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The Railway Paperback – 2 Mar 2006

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvill Secker (2 Mar. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1843431610
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843431619
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,597,474 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"... Ismailov has that same rare skill of bringing events to life" -- Big Issue

"The Railway perfectly captures the dreamy, circling music of Hamid Ismailov’s prose". -- Chandaras Choudhury, Sunday Telegraph

"extraordinary patchwork of a Russian novel" -- The Times

"scintillating novel… every strand shines…ironic, hilarious, tender...a poet’s novel, full of memorable descriptive passages and heart-wrenching asides. -- Independent

"…skilled craftsman…brilliantly done…just drink in the novel. It is a work of rare beauty – an utterly readable, compelling book" -- New Statesman

Extraordinarily rich… Handler’s preface is a superb essay. -- Donald Rayfield, Literary Review

‘all picaresque exuberance, a jumble of influences from Persian to Soviet and beyond.’ -- The Sunday Herald, July 16th 2006

Book Description

Vibrant, multi-cultural and surreal satire set in Uzbekistan in the mid-twentieth century.

Translated by Robert Chandler.

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Depressaholic on 8 Sept. 2006
Format: Paperback
Ismailov's `The Railway' is a brilliant example of what reading world literature is all about for me. I barely knew where Uzbekistan was, never mind anything about its history and culture. Ismailov's book brought a whole century of the country's history to life in a way that was at times hilarious, thought provoking and tragic, and left me with a definite feeling of what Uzbekistan had gone through in the twentieth century.

`The Railway' is a sort of picaresque novel, following the adventures of many of the inhabitants of a fictional town (Gilas). The book is populated with a vast array of characters, and begins with the first Russian revolution (1905) and ends in the late 1980s, when Ismailov began writing. It chronicles the absurdity of a town on the periphery of the Soviet Union, swept up by the communist revolution but strangely immune to the worst excesses of Stalinism because of its distance from (and irrelevance to) Moscow. Gilas (and Uzbekistan) is at the crossroads of many races and nations, featuring Uzbeks, Sarts, Uighirs, Russians, Koreans, German exiles, Muslim, Christian and Atheist. The stories of most of the individuals are comic, albeit with rather dark humour on occasion. There is the man who circumcises himself with his own pistol while trying to blow his sleeping son's head off, or the man who has been drinking locomotive brake fluid for years thinking that it was vodka due to a miscommunication with a train driver. Ismailov tries to cram in as many Uzbek types as possible, to give as complete a picture of the twentieth century of this nation as he was able. However, the book is not entirely picaresque, because all of the stories lead to the life of `the boy', an unnamed character born in modern Gilas.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Sofia on 1 Sept. 2007
Format: Paperback
Ismailov's The Railway is a collection of short stories set around the inhabitants (and their descendants) of the fictionalised town of Gilas over the course of the 20th Century. Each piece tells the tale of a particular character/event, but not necessarily in chronological order and not without a certain overlap and retelling or undermining of earlier stories.

The stories themselves are full of Soviet black humour, of well-meant corruption, ineptitude and misplaced dilligence: of sign-writers for a town of illiterates; of simpletons promoted to positions of responsibility; of bribe-taking as a day-to-day event; of loud-speakers announcing news incorrectly to the town; of accidental Bolshevik heroes and equally accidental enemies of the Motherland. However, alongside all this somewhat familiar almost Russian Soviet-ness comes much of the more exotic nature of Uzbekistan: the various nationalities exiled there (Tatars, Koreans, Siberian peoples, Gypsies, Volga Germans to name but a few); the Uighars who build graves for their dead with ladders reaching to heaven (thus making them an inappropriate labour force for the construction of the railway - a horizontal ladder); the Muslim rites hidden and adapted in a Communist land; the bizarre popularity of Bollywood films, the heat and harshness of the desert; great travelling shepherds, crossing thousands of miles with their flocks, etc.

The stories all hang more or less on the railway of the book's title and the railway imagery in episodic, stop-start nature of the stories remains throughout the book. Chandler's translation also takes great care to keep up aliteration and rhyming rhythm to support this theme.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Peter Scott-presland on 7 Nov. 2009
Format: Paperback
The other two reviewers have summed up the structure of the book and the contents very well. However, my Book Club has just read this, and I was the only person who really liked it. So this is not a book to everyone's taste. Firstly, the cast is huge - over 100 characters - and not all of them spring to life as they should. Second, although there is a timeline through the book, the absence of plot proved a hurdle. The episodes with the Boy occur only occasionally, and they are, with the exception of the last, the description of his circumcision, short. Not much of a thread.

I found this disconcerting for the first 50 pages, and then I relaxed into it, decided to take each episode as it came, as a folk tale, and in my mind's eye I saw it as a vast quilt, a bit like the AIDS quilt, where each panel had its own composition and meaning. In this frame of mind, it became an object of beauty. It needs to be said that this is a VERY funny book in parts, particularly when people do something stupid for the best of motives. Like, when a famous singer is visiting, the town decides to acquire a piano for him. And because it's an old piano, they have to paint it up nice and new, in white car paint, including the black keys. The best of the characters are lustily comic, almost Dickensian: such as Mefody-Jurisprudence, who learnt all the Soviet Penal Code - including commentaries - by heart while in a Gulag, but now can only remember it after three bottles of vodka. He has a friend who after an argument always pees on his bald head - and, wonder of wonders, all that potassium makes his hair grow again. It's also a very violent and painful book. People are exiled at whim, there is a large amount of mutilation and rape, especially rape of young people.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 6 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A Narrative History of Uzbek Life 8 Sept. 2007
By K. Kostiuk - Published on
Format: Paperback
Reading "The Railway" is like hearing an elderly relative tell folk stories about the history of a time and place. The novel includes snippets of details about the lives of people in the Uzbek town of Gilas. The reader is taken through stories and historical events from the last 1800s to the 1970s, all through the perspectives and experiences of the people of Gilas.

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in knowing more about Central Asia and better understanding the lives the people there have lived in modern history. I have lived in Central Asia and read many non-fiction books about the region, but for me, reading this novel gave me a fresh understanding and sense of the history and collective knowledge of a group of people in the region. The tone is sarcastic, sad, serious, and funny all at the same time. No single tragedy or grand achievement is given too much attention, so that one truly gets the sense of a passage of time and the place of individual experiences in a much larger world and historical context.
I Really, Really Wanted to Like this book... 30 Dec. 2013
By Tasawuf - Published on
Format: Paperback
Having been somewhat fascinated and curious about Central Asia, and its diverse peoples, I was excited to find this book. I knew from other translated books that so much depends on the skill and craft of the translator. So, I can't say with absolute certainty that my difficulties with "The Railway" had nothing to do with the translation. However, my sense is that the translation had little to do with my discomfort, and ultimate abandonment of the book.

Too many names of too many characters from too many locations...serious overkill, constant distraction, choppy flow, etc., all served to dull and overwhelm the exotic flavorings of the goulash. Rarely do I (these days anyway) deliberately not finish what I start...2 attempts on this book was enough. Yet, the allure of Central Asia is still tantalizing.
Simplistic 30 Jun. 2013
By osman aray - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Simplistic by all means! Hardly managed to finish it.I am waiting for his new novel "Comrade Islam", hopıng it will fulfill readers expectations more!
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I did not like this book at all. However. 5 Jan. 2014
By JLW - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The translator seems to have injected himself into practically everything. The stories contained within this book are utterly mesmerizing. Mesmerizing. Just, crazy, obscure, vital things. Any US Serviceman/Woman serving in this area not reading this book is doing themselves a huge disservice. I carry images from this book in my soul.

The girl, shooting herself in the heart. The building of the railway itself. Just, incredible. This is a beautiful, vital, and important book. And the UK Translator can go die in his/her campaign of self-aggrandisement.

Edit: That was pretty cruel. Although, it's a unique piece. I'm proud that I was privileged to read an English translation, and the translator, whom I told to 'go die', obviously had an immense emotional stake in this book. I've had to read this book several times, and do, and it is not easy reading. It is just a jumble of emotions, and leaves me with a feeling of confusion and territorial desire, after the fact.

Yeah, the translator did inject himself into everything, but, honestly, it wasn't a bad shot. I apologize.
5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Scatterbrained Stories 17 July 2010
By Paul Anderson - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As one reviewer stated that it is like an "elderly relative" recalling stories - only if that person is completely scatterbrained. The writer jumps from story to story with little or no connection and without a central theme or purpose. Yet there has got to be a hundred plus names of persons who often appear once and then are never heard from again. Its like listening to an old timer who is rambling on and on and you keep looking at the clock wondering if a enough time has passed before you can politely say "Well...look at the time....gotta go"
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