UZBEKISTAN: The Railway by Hamid Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov is one of the most widely published and translated authors from Uzbekistan, but his work remains banned in his home country and he is not allowed to return – there’s a great interview with him from 2018 about it here. He fled in the early 90s to the UK after the Karimov government opened criminal investigations into him for wanting to “overthrow the government” due to his writings. He had already written The Railway before he left – it was published in Russia under a pseudonym in 1997, and wasn’t translated into English until 2006.

The Railway is a web of short, interconnected vignettes about a fictional small town in rural Uzbekistan. Each chapter tells the tales of different residents, jumping in time anywhere from the late Tsarist era to the Brezhnev years, and builds up a portrait of how all the villagers’ lives connect. The styles of the different chapters change – from realistic to magical realism to parable – but it’s all very satirical, often very darkly so. Character flaws are magnified to the point of parody, but there’s real tenderness and emotion, and an undercurrent of the real dramatic changes that Central Asia has lived through in the 20th century.

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