The great Central Asian fiction you’ve never heard of: part one

A sunny afternoon, and a surprise in Waterstone’s: the August book of the month is by a Central Asian writer, and from 1957.

The crystalline beauty of Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamilia was the first Central Asian fiction I’d read, back in August, 2012, after several travel and history books on or mentioning the region by Peter Hopkirk, Colin Thubron, Fitzroy Maclean, Ella Maillart, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and even Marco Polo.

I’d seen copies of Aitmatov’s novels in the Silk Road Media office in Bishkek, but would never have expected a national bookshop chain back in the UK to promote one of his works. The 20th-century writer was acclaimed in his day in both the USSR and the West, but what about other Central Asian authors?

Some weeks later at a launch of a recent political history of Kyrgyzstan, I was told by a Kyrgyz lawyer that she had met the new, Russian owner of Waterstone’s at a party, and suggested he do more to bring Central Asian literature to British readers.

November. Back in Bishkek, hosting the first Central Asian literature festival since independence and one of the novels being launched is the first translation from Kyrgyz into English of When The Edelweiss Flowers Flourish and other stories by Begenas Sartov, written during the 1960s and 1970s.

Translated by Sartov’s niece, Shahsanem Murray, also a novelist, I read it during the first weeks of living in Kyrgyzstan, and it knocked me down. Ostensibly science fiction, it becomes apparent that the otherworldly visitors are from Moscow – how this got past Soviet censors is anyone’s guess.

The scenes of Kyrgyz writers and poets arguing and drinking in cafes are a gloriously Soviet version of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg doing the same, thousands of miles away in San Francisco and a few years earlier. From there the story moves to traditional mountain life in Kyrgyzstan that you won’t find anywhere else in English, and that tourists, today in Central Asia, pay handsomely for a glimpse of while staying in a yurt.  


At Pushkin House, in central London, I’d seen copies of books by Russian writers on sale. Hurramabad by Andrei Volos, is a collection of interlinked stories about the plight of Russians in Tajikistan following the collapse of the USSR, and descent into civil war.

I read it throughout an exhausted December in Bishkek. The heat, the bazaar, the charm and the brutality are so powerful that they are in the room with you, an uncaged beast. Volos’s family had lived in Dushanbe since the 1920s, eventually leaving during the 1990s when life became unbearable. The writing, and the translation by Arch Tait, transcend bleakness into dust-fired beauty: this is essential reading, and not only for those interested in Central Asia. Hurramabad won awards in Russia, including the Anti-Booker prize in 1998, and seems to make it on to Central Asian booklists online, but it’s unarguable quality deserves a wider, mainstream audience.

More to follow.

In the meantime, the only publishing house, anywhere, dedicated to bringing the contemporary writing of Central Asia and Eurasia to the West is Hertfordshire Press.



About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher
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