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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Backstreets

Perhat Tursun

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To purchase The Backstreets

Title: The Backstreets
Author: Perhat Tursun
Genre: Novel
Written: (1991/2015) (Eng. 2022)
Length: 157 pages
Original in: Uyghur
Availability: The Backstreets - US
The Backstreets - UK
The Backstreets - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Columbia University Press
  • A Novel from Xinjiang
  • Uyghur title: چوڭ شەھەر
  • Translated by Darren Byler and Anonymous
  • With an Introduction by Darren Byler

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Our Assessment:

B : solid variation of a familiar kind of tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Spectator . 17/9/2022 Cindy Yu
TLS . 30/9/2022 30/9/2022 Nick Holdstock
Wall St. Journal . 16/9/2022 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "In this poignant and disturbing short novel, the influence of Dostoevsky and Camus, among others, is clear. It’s not meant to be comfortable reading. Identity permeates the book in the same way that a fog forever buries Urumchi. (...) Yet this novel shouldn’t be defined by ethnic strife. At its core, Tursun is examining the ‘human experience’, as he told Byler many years ago. So our protagonist also battles his resentment of city life in general and the childhood trauma dealt by his alcoholic father who victimised his mother." - Cindy Yu, The Spectator

  • "The political situation in Xinjiang means that this translation is likely to be read exclusively, or at least primarily, through the lens of ethnic conflict, as yet another artefact of Uyghur suffering. But, while Tursun’s protagonist is subjected to prejudice at work and in the streets, this is only one of a series of nested forms of discrimination under scrutiny, inequities far from unique to Xinjiang. What gives The Backstreets a wider resonance is that the narrator is also marginalized by dint of being a rural migrant in a big city, a subaltern in a de facto colonial situation; and, perhaps, ultimately by being an individual. The novel’s relentless interiority and absurdity, and its anonymous bureaucrat narrator, clearly signal its debt to twentieth-century modernism." - Nick Holdstock, Times Literary Supplement

  • "If The Backstreets does not explicitly anticipate the policy of mass imprisonment, it eerily evokes the creeping social persecution of ethnic Uyghurs at the hands of a Han Chinese majority. (...) The Backstreets threads an understated social critique into a potent existential parable. (...) (T)he novel’s atmosphere -- filled with distinctive smells and sounds and laden with meditative gloom -- is strikingly original. The Backstreets is undoubtedly an important political document, but it is, most of all, a significant addition to the canon of outsider literature." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

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:

       At the conclusion of The Backstreets author Perhat Tursun notes the dates of the text:

Written in Ürümchi in 1990-1991.
Revised in Ürümchi in 2005.
Typed in Beijing and finished at 9 p.m. on February 15, 2006.
Revised version finalized in Ürümchi at 12:30 a.m. on March 7, 2015.
       Over the decades in which Tursun has worked on the text the situation of Uyghurs (such as the author and the protagonist of his novel) has changed greatly in Xinjiang, in a China that has itself changed markedly, economically and politically, over that same time. Published in English translation in 2022, a large shadow is inevitably cast over this novel by the more recent large-scale repression of Uyghurs and Uyghur culture -- clearly laid out by Darren Byler in his Introduction -- and, not least, Tursun's own fate, as he was 'disappeared' in 2018, with Byler unable to be more specific than that: "In early 2020, news filtered out that he was reportedly given a sixteen-year prison sentence".; his whereabouts and condition remain unknown.
       While the writing and fine-tuning of the text may have been decade-spanning, the action itself is limited to a single day -- albeit with the narrator reflecting repeatedly on both the recent and more distant past, including his childhood in rural Xinjiang and five years he spent at college in Beijing.
       The Backstreets is set in the metropolis of Ürümchi, where the nameless narrator has an office-job. He is unrooted -- not least in not being provided living space as part of his work-agreement (which would otherwise be expected); he was also hired on a probationary period, and:
During this long period of probation, I felt myself becoming a probationary object. I began to feel that my life would end at the end of this probationary period.
       So also, he does not have a key to the office, and has to wait every morning for someone to open the door. The only anchor he has in the city is the single drawer in a desk that has been given over to him:
The only thing that gave me a sense of direction was the only thing that belonged to be in this city -- the drawer in the office. All of my belongings were in that drawer, so no matter where I went in the city, that drawer would attract me to it with the pull of an invisible string.
       Accentuating the sense of the author not having any real hold here, the narrative has him almost constantly on the move, wandering through the city -- not aimlessly, but frequently losing his bearings. Indeed, his sense of dislocation seems to become heightened -- to the extent that:
     I suddenly realized that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't figure out where my place was, where I was, or what street I was on. Not only this, but I didn't really know which city I was in. The clarity of my thought faded, and I lost my perception of space. What country was I in ? I gradually came to realize that I didn't know what planet I was on. I was lost in the infinite universe.
       The Backstreets opens with the narrator describing an Ürümchi where: "the sun never really rises", and this sense of gloom, literal and metaphorical, suffuses the entire text. The narrator frequently mentions the ubiquitous fog in the city -- Byler noting that: "Tursun uses the word 'fog' to refer to the industrial pollution that turns Ürümchi, the capital of the Uyghur region, into one of the most polluted cities in the world". As the narrator eventually spells out -- though he hardly needs to --:
     The murky condition of the city in the fog, the murky mental condition of my brain, and the ambiguous position of my identity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region seemed to be totally of the same substance; sometimes they mirror each other and sometimes they seep into each other.
       One hold the narrator seeks is in numbers. He majored in math at college, and he remains obsessed by them. Even -- or especially -- here: "Numbers weren't only of essential significance for the universe, but also of essential significance for me".
       He finds and seeks out numbers in a variety of places here, from stray pieces of papers to house numbers. Even numbers, however, -- often lacking clarity here -- do not help him find the sorts of meaning (or positioning) he is seeking.
       Previous stations also only provided limited holds for the narrator. His childhood is not a particularly happy one, and his family one that did not hold together well. He spent five years studying in Beijing, but his experience seems to have been insular and isolated, barely extending beyond the circle of other Uyghur students he found himself in:
In that big city, only those twelve classmates existed as a part of my life. It was as if, except for them, the ten million people in the city didn't exist for me. My life with those twelve students was actually smaller than the small village I was from.
       In Ürümchi he seems even more isolated: repeated more than half a dozen times in the novel, set off in the text, is the reminder cum excuse and explanation:
     I don't know anyone in this strange city, so it's impossible for me to be friends or enemies with anyone.
       In many ways, The Backstreets is a universal story -- existentialist to the core, sunk in a murky gloom, a lone protagonist at sea in the fog of the world and existence. There are bits that are specific to the place(s), and the Uyghur experience, but much is basically a variation on the very familiar theme and modern experience. Tursun does this well enough -- but the sense of familiarity is almost overwhelming: we've been through this with so many similarly-suffering protagonists before, we've taken so many so very similarly bleak journeys through foggy, dark cities' backstreets ...... Possibly, some of the smaller details resonate particularly strongly with readers more familiar with the Uyghur experience of recent decades -- Byler writes of his anonymous co-translator: "He said, 'I feel as though this book was written just for me.' It resonated so strongly with him because the feelings in the narrative were his own feelings; the voice of the protagonist felt like his own voice." -- but for the foreign reader the dominating generality of description, almost all vague, dark murk, and its very lone protagonist leaves The Backstreets feeling like one more variation on a story we've heard (many times) before.
       Perhaps for a local audience, more site- and conditions-specificity isn't necessary, or perhaps Tursun wants to emphasize the universality of his protagonist's condition. As is, The Backstreets is a fine novel but, for all its (for most readers) alien setting and circumstances, it is almost too ordinary.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 August 2022

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The Backstreets: Reviews: Perhat Tursun: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from China

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About the Author:

       Uyghur author Perhat Tursun (پەرھات تۇرسۇن) was born in 1969.

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© 2022 the complete review

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