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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Devils' Dance

Hamid Ismailov

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To purchase The Devils' Dance

Title: The Devils' Dance
Author: Hamid Ismailov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 291 pages
Original in: Uzbek
Availability: The Devils' Dance - US
The Devils' Dance - UK
The Devils' Dance - Canada
  • Uzbek title: Жинлар базми ёхуд Катта ўйин / Jinlar bazmi yoxud katta o'yin
  • Translated by Donald Rayfield
  • Poetry translated by John Farndon
  • With Afterwords by the translators

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engaging dual-narrative

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 15/3/2018 .
Financial Times . 23/3/2018 Caroline Eden
The Guardian . 17/5/2018 Phoebe Taplin
New Statesman . 14/4/2018 Jane Shilling
TLS . 13/6/2018 Natasha Randall

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) beguiling novel of sinister enchantments and mind-stretching affinities." - The Economist

  • "In writing it, Ismailov is consciously positioning himself in the dissident literary tradition, alongside the rounded-up intellectuals whom Qodiriy meets in prison. (...) Ismailov opens up multiple worlds and at times the teeming subplots, ruminations and digressions may be disorientating for readers weaned on more linear narratives. If there is a logic, it is that of the dream -- or nightmare -- and a vivid one at that, with language by turns rebellious, ironic, witty and lyrical " - Caroline Eden, Financial Times

  • "The succession of rulers, rapes and fratricides rivals Game of Thrones, and the novel has a similarly playful central metaphor." - Phoebe Taplin, The Guardian

  • "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." - Jane Shilling, New Statesman

  • "Ismailov’s novel resurrects Qodiriy and his stillborn novel in an act of filial respect. Indeed, the title of this book is taken from a short story of the same title by Qodiriy, which describes the writer’s father’s horrific death juxtaposed against the figure of an exquisite and angelic woman. " - Natasha Randall, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Devils' Dance begins with Uzbek author Abdulla Qodiriy pruning the shoots on his grape vines, and finding inspiration for a story. The story continues to unfold over the course of the novel, but not in the comfort of his home, surrounded by family: only a few pages in we learn:

On 31 December, 1937, a freezing winter’s day, Abdulla was taken from his home and put in prison, neither charged nor tried.
       When he is first imprisoned he comes across a volume of the Soviet Criminal Code and looks up the articles under which he is apparently being held, but he can't make a connection. Nor can he find any other provisions which he thinks he might be guilty of:
After reading the book from beginning to end, he had still failed to find an article that applied to him; so he began inventing new articles, comic ones which he might well be charged under -- 'Dreaming', 'Reflecting', 'Taciturnity', and so on. But none of those activities were listed in the Code.
       Of course, the legal concepts of guilt and crime were loosely interpreted in those dark years, and readers familiar with Qodiriy know his fate -- dead less than ten months later, one more victim of Stalin's Great Purge. Given the setting and circumstances, it can't come as any surprise even to those who had never heard of the famous Uzbek writer, either. Ismailov's novel is a chronicle of those last months of Qodiriy's life, spent imprisoned, interrogated, (almost) never quite certain of his circumstances and what awaits him.
       The fact that he is, as a fellow prisoner identifies him: "the greatest writer in Uzbekistan !" isn't much help in his situation. Still, the story he conceived continues to unfold in his mind -- he's unable to write it down --, both an escape and a fall-back on the one thing that he is able to control: "What kept Abdulla alive was his novel". He practically can't keep himself from spinning it out, losing himself in this other-world as in a daydream, his essence as author-creator impossible to keep down, even in these worst of circumstances
       The novel Qodiriy imagines is set in the nineteenth century, at the time of the 'Great Game'. Local and foreign powers fight for control and English spies fall in and out of favor -- but the central figure is the thrice-married Oyxon, a talented poet subjected to terrible abuse by the men who treat her as property. The events of the novel reflect and mirror present times and even Qodiriy's circumstances, a constant overlap that eventually even extends to Qodiriy apparently finding himself in a cell with two Englishmen, and later:
Abdulla was trying to make sense of what was happening to him. Whether it was all a dream, a piece of theatre, or the visions of a deranged mind; how had he not made the connection at the time ?
       Thrown together in prison, there is some sense of community, at least among the political prisoners, which extends to the sharing of stories: Qodiriy isn't the only one with one to tell. But for him, it always comes back to his own developing novel. A sense of separateness remains, regardless of the circumstances he is thrown into (as is also the case for his Oyxon), and so too he emphasizes in his interrogations that, while he admits to an Uzbek nationalist phase in his life and writing -- one of the offences he is accused of -- and that one of his early novels even was anti-Soviet in outlook, he was never part of any organization, of any sort:
Yes, I am a nationalist, and yes, I have been active in spreading nationalist ideas in literature and in the press. But I tell you again and again that I have never known or been a member of any organisation, neither National Unity nor National Independence.
       Language is central to much of the novel -- including to the crimes Qodiriy is accused of, and to his art. To speak and to write Uzbek at the time is suspect; beyond that language itself is undergoing change at the time, including, for Uzbek, the system it is written in (rendering old books and documents less or in-accessible to new generations). As a fellow prisoner complains to Qodiriy:
Children don’t get taught the old script in school these days. Our language and our history are being erased…
       There's a constant mix of languages in the prison, characters stumbling in their communication, in languages they are not fluent in.
       Significantly, The Devils' Dance is Ismailov's first novel to be translated from the Uzbek into English, rather than the Russian (in which he also writes), and Uzbek language and literature (and/as identity) are fundamental to the story -- not only because one of the language's most famous authors is the central figure. So, for example, Qodiriy at one point realizes he: "had to get back to his Uzbek way of doing things", as:
From childhood, it was drilled into our minds together with our mother tongue: if you start an idea, take it to the finish line ! This is because the Uzbek language’s structure is such that until you get to the end of a verbal phrase, in order not to miss the meaning of the verb, whether the sentence is a question, a supposition or an exclamation, or a sizeable exposition, you won’t know what it means. This was the motive power running through Abdulla’s novel.
       Literature, in particular, is also of great significance, as is made clear from the description of Qodiriy's eye-opening encounter with a work by the also imprisoned fellow writer, the poet Cho’lpon, some two decades earlier:
Nobody had yet written in this language; compared to it, literature hitherto was like faded rags, tattered and decrepit.
       And the text itself is full of poetry, the characters constantly recollecting or composing verses (here translated with the help of secondary translator, John Farndon) -- a nod to and reflection of a literary culture in which the place of poetry is much more prominent.
       At one point Ismailov also notes:
     Abdulla was well aware of the enormous importance of tiny details for his story. So-called trivia was precisely what made a novel plausible and entertaining or, as he considered it, ‘well-irrigated’. That was why he tirelessly and persistently collected details, trying hard to get at the very roots of every future hero.
       There is a great deal of supporting detail in The Devils' Dance, but the novel is certainly considerably more than just a trivia-collection. It shifts back and forth between Qodiriy's experiences and his imagination, with background and history filled in during conversations and interrogations, providing considerable insight into the cultures and the times (both nineteenth century and Soviet-era). Essentially a jailhouse novel, it is not a grim wallow in day-to-day prison life -- though Ismailov captures that well as well along the way -- but also avoids becoming too escapist.
       Ismail's restraint, in how he brings the story to its inevitable conclusion, is also effective and moving, completing his impressive portrait of the artist and his culture -- and his dreadful times.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 April 2018

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The Devils' Dance: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hamid Ismailov (Хамид Исмайлов) was born in 1954, and writes in Russian and Uzbek.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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