You’ll spend the new year wherever you spent New Year’s day, as the Russian proverb goes.
An Uzbek writer is thrown in jail by the Soviet secret police in Tashkent in 1938. We follow both his experiences being interrogated and being in a prison cell with a number of other prominent and less prominent prisoners. There’s also a story within the story, as we read about his attempt to reconstruct the novel he was writing before his jailing, which is about an 18th century Uzbek woman turned queen against her will.
It feels a bit unfair only giving this novel three stars on Goodreads, because it really started to grow on me during the second half of the book, and I have gotten a lot out of reading it. The reason for the three stars is that I struggled in the beginning and wasn’t always sure this was a book I wanted to keep reading. At some point in the story this changed and I became completely invested in both storylines. My star rating is more about me as a reader than the actual quality of the novel (which is probably always true – though I do try to bring some objectivity into it – but I can see it more clearly with this one).
For someone with little knowledge of the author’s country of origin this was a brilliant novel for learning. Both storylines – the jailed author who is a victim of Stalin’s Great Terror and the heroine Oyxon who is a victim of Islamic tyranny in the 1800s – is based on historical events. We get to know Uzbek writers and poets, Emirs and their wives and in both timelines we’re introduced to actual or potential British spies. Even though this is just a snippet in the country’s history, it is a thorough and engaging snippet, which only made me want to read more from Uzbekistan, both novels and non-fiction.
I’m not sure which storyline is more terrifying – and they do become somewhat parallel – but we get glimpses of good moments in the characters’ lives on occasion. From the little I learned about Uzbekistan during my political science studies, I believe that it is still an authoritarian – though I think not totalitarian – state, so progress towards a free society with significant political and civil rights for it’s citizens has been slow, if not non-existent. The author, Hamid Ismailov, can likely relate to his characters’ struggles, as he fled the country in 1992 because of his “unacceptable democratic tendencies”. I wanted to write my masters thesis on Kyrgyzstan, but ended up writing about Ukraine instead. After reading The Devil’s Dance my urge to learn more about the so-called stan-countries has definitely returned.