Hailed as "a work of rare beauty," Hamid Ismailov's rich and colorful novel The Railway is out from Restless Books. Here, Ismailov, the book's English translator Robert Chandler, and Robert’s collaborator, his wife Elizabeth, discuss The Railway's composition and translation. Author and translators talk about Uzbek nicknames, Sufism, the teeming cast of the novel, how translation is like gardening, and how love trumps sophistication and moral posturing. (Versions of this interview have appeared previously in the Vintage edition of The Railway and in Steppe Magazine.)
Robert Chandler: Hamid, you must have first given me a copy of The Railway in 1997, soon after it was first published. You’ve mentioned earlier drafts of the novel. When did you start the very first draft of all?
Hamid Ismailov: I started the novel in the early 1980s. Like many young Soviet writers of the time, I wanted to write something very sophisticated, very "Joycean," but I wanted to ground my novel in the ideas and practices of Sufism. I wanted to write about the life of Ahmad Yassavi, a great Central Asian sheikh from the twelfth century. My generation of Soviet writers was tired of the moral posturing of the preceding generation, the writers we called the "men of the sixties." It seemed to us that these writers led double-standard lives, denying by their lives what they affirmed in their poems. Somehow they made hypocrisy seem more acceptable... And I think our generation was different... At the very least, we were certainly more self-absorbed. The ideal novel for me at that time was a novel that was free, a novel that could be understood only by myself and that was therefore not serving anyone. What could be more non-conformist, more deeply dissident? I still have this manuscript. Some of the chapters about the character called "the boy" went into the final version of The Railway. Anyway, that was a time when I took myself very seriously. Once I got home late and found Rano, my little six-year-old daughter, sitting at my desk and scribbling in the manuscript I imagined to be of such eternal, sacred significance. I was furious. I shouted at her, "What on earth are you doing here? Do you realize what you are doing? Get lost from my desk, you little devil!" Rano ran to her room in tears. I sat down at my desk. On the page, in Rano’s curvy, childish handwriting, were the words: "I love you, Dad"... That was the end of that novel. I simply couldn’t go on with it. But somehow the death of that novel was reborn inside me as the beginning of a very different novel, a novel where everything that is ready-made, clichéd, typecast, rigid, and railway-like pursues the vulnerable and intangible soul of a child…
RC: My favorite moment in The Railway is when the boy wants "to get his revenge" on a train that has startled him as he stands dreamily beside the track. In the end, however, instead of pulling his trousers down as he intended, he throws a kiss and calls out "I love you" to an unknown girl standing beside the door of the last carriage. In my preface, which I completed long before hearing your moving story about Rano, I wrote: "the boy’s simple and spontaneous words transform a Soviet iron road—the unyielding way of linear thinking and material progress—into a Sufi path of Love." Were you thinking of what Rano scribbled on your manuscript when you wrote the passage about the boy and the girl on the train?’
HI: Not consciously…
RC: But both the real story and the story you tell in the novel are very important indeed. I love the way you allowed yourself to learn from your daughter. Not many parents, not many writers, allow themselves that kind of openness. If you had not allowed that childish warmth and tenderness to enter your novel, I would not have wanted to translate it. I admire the sophistication of your work, but that on its own isn’t enough. Intellectual sophistication without love is as arid as the moral posturing you criticize in the work of the "men of the sixties." But please say a little more about Sufism. What is it about Sufism that is most important to you? And in what way do you see The Railway as embodying the ideas or beliefs of Sufism?
HI: Sufism for me embodies first and foremost what is in "the boy," i.e. everything that is unprescribed, unpreconditioned, unprecedented, unprejudged. Sufism is an attempt to attain a "naked" connection with reality. That may be the aim of all religion. But as soon as religion becomes a form, a ritual, a tradition, it becomes just another iron road, just another railway. And that is no longer Sufism. The way that is thinner than a hair—that is what I call Sufism.
RC: Thank you! And now a question that I should have asked years ago. Why did you write the novel in Russian rather than in Uzbek?
HI: Why in Russian, not Uzbek? Well, I began the novel in Uzbek, but in the end I found a compromise. I left some of the most quintessentially Uzbek scenes in Uzbek, providing a Russian translation in footnotes. But in any case, The Railway is not simply an Uzbek novel; it could just as well be called a Soviet novel.
RC: A Soviet novel or a Sufi novel?
HI: It’s both. You could say it's about what the Soviet railway has done to the Sufi soul. But what I want to say is that the world I grew up in was not simply Uzbek. We were almost the only Uzbek family on the street. The others were Koreans, Jews, Gypsies, you name it… During Ramadan all the kids used to sing Ramadan songs. At Easter the very same children sang songs about Jesus. That was the way we lived. At the time it seemed normal; it’s only now that it’s begun to seem strange.
RC: You once said to me that the town of Gilas is like a microcosm of the Soviet Union, or even of the world as a whole—that Gilas is a kind of Noah’s ark of humanity.
HI: Yes, and since this Noah's ark was glued together with the help of Russian (Russian political concepts, Russian communist jargon) it made sense to write the novel in Russian... Thinking about all this, by the way, I've realized how few truly Soviet novels there are. For the main part, Soviet literature now seems to me to have been made up of lots of little artificial reservations or theme parks: Uzbek novels, where all the characters (apart from a few Russians) are Uzbek; Russian novels, where all the characters (apart from a few token Jews or Georgians) are Russian; Georgian novels; Armenian novels, and so on… It’s all a far cry from my own experience of Soviet life. But now let me ask a question. What was the aspect of the novel that you found hardest to translate?
RC: Recreating the characters’ nicknames. My wife and I knew the reader would get lost among the huge cast of characters unless we could find English equivalents to the nicknames that were memorable, informative, and convincing. This was difficult but enjoyable; finding a name with the right sounds, the right rhythm, the right meaning was every bit as satisfying as coming up with a good rhyme in a passage of verse. Often the right name emerged only after Liz and I had tried out dozens of other possibilities over the course of weeks or months. We always left someone’s first (Uzbek) name the same as in the original; it was only the nickname that we translated. And we always knew when we had got it right. We were especially pleased with Abubakir-Snuffsniffer (the school caretaker), Bakay-Croc (the double amputee and leader of a disabled movement), Bolta-Lightning (the town electrician), Mukum-Hunchback (the chaikhana owner), Ortik-Picture-Reels (the cinema manager), Tolik-Nosetalk (the alcoholic manual laborer), Osman-Anon (the shadowy KGB officer who is issued every month with a new passport in a different name), Rizo-Zero (the engineer, student of shadows and supposed instigator of a terrible eclipse), and Vera-Virgo, the town prostitute... But there’s something else I’ve always been meaning to ask. To what extent are the names your own invention, and to what extent did you take them from real life?
HI: Nicknames like these were very common during the Soviet years. Nearly everyone in Uzbekistan had a nickname. They were based on all kinds of things: an aspect of someone's character or appearance, something to do with their profession, or maybe just a particular incident in their life... Often people were stamped with these nicknames in childhood, and they carried more weight in their lives than their real names; it was as if their real names were being kept out of our everyday, vulgar life, being saved from profanation. I remember how once, when I was about twelve, a group of us were sitting in a carriage behind the locomotive and my classmate Fedka, who was by far the wittiest of us, shouted out, "Fireman, throw in some curved logs, we're coming to a bend in the line..." Ever afterwards he was known as Fedka-Fireman. Years later I learned that he ended up working in a fire brigade, as if trying to combat this spell that had been cast on him... I once did some study of all this. Nicknames were clearly not so common in the nineteenth century, before Communism, nor have they been so widely used during our last fifteen years of suddenly-found independence. Nicknames seem to have been a feature of the Communist period, a time when people seemed to live two separate lives—a true one in their hearts and dreams and a false one in the real world...
Elizabeth Chandler: But the nicknames aren’t in the least false. Many of them embody important truths about their bearers. Are you sure they didn’t arise more from a need to express individuality? Most people, I imagine, felt they were just cogs in the Communist wheel. What could be more important than a name that was all their own, or a name that individualized a colleague or neighbor they loved or hated?
HI: Yes! Their names are both very Uzbek and very, very individual. So Uzbek and so individual that I found it hard at first to imagine they could ever be translated into English… By the way, I’ve often thought about a horticultural analogy for literary translation. You know the miniature tree we call saksaul, the only thing that grows in the very hottest and driest deserts. How can you transplant a Central Asian saksaul into an English garden? How can you get it to live in an English garden without losing its "saksaulness" yet without looking horribly out of place? What's your recipe for that, Robert?
RC: It is interesting that you come up with a metaphor from gardening. I am not a gardener, but Liz is a keen and sensitive gardener. She thinks a lot, she reads a lot, but she knows that there are no absolute rules. Every garden is unique. Every year and every month of every year has weather that is unique. If she were trying to find a place for your saksaul, she would think not only about such water and sunlight and soil quality but also about what other plants to put near it. What neighbors would help it to grow? What neighbors would help it to look good? Would it look best beside a plant that looks a little bit similar or a plant whose shape is completely different? Might it be best to let the saksaul stick out, to allow it a space of its own, surrounded only by sand and stones? Or might it be better to surround it by indigenous plants and hope that, if we pretend that it is natural and normal for it to be there, other people will accept its presence and not ask too many questions?
HI: All right, but how does all this relate to what you do with words?
RC: Sometimes I spend days looking for a synonym for a particular word or trying to improve the rhythm of a particular passage. And then, after wasting a lot of time, I realize that the problem is not in the place where I thought it was. If I change something in the previous verse or sentence, then the problem disappears just like that. I simply needed to find the right plant to put near the saksaul. But while I’m thinking about these things, I ask a lot of questions. I probably emailed you four or five hundred questions in a single year. And we spent a lot of time together, discussing everything from obscene jokes to political slogans and Sufi literature. Were there ever times when you cursed me for asking so many questions? And how does it feel to sit and watch as your own work, a work that is based on your own childhood, is slowly and laboriously taken away from the soil it sprang from, transplanted into a language that is not your own?
HI: I spent many years of my life translating classic and modern literature from one language to another: Russian to Uzbek, Uzbek to Russian, French to Uzbek, Uzbek to French, Turkish to Russian, English to Uzbek, etc. But I have never scrutinized any text so carefully as you scrutinized mine. Every single word was held up to the light. A writer is sometimes driven by some very personal association, or by the need for assonance or alliteration. As a result, he leaves some obscure places in his work. You exposed these. But you also helped to make me aware of deeper things. A professor at Tashkent State Conservatory used to say jokingly to me and my wife, "I have to explain a concept to my students so many times that in the end I even begin to understand it myself...” Thanks to all Robert's questions I have sometimes begun to understand the deeper meaning of what I wrote naively. But I honestly believe that Robert now knows the novel better than I do.
RC: Well, I don't know about that, but Liz and I have certainly found it a joy to work with an author who is always so generous. But then, as I’ve said in my preface, The Railway is a generous book. It’s an open, tolerant book, a book that has room in it for everything, for history and fantasy, for anger and tenderness, for satire and reverence.