The 20th century was a century of migration, especially in the clay-footed giant called the Soviet Union. Entire peoples, entire nations were transplanted. The Russians came to Tajikistan, squeezed in between Afghanistan and China, their children made a home there, and when the Soviet Union collapsed their grandchildren were run off.
Hurramabad is a novel dressed up as a short story collection. Tajik/Russian Andrei Volos serves up his former homeland in a series of stand-alone chapters woven together by larger events, a nation described through individuals with whom we check in every 20 years or so, a number of snapshots of a country were everything revolves around the half-mythic capital of Hurramabad. And he does it in a language so alive and hyper-realistic that you can almost hear the horses and diesel engines, smell the tea, mountain winds and gunpowder.
Because there’s always gunpowder. It took the Soviet Union four brutal years of warfare to conquer Tajikistan, and once it fell apart the country descended into years of civil war. At first the stories are disconnected, with almost no indications to tie them to any particular time period (a friend compared it to the Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, whom I’ve not read yet); the daily life in Tajikistan wasn’t all that different in 1950 compared to 1850 or 1650, and the most we get might be that something happened ten years after the war. Which war? Well, there’s always one someplace. And when the dictatorship is lifted, everyone scrambles for control, ”we” become ”them” and ”us”, warlords and religious fanatics all try for a piece of the cake.
The former masters don’t do well. Suddenly the few Tajik words they’ve picked up in school can mean the difference between life or death, as the graffiti on the wall starts reading “RUSSIANS DON’T LEAVE WE CAN ALWAYS USE SLAVES”. Sooner or later, the conquerors have to choose between staying and fighting, or running back “home” to a Russia where they’ve never set foot and are just as foreign and unwanted as in the country they grew up in. (One could write a book – hell, a hundred books – on the subject of nationalism in newly independent nations.)
But despite the fact that much of the book is a close-up of both how a country is created and how it falls apart, how violence takes over, how people learn to hate each other for the names they give each other... despite the fact that the one Tajik word everyone seems to know is the curse “Padarlanat” (literally “damn your father”), the individual scenes are often painfully beautiful. Volos has an incredible eye for details, and every person here – the old widow living with a snake in her kitchen, the cocky warlord, the soon-to-be ex-pat who tries everything to get a tombstone for his father just so they won’t just disappear without a trace – is so alive and real that you can’t help but love them, for all their considerable faults.
Remember the ending of Deer Hunter, after the funeral, where they sit down around the table and quietly start singing “God Bless America”, not in praise or blind jingoism but to themselves, to capture something that despite all the loss and betrayal still makes sense? There’s Hurramabad, only half a world away and with street signs in Cyrillic letters.