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The Railway Paperback – 2 Mar 2006

3.6 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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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: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,617,330 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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