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Hamid Ismailov, The Railway

Information and Questions for Reading

The introduction to our translation (by our friend Robert Chandler!) is rich with information of all kinds about Ismailov, so I'll provide only a little bit of background here. Ismailov, born in 1954, is young enough (and, more to the point, began his most important work late enough) that there is not much (read: almost no) information about him in the standard reference sources on Russian literature, or literature first written in Russian. He's an Uzbek who was born in Kyrgyzstan; The Railway was written in Uzbekistan before he left in 1992 and moved to the UK, where he found work in the media. Much of his published work has been poetry.

You can read his BBC World Service blog (in English), which sounds like good use of resources by the BBC, at or at - the November 9 entry, if you scroll down a bit, has some thoughtful writing about the diversity of Islam and how hard it is to represent it. He also has an official web site: - with links to his work in a variety of languages, including English and Russian.

1. Many of the stories we have read this fall involve terrible loss, especially of family members, and especially of parents whose young children are left to make their way without all the kinds of support that parents can offer. (In the cases of Aitmatov, Iskander and Ismailov, it's true of the authors as well as of their characters.) Where do you see this reflected in The Railway, and where else in our readings?

2. Of course a railroad track (with its two rails and connecting ties) looks like a long, long ladder - but why would the idea of connecting these two constructions, vertical and horizontal, not occur to someone who wasn't from Central Asia?

3. Ismailov is often described as a post-modernist writer; what elements make this book post-modern? How would you relate them to Magical Realism?

4. Robert Chandler mentions that Ismailov is an admirer of Platonov (and you may remember the reference to Ismailov in Chandler's introduction to Soul). What does that affinity suggest to you as a reader?

5. Why do you think Ismailov's works have been banned in Uzbekistan? (Even if you're only speculating based on this work, which he wrote there - and which was published in Moscow in 1997.)

More questions about Ismailov and The Railway:

6. What do you make of the cameo appearances of famous people? - They include not just Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (a big-deal Soviet dissident who won the Nobel Prize in 1970!), but also our friend Chingiz Aitmatov, and Jean-Paul Sartre - whose name seems motivated by the Sart ethnicity as much as anything...

7. Aitmatov's appearance is brief, but what kind of light does it cast on And the Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years? (Why might Ismailov need to perform a "strong misreading" of his more famous predecessor?)

8. On p. 226 we start reading Hoomer's notes (his name a take-off on Homer, the blind epic poet of ancient Greece?) - how do they fit with the rest of the novel?

9. Papers and books keep getting burned in this book - by accident, or out of ignorance. What might this suggest about Ismailov's presentation of Central Asian history?

10. What do you make of the very explicit sexual violence in the book? We've already read books in which sexual violence is delicately hinted at rather than rendered explicit: what is the difference for the reader?

11. Which of the characters have translated added nicknames, and which have nicknames in a language we don't recognize? Are there any traits shared by the characters in either of these groups (besides, perhaps, living in an era when fewer Russians came through the area)?

Many of the Central Asian languages, including Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek, are agglutinative, which means that a lot of the meaning that English or French might convey by saying extra words gets expressed by adding more to the word at hand. Because English doesn't do this - and Russian (another Indo-European language) doesn't either - the novel suggests these agglomerations by using dashes between parts of the lenghening names.

12. How would you describe the role of the railway in this book, and how does it compare to the railway in Aitmatov?