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GB-Russia Society Journals - Hurramabad

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Hurramabad: A Novel in facets by Andrei Volos
Andrei Volos Translated by Arch Tait
GLAS New Russian Writing, 2001
ISBN 5-7172-0056-0

Review by Mel Dadswell

The collapse of Soviet power left numerous colonies - populations might be a better word - of Russians stranded as foreigners and ethnic outsiders in new countries emerging from the old Union Republics. At best, perceived with suspicion as bearers of dual nationality, at worst as colonial oppressors and agents of cultural genocide, the Russian diaspora faced a very uncertain future in their new circumstances. In the former Baltic republics the baton of inter-war Catholic fascism was passed on to truly democratic administrations whose will to ethnic cleansing was only moderated by an unwillingness to upset liberal Western European opinion, which might obstruct access to the perceived fleshpots of the European Union.1 If in Kazak(h)stan the ethnic balance frustrated tendencies that might have seriously threatened the status of Russians, in Central Asia proper, Tajikistan in particular, external contributions against a background of grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ tales helped kindle vengeful passions that were only partially deflected by the divide et impera machinations of the nomenklatura, resulting in regional and clan conflict. Peel the Soviet veneer off Tajikistan and a co-extension with Afghanistan is revealed. The Soviet Union, for all its enlightened nationalities policy of zblizhenie and slianie, and ‘druzhba narodov’ propaganda, did not eradicate nineteenth century type nationalistic aspirations and tendencies on the terrain of the former Russian Empire. It merely froze them in an often lethal permafrost of political correctness. Not least was this true of Russia itself. Comes a thaw and the same old monsters reemerge, demonstrating once again that the Soviet government, in having to contain nationalistic tendencies, had not proceeded harshly out of unreflecting perversity so much as a will to maintain stability for the general good.

Andrei Volos’ collection of tales – Hurramabad – captures some of the scenes as order breaks down and Russians, sometimes third generation inhabitants, now victims of a rash of ‘spontaneous indigenisation’, thrown out of all but the most menial work, seek to sell up and make their getaway to a now alien ancestral homeland. Hurramabad is actually Dushanbe, for some time, not inappropriately, Stalinabad2.

Seven tales have been translated for the Glas edition from the full cycle, apparently, of thirteen Russian texts. This reviewer has found nine, if one includes a later story – Siriyskiye rozy (Syrian Roses), in various editions of Novy mir and Znamya3. From a literary point of view the choice of tales for English translation has been judicious, although that choice has skewed the overall net effect towards the perceptions of a fearful ex-pat community in something approaching a post-colonial Congo experience. Other stories, not in the English edition, show Tajiks and Russians, if not entirely integrated, at least rubbing along quite nicely at the social level, as they must have done over a long period to produce the exotica of at least nominal Moslems who down their vodka to the toast: ‘Bismillah!’...

Volos, a geophysicist by training, has structured his stories masterfully. Even the seemingly slight introductory tale, The Ascent, about a mother and son climbing a hill to a cemetery, yields hidden depths to a second or a careful reading. First on the List, about a group of journalists who blunder into the clutches of a ruthless warlord and his brutalised fighters, is a masterpiece of the genre as if, in its structural complexity, from the pen of a more mature Lermontov in late 20th century guise. A local Man, (Svoy in the original), is a cautionary tale about a young engineer from Moscow who falls in love with the local culture and goes native, marrying a Tajik girl and working in a bazaar. In the words of the editors’ intro:

...outwardly he becomes more and more like a Tajik, but when he wants to join the volunteer troops he is still rejected as a foreigner. His .nal acceptance comes only at a terrible price.

Sammy, possibly a metaphor for the events, tells of an old Russian lady who makes a pet of what she thinks is a grass snake. Other stories relate the complexities of disentanglement and the sense of bewilderment as the peaceful world of Tajikistan drifts inexorably into civil war. There are unexpected, possibly unintended ironies: at the station where Russians have been waiting through a month of sweltering heat for tracks to be relaid, a less than literate slogan has been chalked up urging Russians not to leave - ‘...we need slave!’. Had the writer known that the word rab, slave in Russian, means ‘masters’ in Tajik? Mutual dismay arises between two groups who evidently know next to nothing of one another’s cultural values. An Uzbek cafe manager inflicts a gratuitous cruelty on a puppy, prompting a Russian to observe that he is not human. Yet the same Uzbek, pitying the Russian’s plight, brings him a meal.

Subtitled A Novel in Facets (Roman-punktir), Volos’ Hurramabad stories inevitably invite comparison with Timur Zulfikarov’s earlier (1993) masterpiece, Tears in the Flood (Stoyashchiy i rydayushchiy sredi begushchikh vod).4 In fact the two texts complement one another. Volos’ tales are free standing rasskazy and malen’kie povesti in the best Russian tradition, each with their own plot development. Zulfikarov paints wordpictures like true Persian miniatures which, however loosely, are connected by the romance between Leili and Dervish, a reworking of the legend of Leili and Majnun set against the backdrop of the Tajik civil war. Volos’ stories capture the unease of anticipation with an economy of language whereas Zulfikarov’s scenes are often accompanied by a prolonged vopl’ dushi, a keening wail of dismay and protest at the unfolding or immediate aftermath of fearful events. He uses the colour of sound in a string of words, drawing on the Persian sagh tradition – sniffed at in the dark west – to generate an iridescent quality of sensation that ultimately, despite Zulfikarov’s unexpectedly ‘Russian’ voice, evokes Sufi. Where Volos engages the reader’s mind with skilful plot development, Zulfikarov’s shimmering images illuminate the soul. Not for nothing has Zulfikarov’s style been called ‘the poetics of narcotic ecstasy’. Volos, a Russian who has translated a great deal of Tajik poetry into his mother tongue, has preserved in Hurramabad snatches of authentic Tajik dialogue. One of Volos’ stories not translated, Sangpushtak, deploys its Tajik title as a literary device, revealing its meaning only slowly in a series of conversational hints. By contrast, Zulfikarov’s Tajik in Tears in the Flood is mostly emblematic. Yet Zulfikarov, a Tajik, delights in the whole sweep of contemporary and historical Russian language, which he deploys often in starkly arresting and innovative ways.

The English edition of Hurramabad is slightly more generous than the Russian in glossing Tajik words and phrases. In the text of First on the List the place name Snagi Siekh is presumably a misprint for Sangi sioh (Black Rock).

But such trivia aside, Andrey Volos, winner of the Russian Anti-Booker prize, has been well served by his translator and it is to be hoped that Volos’ more recent contributions, including Niedvizhimost’ (Real Estate), a poviest’ about contemporary Russian themes, will also appear in English. Arch Tait, stalwart of Glas New Russian Writing over the past decade and more, has done an inspired and exemplary job (one would say brilliant were the word not so exhausted) and one hopes that Dr Tait will be afforded university accomodation in his retirement to conduct some Russian translation master classes. Certainly this reviewer, also a translator, would benefit.

Mel Dadswell