The imprisoned Uyghur novelist you need to read

aa hundred years agoJames Joyce Ulysses Dublin (plus all of Western civilization) collapsed into an epic one-day outing. The sparkling radical novel did not end with the famous final “yes”, but with the coordinates of its lengthy composition: “Trieste – Zurich – Paris 1914 – 1921”. It was a record of endurance and denial (Joyce’s epic is just as much as his hero Bloom), and a way to put the reader’s efforts into perspective. This book-form-changing beast might have been hard to beat, but imagine how hard it would be Type.

This logo may have found its match in the one attached to it back streetsIt is the first book by Uyghur writer Berhat Tursun to appear in English. century Ulysses, this short novel is likewise a deep inner affair, for a day, as an unknown narrator haunts the misty city of Urumqi. (according to Profile 2015“devastated” Turson Joyce, along with other modernists.) After the book’s smashing conclusion, Turson shares his itinerary and journey, in a way that expands on the tour of strength.

Written in Urumqi 1990-1991.
Revised in Urumqi in 2005.
Printed in Beijing and finished at 9 pm on February 15, 2006.
The revised version was completed in Urumqi at 12:30 AM on March 7, 2015.

There’s a note of mystery (why these huge gaps?), and a glimpse of pride in the stern timestamp: We can imagine Tursun peeking at the clock in the early hours of March 7, finally putting down his pen.

Today, frighteningly, the cuda resembles an unfinished tombstone. Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the largest province in China, where US Department of StateBeijing since 2017 “carried out a campaign of mass arrests and political indoctrination against the Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslims… [using] Surveillance techniques and fabricated administrative and criminal charges.

In his introduction, Darren Bayler, one of the novel’s translators, writes that Tursun was a victim of this alleged persecution, and disappeared “at the height of his powers” by Chinese authorities in 2017, along with other Uyghur intellectuals (including an anonymous fellow-translator) . That year, a high-ranking official in Xinjiang make a push “To bring together everyone who should be rounded”, and it’s not hard to imagine back streetsWith her portrayal of racism against Uyghurs, she put Tursun on the authorities’ radar. In 2020, Byler learned that Tursun, then 51, had been sentenced to 16 years in prison while in custody.

The irony is that Tursun, a secular Muslim steeped in 20th century Western literature and philosophy, was himself the target of death threats from angry conservative Uighur Muslims from his 1999 novel, The art of suicide. (Reporter Bethany Allen Ebrahimi, Whoever wrote that 2015 profile called him “the Chinese Salman Rushdie.”) Persecuted by the religious right And the His opponent, the Chinese Communist Party, Tursun would be a heroic figure regardless of the quality of his production. It’s bittersweet to us English-speaking, then, that our simple guide—136 pages, distilled over a quarter century—is close to a perfect work of art.

TIt’s the back streets It is a restless book that freely switches between different modes. Some pages are filled with workplace dark comedy; In other parts, it is read as a dreamlike synthesis of amnesia or insanity, similar to Kazuo Ishiguro’s unreasonable Or the Stanley Kubrick movie closed eyes. Bayler’s introduction notes that Tursun has “translations of even Nabokov’s most obscure novel”, and back streets Shimmering luster and distorted truths call to mind evil bendAnd the Invitation to beheadEspecially his novel published in 1930. Eyewhose narrator died. The movie Quentin Compson by William Faulkner is also here, as is the movie Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

In the end, the book plunges into pure horror, with accuracy that is at once and fully acquired. Necessary clues have been passed through the previous pages, not least how the city of Urumqi is portrayed as a body in distress, nestled in a valley resembling a “deep wound scar”, with buildings whose windows lit up like “man’s spit with bleeding teeth” or “yellowish pus”. The hilariously bleak surfaces of the litter from the persistent mist: a broom with a handle that is “worn out the size of a rat’s body,” a graded newspaper with “an advertisement for hospital treatment for impotence and an advertisement for a missing person.”

The anonymous narrator is essentially anti-hero, pedantic and disjointed, petty and grandiose, sex-thirsty and repressed, educated but superstitious. He left his village in Xinjiang to attend university in Beijing, where he majored in mathematics, nurturing his “unnatural desire for numbers.” Oddly enough, when he moves to Urumqi, near the house, he feels more lost than he did in the Chinese capital. Far from grounding him, his athletic talent fuels his fantasies. For him, numbers are a mystical symbol that hides universal realities, perhaps controlled by an ancient superpower or a secret society: “Every time I saw some kind of number, I could not get away until I memorized this number strongly and it stuck in my mind.”

Thus, some numbers on a scrap of paper guide him in his futile quest to find housing. His displacement is real and figurative. His curious lack of knowledge of the streets reflects the fact that Urumqi has expanded from a city of about 1.5 million people in the 1990s to more than 4 million today, while its area has quadrupled. By 2020, it was one of the most polluted cities in the world. Ürümchi from back streets It feels like a rickety little place and becomes impossible to navigate with every page, as the mist turns into a toxic substance.

By day, the narrator sits at a desk with one usable drawer, rickety, cherished as “the only thing in this town that belongs to me.” The remaining drawers are locked, still filled with belongings of someone who was there 11 years ago and refuses to clean them. His co-workers, who appear to be Han Chinese, casually bully him for his lack of social standing and imperfect Mandarin. When the hat is passed to raise funds for flood victims, he refuses to donate. A colleague hissed that people all over the world, even our enemies, were mourning this calamity. She asked me why I was indifferent. She said I had overstepped the bounds of decency. Even after chopping, he still can’t take a break:

I told them that my condition was worse than those whose houses were destroyed by the floods, because I did not even have a house to destroy in disaster. After they heard that, they were even more angry at my brutality… Every word I used to justify my position made me even more guilty.

back streets It gives voice to the downtrodden, and records the narrator’s past traumas and current indignities in a rapid stream of consciousness free from chapter breaks. And his observations have a harmonic quality: “The endless sounds of cars could be heard in the mist. As this sound mingled with the mist, it made the mist seem even more intense. The lights of the cars faded like last embers in the ashes. The incessant sound of cars was precisely the silence of the city.” Such an accumulation of noise, air, and light risks claustrophobia, but Turson makes it exciting, as the density of the fog finds its way into the prose.

The fog is a useful barrier, allowing the narrator to return periodically to his upbringing in sticks: “I miss the broad white hills, the sand that rises everywhere along the clean village roads, the bright yellow fields of ripe wheat.” This poetic situation turns out to be a deception as it gradually reveals About the meanness and sadness of his youth. He remembers that he wore the hand of his silent older sister, and spent the nights with his mother searching for their father, who they feared had passed out while drunk in a watering ditch. There is a glint of humor amid the gloom: His sister wound up marrying a man thirty years her senior, before her brother raised her by eloping with a woman. 40 older years.

If his rural Uyghur upbringing was harsh, his life as a Uyghur man in Urumqi can be brutal in every sense of the word. Bayler’s last book, Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Behavior and Masculinity in a Chinese Cityuses back streets As a start to a conversation with Uyghur men in situations similar to her protagonist – adrift, they were marked as minorities. (“We talked about how the city’s young immigrants needed to develop a new sense of direction; and how the geographical features they used to organize their world seemed muddled.” Atrocities unknown. No one will help him. A madman vows to “choke up” the Uyghurs in a certain area; Tursun prints the word over 200 times in a row A woman mistaking her for a “hub of clothes” comes to him with a machete. A “smiley-faced” office supervisor explains that “talking to me was not just a waste of his time, but was actually a crime of wasting the time of his entire ethnic nationality” – i.e. Chinese Hania.

At one point, a stranger emerges from the mist, “like a dead fish swaying in the water” with a Uyghur folk song on his lips. The narrator hears him fast forward through one of the lines, from which he concludes that the stranger has only a short way to travel, because some Uyghurs (as the translator’s note tells us) “measure space by the time it takes to sing songs while walking.” at certain moments, back streets It feels more like a conventional novel than a novel, a mourning song, a chilling inflection (“I don’t know anyone in this strange city, so it’s impossible for me to be friends or enemies with anyone”) seems more desperate with each time. The tone rises as its singer traverses Urumqi’s “torsion disorder”, everywhere oppressed, and memory attacks him. Without giving anything away: Once he knows what his song is, it’s over.

The book’s title might sound Springsteen to the American ear: There is no triumphant chorus or supporting chord. You will only hear such music when Perhat Tursun is released. Until then, those who watch Blooms Day every June 16 to celebrate Joyce’s Day Ulysses I must honor March 7, the day Tursun finished his great work and may have sealed his fate.

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