The Railway by Hamid Ismailov (Translated by Robert Chandler) - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Last Exit To Uzbekistan

The Railway


Harvill Secker 290pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

One redeeming fact about the USSR was that, in order to maintain the fiction of fifteen free republics and dozens of autonomous regions, the Communist authorities saved a number of languages from extinction by providing alphabets, grammars, education and media services, and promoted poetry and fiction by minority writers, who, if they behaved themselves, could become famous and rich from translation into Russian. To demonstrate the lack of Russian chauvinism in the USSR, they were given more rein than their Russian colleagues. As in every superannuated empire from the Romans to the Soviets, while the heartwood rotted, the remotest branches of the tree still sprouted green leaves. Just as Naipaul, Walcott and Soyinka write English literature more vigorously than, say, Anita Brookner, so Russians found more stimulation in the Abkhaz Fazil Iskander or the Kirgiz Chingiz Aitmatov than in the big names of Moscow. Some non-Russians, like Iskander, never even bothered to write in their native language; others, like Aitmatov, began in Kirgiz but switched to Russian to save themselves the trouble of translation. Why write for a few hundred thousand readers when there is a market for millions? Their non-Russian material and their outlook, however, remained excitingly exotic.

With the collapse of the USSR, most ‘regional’ literatures have vanished. Russians now read literature translated from English, not from Kirgiz or Avar. Writing in Central Asia or the North Caucasus is moribund, and there is even less freedom of expression than under the Soviets. The last thing that the

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