actually almost disconcerting how similar these novels are — two sides of the same coin.

In both books, death becomes yet another experience to be fully curated for the wealthy. Would you like your current body destroyed and and your DNA resurrected in some other human form (The Possibility of an Island), or would you like your organs taken apart and be embalmed in a pod? (Zero K). (You’re probably better off in Houellebecq’s world because he provides us with some news from the future: some of the book is narrated by the clones of the first Daniel to try this technology. We know it has worked.) The narrative switches between the experiences of the first Daniel, and his future clones’ commentary on the life he has lived. He is reincarnated up to the 25th Daniel, when that clone decides to sample the “wilding” way of life — the life of the descendants of people who have continued to breed in the atavistic manner. We are gently warned that your skin color may determine how well you do in Houellebecq’s future: the wild humans who have resisted cloning and look for food just outside the protective fences are “of Spanish or North African origin.”

In these tales of the contemporary malaise of the global north, it is women whose bodies are the first to malfunction — take this verb as broadly as possible — and through them the central male narrators face their own mortality. In both novels, men continue to be desirable much longer than women do, and the female body suffers for the central male(s) in a sort of ersatz Passion, carrying the cross of aging. “Her body, despite the swimming, despite the classical dance was beginning to suffer the first blows of age […] I recognized the look she wore afterwards: it was that humble, sad look of the sick animal that steps away from the pack,” Daniel says of his partner Isabelle, who decides to take her chances with the cloning cult before he does. In the DeLillo-Houellebecq universe, the women do the work of accepting the end of the white body (and hence, of history).

In Zero K, not long after they go to the facility called Convergence, the father (Ross) of the narrator (Jeffrey) decides to join his wife in the freezer; he doesn’t want to live a life without her, and adds he can only be the man he is with her. I.e., an older man who can get the attention of a younger, attractive woman. In his obsession with his younger wife, Ross is very much like the original Daniel in The Possibility of an Island, who feels death’s shadow upon him not because his body is falling apart with hemorrhoids and the like, but because his young girlfriend (Is she the second or third woman he’s been with in the novel? Who’s counting? Definitely the youngest and the supplest.) decides to leave him. It is then that Daniel takes up the offer of the Elohimite cult, who are offering to preserve the DNA of their members, to be cloned for use in a better future.

Right after he is abandoned by the young girlfriend, Daniel takes a plane, not to Central Asia, where DeLillo’s Convergence is headquartered, but to much nearer Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The headquarters of both these quasi-scientology cults seem to be “off stage,” extra murs, outside the city limits. For Houellebecq, it’s enough that this non-space is outside the Mediterranean. For the American DeLillo, the stakes seem to be higher, and the non-place is somewhere beyond the Caucasus, beyond the habitat of whiteness: word play allows him to insert a definition of “Caucasian” in his explorations of geography. The Convergence is “somewhere” in the steppes of Central Asia, a place the coordinates of which Jeffrey gives by saying, if I may paraphrase, neither Kyrgyzstan nor Kazakhstan. Somewhere not far from where the Soviets tested their nuclear bombs, “beyond the limits of believability and law,” the very realm of the homo sacer.

Both novels are full of screens showing disasters and human ineptitude. Houellebecq’s narrative of teleology is mostly sustained with distaste for what Europeans have done to their culture. They have become too liberal (by allowing women to put careers before service to their husbands) and, oddly, at the same time they have let the occidental way of life be adulterated by the barbarians (letting Islam push Europeans towards “moral austerity”). This is expressed with that very French degout: “It’s sad, the shipwreck of a civilization, it’s sad to see its most beautiful minds sink without a trace — one begins to feel slightly ill at ease in life, and one ends up wanting to establish an Islamic republic,”Daniel says to Isabelle after she has decided to commit suicide and leave her DNA with the Elohimites.

Earlier, talking about his career as a comedian, Daniel explains: “I had built the whole of my career and fortune on the commercial exploitation of bad instincts, of the West’s absurd attraction to cynicism and evil,” and gives an account of his offensive brand of humor that we know well from Charlie Hebdo — bodies washed up on the Mediterranean coast, women reduced to their sex: “Do you know what they call the fat stuff around the vagina? A Woman.” For all this, he says, he was called “a cutting observer of contemporary life,” a term that Houellebecq might well have borrowed from either his own or DeLillo’s dust jackets. “I looked like an Arab, which helps,” he says. “One had to wonder: had my mother always been scrupulously faithful? Or had I been engendered by some Mustapha? Or even — another hypothesis — by a Jew?” Daniel fears that not only the culture, but even his own European body has been adulterated by oriental elements.

DeLillo’s narrative, on the other hand, seems to proceed with a more inward-facing melancholy, and a friendlier, more romantic form of Orientalizing.

Jeffrey’s father’s new beard is heralded as a ritual of entering a new dimension of belief and there are several loaded signifiers that don’t quite add up. By the second page there’s a chador, and a woman’s headscarf is described as “her flag of independence.”  In his exoticness scales, Slavic and Turkic languages vie with one another, and the Turkic ones come on top: “In bed I wanted to hear her speak to me in her language, Uzbek, Kazakh, whatever it was, but I understood that this was an intimacy not suited to the occasion.” He feels trapped in his father’s language and looks for a way out. “I wanted a non-Roman alphabet,” he says. Luckily, in the Convergence philologists are designing an advanced language pared down to its mathematical basics. They plan to get rid of metaphor and simile for the future when the bodies in the pods will be resuscitated.

The book is filled with musings on what it means to be a son to a wealthy, famous father who has left him and his mother for a younger woman. Clearly very suggestible, Jeffrey feels absorbed and awed by the Convergence, while Houellebecq’s narrator Daniel maintains his ironic distance and detachment at the Elohimite headquarters for a long time. So whereas Houellebecq’s tone is sarcastic, in many places Zero K is sermonizing (in addition to its many Biblical allusions); it reads like one of those religious pamphlets that passed through my hands as a teenager, a genre I grew to recognize and stay well clear from. The eschatology becomes extremely familiar when Jeffrey wonders what age his father and stepmother will be when they are revived — the number, certain Muslim esotericists (and Jesus) will tell you, is 33.

The book asks too many metaphysical questions we are used to hearing from clerics lusty for new followers: what is the essence of time, is there an afterlife, where does your soul go, when does the person become the body? It’s difficult to tell whether DeLillo is asking these questions in earnest or whether he is trying to mimic the atmosphere of the Convergence in the voice of his narrator.

On his first visit, Jeffrey looks at the naked mannequins lining the corridors of the Convergence: “I imagined placing a hand on a breast. This seemed required, particularly if you are me.” We are not given a reason why particularly he should be expected to molest lifeless bodies, maybe because, as he keeps reminding us, “he is his father’s son.” Jeffrey’s optimism that we will all live to be 100 makes him describe the bodies in the pods as “rendered dead” well before their time — any dead white body is too young to die. As Jeffrey inspects these “patients” one question that comes to his mind is whether these pod peas get erections; he later later imagines his stepmother in “a state of virgin solitude.” In The Possibility of an Island, the 24th clone of Daniel contemplates the bodily degradation of what to him are “primitive” humans and says of the male body: “Subject to aesthetic and functional degradations as much as, if not more than the female, he nevertheless managed to overcome them for as long as the erectile capacities…were maintained.”

In Houellebecq’s Submission, the protagonist obsesses about how the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign has caused women to give up wearing skirts, reducing his opportunities at leering ; in The Possibility of an Island, Daniel likewise seems to experience changes in the weather as a function of how they will affect the length of skirts. In DeLillo, it must be said, there is little leering, but it isn’t absent. Jeff’s last vision of the Convergence is again to do with the female body — an impression of a woman’s skirt “lifting in the breeze, the way the wind tenses the skirt, giving shape to the legs, making the skirt dip between the legs, revealing knees and thighs. Were these my father’s thoughts or mine?”

Having been seasoned by Houellebecq, I expected Jeffrey to give into the temptation and get into a pod on his second visit to the Convergence, but he desists. What does all this worrying about death and what waits for us afterwards amount to? A grotesque form of nostalgia, Jeffrey says. Nostalgia, possibly, for a time when there was more room for the dead and the dying in our worlds, when the business of death didn’t have to be done off stage, in the bowels of a volcanic island or a wasteland of radioactive fallout. The nostalgia for a more enlightened Occident that was full of purpose, that produced great works of art, that was able to keep itself young and relevant without having to, albeit begrudgingly, let in immigrants from the Orient to quicken itself. Like so many nostalgias working their way across the globe today, it is nostalgia for a perceived golden age, the benefits of which extended only to the chosen few.

The rich seem to inhabit an ethereal form of reality in which the day of reckoning can be averted, in which they can transcend both their bodies and histories, whereas other classes seem more tied to their corporeality and finite lives. “In their prime” the men need women to reassure themselves of their libido; in death they need strangers who speak in “different alphabets” to prepare them for the ultimate alienation. Apres moi…not deluge, but — in Houellbecq’s novel — a drying up: just as the white body has shriveled up, so has the earth, and time has come for humans 2.0., sans hunger, sans passion, sans bodily fluids. Houellebecq seems convinced that by the time his own body stops there won’t be any proper human lifestyle left worth living. DeLillo, however, is more optimistic: the last image he leaves us is an alignment of the sunset and the New York City grid, the wonder of which is reflected on the face of a boy. Though the old guard may be paralyzed by a sense of narcissistic impending doom, DeLillo, at least, allows for a future that will still have moments of transcending beauty and meaning, reflected on the face of tomorrow’s man.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman


I approach any novel set in Istanbul with trepidation, ready for overbearing references to the sights and sounds of the city: bazaars, minarets, East-meets-West platitudes. I started reading Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic the same week I had been watching a new screen adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager: a story partly set in Istanbul and a production that ticks every single orientalist trope on the list. But Wood’s captivating novel is not set in Istanbul proper; it opens in Heybeliada, an island half an hour from the old town by ferry, where the usual visual shorthand for Istanbul’s exoticism may not be readily available. And in fact, after the Heybeliada opening, most of the novel takes place in London and Scotland, where our narrator Elspeth Conroy’s character and artistic sensibilities are formed. The shifting landscapes are the first of many disorientations that Wood sets up for his reader in this haunting narrative. Plot lines unravel; characters appear and disappear — the minute you think you’ve pinned them down, they turn out to be changelings.

The action is set in a remote artists’ colony called Portmantle; Elspeth is a muralist who has sought refuge after suffering acute artists’ block. Thwarted artists are accepted to the Portmantle sanctuary through a very secretive, highly vetted process of recommendation. They are told to get rid of their watches, burn their passports, and hold on to a single ferry token that will take them home once they have completed the artwork they have come to the island to finish. These are measures to try to defeat time; there is nothing as destructive to the creative process as a ticking clock. Wood is already luring us in: The artists have left their worlds behind, dear reader — escape into my fictional world and make time stand still for a while. Writing and painting have often been used as metaphors for one another; in The Ecliptic, painting is not the metaphor but the signified. The novel is above all concerned with the creative process, and the real and imagined obstacles artists struggle against.

From the very start Elspeth’s magnetic voice draws us into this space where time stands still, with elliptical sentences and vague references to the present day. Wood is very deft at establishing a sense of timelessness on the island; only after a dozen pages do we learn that that the story is set in the 1960’s. ‘The year I arrived was 1962, but since then I had watched so many winters frost the surrounding pines that they begun to blur into one grey season, as vast and misted as the sea,” Elspeth tells us. The novelist prudently avoids placing too many signposts to give period detail, a fallacy we see often in historical fiction. Wood is more interested in intricacies of human character, the artistic process, and the way we perceive time. When it comes, detail is very evocative in its subtlety: the indented ferry tokens, international calls that you have to put through an operator, the kind of tinned food that people had to make do with in London, transatlantic passages on ocean-liners as viable alternatives to flying.

Similarly, the setting is muted. A group of artists is working on an island which happens to be off the coast of Istanbul; the author is more interested in the demons they are fighting than he is in the skyline, and Wood is very good at painting artistic death-drive through the artists at the sanctuary. The conversations on the island are fueled by a Turkish beverage called sahlep, one of the few concessions that Wood makes to the setting. We hear the staff speak Turkish; there is backgammon playing, and some references to the food (and a blasphemy: some of the artists detest ayran, a national yogurt drink). The head of the community is a Provost speaking perfect English—the sort of person into whose making the whole of Europe seems to have contributed, like Conchis in John Fowles’s The Magus.

Everyone at Portmantle has a code name, so that expectations attached to real names, like passports, can be left behind. There are long-timers and short-timers on the island, and Elspeth, aka Knell, is one of the close-knit group of long-timers. These are all artists who have known success, many of whom believe that the best of their work are already behind them. Asking one another about the nature of their work, and particularly about “progress” is the highest taboo in the colony. Conversation are a strange, dreamy mix of expressions of desire to leave the island and fear of the real world beyond. At times it is unclear, even, whether they are on the island of their own volition.

Elspeth explores the pinewoods on the island and discovers a kind of mushroom that glows blue in the dark, adding to our sense of enchantment. Wood gives us an elaborate description of Elspeth’s trials and errors trying to make paint from these mushrooms, a commentary on an artist’s need for precision when it comes to the ingredient and medium. The paint she eventually produces helps her make a breakthrough with the mural project she’s trying to finish, a representation of the constellations commissioned by a planetarium. The book takes its name from the apparent trajectory the sun follows in the earth’s horizon, and Wood takes us on a beautiful diversion on astronomy, navigation, and movement. Elspeth’s voice when telling us about the ecliptic is dirge-like and incantatory, inviting us to feel like sailors who tell their positions by the stars, putting their trust in a virtual path. Taken with the ecliptic’s overall bearing on the story, the narrative becomes a poem about the different forms of traveling and staying put.

Into this odd, charged mix comes a young artist for whom Elspeth develops protective instincts. One night, she discovers him naked and semi-unconscious in the cupboard where she keeps her magic mushrooms. He is there and in that state not because he has sampled the flora but because he is a sleepwalker, a condition complicated by the nightmares he has when he wanders around the sanctuary half-asleep. This is a novel in which the novelist is always more than a few steps ahead of the reader, and by the time Wood reveals the identity of the mysterious boy, I had hatched all kinds of improbable theories.

But I seem to be marooned on the island myself– that’s the kind of place it is. Although the novel opens there, Elspeth soon turns the story to her formative years in Scotland and London. We see her defy the art school establishment with a little help from a professor, and become apprenticed to painter James Culver, a reluctant mentor who will become a life-long obsession. She starts life in London in an attic — we see what you did there, Wood — in the studio owned by Culver, a painter of the Francis Bacon school (picture empty chairs in glum rooms). We hop on the bus with Elspeth to run errands on the Marylebone High Street. It is a joy to travel on London buses with Elspeth as she describes the scenes before her, and talks us through how she transcribes her impressions onto the canvas. Shortly after she is commissioned to put on her own show through Culver’s influence, he disappears from the London art scene, and her life, leaving her without her father figure and muse.

‘Though all artists strive for recognition, they cannot foresee how it will come to them or how much they will compromise to maintain success,” Elspeth pronounces as she tells us about her days without Culver. We see her once experimental and visceral art become commodified in the London art scene. Despite her commercial success, the lack of an immediate, intimate relationship with a truthful fellow artist leaves her lost. Her descent into despair is precipitated by an unfortunate adventure with the critic Wilfred Searle, whose observations cut too close to the bone: “You need critics like me,” he says “or nobody will notice what you paint.” Not long after a night of “love” which neither of them enjoy, and a subsequent scathing review by Searle, Elspeth has a breakdown on an ocean-liner en route to New York, where she hopes she may find Culver. She is saved from utter destruction by a psychiatrist on board, Victor, who is the most benevolent character in the novel and who, from the moment he opened his mouth, I imagined as being played by Hugh Bonneville. Much as I appreciated Victor’s calm voice, it did feel like Elspeth was being passed from one man to another, from art school professor, to master/muse, to critic, to shrink.

Elspeth gets a second chance with Culver. After a brief period of happiness and clarity, the ellipsis and the ecliptic make themselves felt again: there are holes in both Elspeth’s and Culver’s stories of the time they were apart; the oblique trajectories they narrate to one another don’t quite seem to add up as they head for another separation. Their time together remind us that the mind is really a lonely hunter, how it builds whole worlds out of fragments chanced upon in disparate places. When the narrative returns to Portmantle we also see how, inadvertently, people can become the stuff of one another’s nightmares.

Elspeth’s narrative carries the reader effortlessly from Heybeliada to Scotland to London to New York and back to Heybeliada again. Her cadence goads you on to the next sentence, makes you loath to put down the book and break the melody. Her voice reminded me of Serena Fromme in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (perhaps there is a particular manner in which male authors assume female voices that draws in the female reader). Like an artist working toward some final, perfect expression, the novel’s incantatory tones make you believe that if you persevere with the tale, it will reveal to you the secret at its center. But the secret turns out to be one we already know: that sanctuaries that we seek out or build for ourselves are vulnerable to the demons we take with us wherever we go.