Set mainly in Uzbekistan between 1900 and 1980, The Railway introduces to us the inhabitants of the small town of Gilas on the ancient Silk Route. Among those whose stories we hear are Mefody-Jurisprudence, the town's alcoholic intellectual; Father Ioann, a Russian priest; Kara-Musayev the Younger, the chief of police; and Umarali-Moneybags, the old moneylender. Their colorful lives offer a unique and comic picture of a little-known land populated by outgoing Mullahs, incoming Bolsheviks, and a plethora of Uzbeks, Russians, Persians, Jews, Koreans, Tatars, and Gypsies.
At the heart of both the town and the novel stands the railway station—a source of income and influence, and a connection to the greater world beyond the town. Rich and picaresque, The Railway is full of color. Sophisticated yet with a naive delight in storytelling, it chronicles the dramatic changes felt throughout Central Asia in the early twentieth century.
Have I told you that I have developed a liking for Russian magic realism? Yes, I think I have. And now I can add that I also enjoy magic realism from Uzbekistan, the now independent state which was part of the former Soviet Union. Hamid Ismailov is clearly in the tradition of Russian satirical magic realism that I admire so much in Bulgakov and Gogol, but this is combined with the traditions of Muslim Central Asia, which remind me of the magic realism of Salman Rushdie for want of better comparators. The result is fascinating and intoxicating.
If you are looking for a simple narrative and a conventional story structure then this is not the book for you. For starters the central character is the town of Gilas, rather as Macondo is a major character in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But unlike in Marquez's classic, we do not follow one family, but dozens of townsfolk over several generations - the author very helpfully provides a list. What is more the book references Uzbek historic events and customs - and again the writer provides footnotes. Add the fact that the book jumps around cchronologically and you can see why this is not an easy read.
So how did I approach reading The Railway? I could, I suppose, have been studious about it - referring to the dramatis personae and footnotes as I read. I could have, but I didn't. Even though I review all the magic realist books I read, I do not approach them in a methodical way. Instead I tend to be more impressionistic in my approach. My love of magic realism is partly because it speaks to the subconscious, and deals in visions and the poetic. To experience these it is best that I do not analyse too intellectually, at least not while I am reading. This then was my approach to the book and it paid off.
It was an approach that I used when first I watched Tarkovsky's film Stalker. I was reminded of that film as I read this book. I am left with some crystal-clear images, so clear that they could be scenes in a film. There is the image of the boy angry and alone beside the railway, looking up and, seeing a girl on a passing train, blowing her a kiss. There is the image of the railway itself against the vast steppe - a ladder from earth to the sky. There are images galore. There is some sublime poetry in The Railway. I say sublime because the book has a strong strand of Islamic mysticism. Obid-Kori meditates in prison: Words can turn out other ways, words can be replayed and replied, relayed and re-lied., rehearsed and re-versed... but life is one, and life is from Allah. And what do we know of it? It cannot be sensed or weighed between words any more than the rays of the sun can be sensed between leaves... leaves... leaves... And only the leaves' shadow catches the little patches of light, surrounds, frames, defines, confines. As he gazes through the iron grating at the sky we are told that the grating was formed by two verticals and six rusty crossbars. It mirrors, although the writer does not say so directly, the form of the railway ascending to heaven.
But if this book reminds me of Stalker it also reminds me of Master and Margarita. Ismailov's satire is brilliant, laughing at Russian attempts to homogenize the local inhabitants. They in turn take the communist slogans (written in a tongue they do not comprehend) to be magical charms to ward off harm. We laugh at the absurd language of the oppressor, e.g. circumcision is made the crime of "sabotage of the member".
The way the narrative moves from one time to another allows us to see repetitions and variations. Throughout the book characters are shipped off to the gulags and some return. Others, like the Koreans, are deported to Gilas. The threat of imprisonment, deportation and death is present, regardess of whether it is the Tsar in Moscow, or Lenin or Stalin. Life goes on for Gilas, the book's central character. New people take the posts vacated by the disgraced. The people of Gilas continue on their own sweet way: drinking, pursuing their own advancement, and even making money as the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of the Silk Road turns even communism to their advantage.
This is a book I want to read again. It certainly merits it and probably needs it. If you like One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Master and Margarita you will probably like this.
I received this book from the publisher via Edelweiss free in return for a fair review.