Hamid Ismailov’s new novel blurs the boundaries between life and poetry

The Devils’ Dance is an intricate mixture of fact and fiction about the imprisonment and death of Uzbekistan’s greatest writer, Abdulla Qodiriy.

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On a fine autumn day, a writer goes out to prune his vines. In his mind, an anxious chatter of thought: “These were vicious, unpredictable times… his friends were being snatched away: it was like a field being weeded.” Stooping to tend his vineyard, he finds a bunch of grapes hidden beneath a leaf: “bright-red berries, as tiny as dewdrops, so that they looked more like a pretty toy than fruit”. For some time he has been “nurturing the idea for a book: the story of a beautiful slave-girl who became the wife of three khans”. Now, with the discovery of the hidden grapes comes a sudden clarity: “He knew how to begin his book.” It will be his best yet, he promises himself. A task for the cold months of winter.

But there would be no book – or not in the form that its original author envisaged. On 31 December 1937, as the Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy was preparing to celebrate the New Year with his family, the NKVD (Communist secret police) broke into his home, ransacked his possessions and took him to prison, where he was repeatedly interrogated and beaten.

Qodiriy was a vastly popular pioneer of 20th-century Uzbek fiction. His debut, Days Gone By, was the first full-length Uzbek novel. His works were recited in tea-houses, and parents named their daughters after his heroines. On 4 October 1938 he was executed, together with the flower of Uzbek intelligentsia, including the equally beloved poet, Cho‘lpon. Qodiriy had predicted that his third novel, Emir Umar’s Slave Girl, would be so beautiful “that people will stop reading my previous books”, but his manuscripts were confiscated and destroyed, and no trace of the novel remains.

Qodiriy is the subject of Hamid Ismailov’s latest novel, The Devils’ Dance. Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist, poet and journalist who was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1992 and now works at the BBC World Service. His writing remains banned in his native country. His new novel – the title of which comes from one of Qodiriy’s early short stories – is an intricate mixture of fact and fiction, which weaves together an account of Qodiriy’s imprisonment and death with a reimagining of his lost manuscript.

In The Devils’ Dance, Qodiriy devotes his time in prison to planning the novel he had intended to write. The story of Oyxon, a simple girl cursed with a fatal beauty that makes her a reluctant but irresistible object of desire to three khans, is set in the early 19th century, at the time of the Great Game. The struggle between Britain and Russia for influence in the warring khanates of central Asia took place in an atmosphere of terror, violent shifts of power and summary execution – including the beheading in 1842 of two British emissaries on the orders of Oyxon’s husband, Nasrullah Khan.

In an indispensable afterword, Ismailov’s admirable translator, Donald Rayfield, writes that Uzbek, like English, offers a “choice between ‘low’ or ‘high’ styles”. Here the tension between the brutal confinement of Qodiriy’s prison existence and the freedom of his imagination is emphasised by the contrast between the colloquial realism of his biographical narrative and the poetic language of Oyxon’s story, which echoes the highly perfumed 19th-century translations of One Thousand and One Nights.

Poetry flourished at the courts of the khans, where it offered an eloquent medium for women to articulate desires and emotions inexpressible by other means. The 19th-century female Uzbek poets Uvaysiy and Nodira – whose poetry, together with that of Qodiriy’s contemporary Cho‘lpon, makes frequent appearances in the text – play prominent roles in the story of Oyxon. She is portrayed as the author of a lost collection of poems in which “all the secrets of a woman’s life would be revealed”. As the parallel tragedies of Qodiriy and Oyxon unfold, the distance between writer and written, real and imagined, life and poetry, narrows until in the final, devastating pages of the novel, they merge to become indistinguishable.

“Who will there be to write history for us?” demands one of Qodiriy’s cellmates, shortly before their execution. The answer lies in these pages with their poetic, implacable insistence that tyranny in any era, however brutal, capricious and destructive, is no match for the power of the imagination. Handcuffed on their way to the firing squad, Qodiriy and his comrades recite a final defiant verse. “What seemed to be a simple poem had become the language of birds, the song of a nation, the sorrow of their land.” 

The Devils’ Dance 
Hamid Ismailov
Translated by Donald Rayfield
Tilted Axis Press, 200pp, £9.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war