‘Like ice crunched under a boot’: Hamid Ismailov’s ‘The Devil’s Dance’


Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy

The first major Uzbek work to be translated directly into English recreates the last days of Abdulla Qodiriy, the Uzbek writer who was executed during Stalin’s Great Purge.

At the height of his popularity in the mid-1920s, Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy’s work “was recited to gatherings in tea-houses”, and “parents named their daughters after [his] heroines”.

The writer of the first full-length Uzbek novel, however, had the misfortune of being a non-conforming intellectual in the Soviet Union.

The Devil’s Dance by Hamid Ismailov (Tilted Axis Press)

Arrested and imprisoned during Stalin’s Great Purge, Qodiriy was eventually executed in 1938, along with a host of other Uzbek artists and intellectuals, such as great poet Cho’lpon (who translated Shakespeare into Uzbek), and the playwright and scholar Abdurauf Fitrat.

At the time of his death, Qodiriy was believed to have been working on his third novel, Emir Umar’s Slave Girl. The novel was set in the tumultuous mid-19th century, when the British and Russian Empires vied for control over Central Asia through a series of manoeuvres now known as “the Great Game”. Emir Umar’s Slave Girl – presumably destroyed by the Soviets – has never been found.

Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance – the first Uzbek novel translated into English (in 2018) – recreates Qodiriy’s last days in an NKVD prison. Written in the form of a frame story, The Devil’s Dance moves between Qodiriy’s interrogation and resistance in prison, and the events of his lost novel: the military conflict between the Central Asian Khanates of Kokand and Bukhara, amidst the intrigues of the Great Game.

While it begins with Qodiriy composing the Emir Umar’s Slave Girl in his head and in the darkness of prison, the characters and events soon take on a life of their own (by the end, in some of the most haunting passages of the book, even Qodiriy struggles to tell the difference). The Devil’s Dance then turns into two parallel stories that, at times, blend into each other: the tragedy of Qodiriy (and his comrades) under Soviet repression and, a century earlier, the tragedy of Nodira, the accomplished poet and stateswoman who tried to hold Kokand together in the face of a military onslaught by its more powerful neighbour, and the scheming of the British and Russian empires.

The two stories come together in the figure of Oyxon, the (forced) third wife of Nodira’s husband, Emir Umar, who provides a connecting link between the two eras in the memories of the prison’s enigmatic British inmates. As one after another, Qodiriy’s friends are taken from the prison to be shot: 

“… his tears were bathing the defunct and forgotten, his wretched people and their errant history, of whom beautiful, betrayed Oyxon seemed such a potent symbol, her memory in danger of being lost along with her poetry, another chapter of Uzbek literature brutally excised.” (p. 264)

In these words, we have the essence of the novel: the struggle of an individual spirit to survive under conditions of brutal repression. The Devil’s Dance explores what Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize citation pithily described as the “cartography of structures of power… [through] trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”.

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