The Devils’ Dance Hamid Ismailov Review

The Devils Dance Hamid Ismailov bookblast

The Devils’ Dance by Hamid Ismailov is an unusual novel which shines a light on Central Asia, a region that is still little known in the West. Even today, the Sovietised khanates Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are generally remembered for being pawns in the Great Game played between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century as the two imperial powers struggled for control.

The Devils’ Dance is a mosaic of romance, tragedy, history, legend, and drama infused with poetry which, unlike prose fiction, has been the mainstay of Uzbek culture for six hundred years – according to Donald Rayfield, the translator of this remarkable novel which won the EBRD prize in 2019.

The narrative undulates like a figure of eight. It is based in part on the imprisonment and trial by the NKVD of Abdulla Qodiriy, ‘the greatest writer in Uzbekistan’, on a freezing December day in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Terror. ‘They had broken into his house, ignoring the shrieks and cries of his children and wife who had gathered round the dinner-table for the New Year’s feast. The NKVD men overturned the dinner table and stormed through the house, ransacking everything, rummaging through Abdulla’s books and papers: just then, the spectacle of that game of bozkashi passed through Abdulla’s mind. Just as I was imagining myself to be a horse ready and saddled, waiting to be told ‘Chuh’, these ‘riders’ seem to be grabbing me as they would a goat’s carcass, Abdulla was thinking, when the men handcuffed him, dragged him out into the yard and bundled him into the sleek car parked by his gates, as his weeping household looked on.’

The Great Purge

He is kicked and cursed and beaten and thrown into a solitary cell. During his interrogations he is accused of being an enemy of the Uzbek people and a traitor. Witnesses are summoned to testify against him, notably Usmonov, the head of the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Uzbek Central Committee; his former publisher Beregin; and a teacher of literature at the pedagogical institute who accuses him of being the member of ‘an anti-Soviet bourgeois-nationalist counter-revolutionary organisation’.

Qodiriy reflects that ‘After all, now the whole country was run by a Georgian, and the result? Everyone was eating each other’s flesh.’ He observes his interrogator Trigulov, ‘How many hundreds of times has he repeated such interrogations? After so many times, you might well begin to believe it. Saying ‘halva’ once doesn’t bring a sweet taste to your mouth, but after a hundred times, your teeth will start sticking together.’

Qodiriy is moved from one crowded cell to the next, and encounters fellow writers and friends Abdurauf Fitrat and Cho’lpon, the great poet – both have also been imprisoned for allegedly subversive activities. He dissociates from his grim situation by obsessing about his unwritten novel which he was working on when he was arrested by the Soviets – this forms the other part of the narrative.

His novel keeps him alive, as he escapes into a panoramic view of Uzbekistan’s history and culture remembering fables and legends and most particularly the story of Oyxon, a beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter of a revered hereditary sayid who is forced to marry three khans in turn. The Uzbeks originated from the Turco-Mongol tribes in the fourteenth century and by the 1840s the khanates of Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand were at loggerheads, so Qodiriy’s daydreaming also takes in British imperialist machinations and treachery during The Great Game.

It was now that Captain Arthur Conolly came to Kokand from Khiva. “You see,” Madali crowed, “none other than the Queen of England has shown me respect: she’s sent her ambassador.” He gave a feast in Conolly’s honour, showed him his pigeons and his drums, introduced him to his mother Nodira and to the ladies of the court. “This English dervish has come from Delhi. Look, he’s brought me a picture of the Taj Mahal, and this enormous mirror!”’ However, what starts well ends badly when the local khans are patronised and insulted: the two British officers Connolly and Stoddart are duly killed by the Khan of Bukhara.

Will Qodiriy similarly come to a bad end?

He had already admitted responsibility for being a writer who had written nostalgically for the nation. All right, he had as good as conceded he was a nationalist. In that sense, Shakespeare, Hafiz, Cervantes and Tagore were all nationalists. This amounted to proof that they were members of an organisation. But if there was no organisation, then how could Abdulla be considered a member?

The Intelligentsia on Trial

Tyrannical rulers throughout history have invariably manifested a strong aversion to the free-thinking intelligentsia. The concoction of random spurious charges in order to get rid of them continues to this day. Hamid Ismailov, the author of this absorbing novel, has been banished from Uzbekistan for having ‘overly democratic tendencies’ and his books are pulped.

An entertaining and at times grisly read, The Devils’ Dance is pepered with quirky insights and sayings such as, ‘The Turkmen have a saying, a horse and a donkey give birth to a mule; an Uzbek and a Persian give birth to an Emir.’ We discover that the game of knucklebones (modern day jacks) is Uzbek in origin and came to Europe via Greece. There are paradisiacal descriptions of nature and the changing seasons.

Beautifully written and translated, The Devils’ Dance is riveting from the first page. Ismailov is a perceptive observer of human psychology and behaviour, and there is never a dull moment. Sitting down to read this book has been a pleasure.  

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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