A novel of author from Uzbekistan wins 2019 EBRD Literature Prize

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TASHKENT (TCA) — The Devils’ Dance, a novel by Hamid Ismailov and translated from Uzbek by Donald Rayfield (with John Farndon) has won the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize. It is the first novel translated from Uzbek into English, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) reported on its website.

The international prize, awarded at a ceremony at the Bank’s Headquarters in London on 7 March, was created in 2017 by the EBRD, in partnership with the British Council. The €20,000 prize will be split between the author and translator.

The EBRD Literature Prize champions the literary richness of its regions, which include almost 40 countries from Morocco to Mongolia, Estonia to Egypt.

It was also created to illustrate the importance of literary translation and to introduce the depth and variety of the voices and creativity from these regions to the English-speaking public and a wider global audience.

The Devils’ Dance, published by Tilted Axis Press, is the first novel written in Uzbek to be translated into English. It is an intriguing novel in two parts: the story of an unwitting 19th century courtesan, who navigates the intrigues of the courts and harems of the Uzbek emirates and khanates at a time when Britain and Russia are competing for influence in the region, told alongside the trials of a well-known Uzbek writer and literary dissident who is imprisoned and executed at the hands of the Soviet state in the late 1930s.

Rosie Goldsmith, Chair of the independent judging panel, said: “This is a thrilling novel about two real-life Central Asian poets. The 19th century Uzbek poet-queen Oyxon, once a humble slave girl, rose to power and influence, marrying three Khans along the way and was ultimately threatened with execution. Her 20th century counterpart is the writer Abdulla Qodiriy, renowned, brave and also imprisoned, who distracts himself from brutish beatings and interrogation by reconstructing the novel he was writing about Oyxon when he was arrested. With its spies, police, princes, poets and great plot, this is an Uzbek Game of Thrones. The storytelling style captures perfectly the prose and poetry of Central Asia while being incredibly readable in English. A novel within novel narrated by a great novelist with an equally great translation.”

Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek journalist and writer who has lived in the UK since 1992 and worked for the BBC World Service. Several of his Russian-original novels have been published in English translation, including The Railway, The Dead Lake, which was long listed for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and The Underground. The Devils’ Dance is the first of his Uzbek novels to appear in English.

Donald Rayfield is Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary University of London. Rayfield learnt Uzbek specifically to translate The Devils’ Dance. He is an author of books about Russian and Georgian literature, and about Joseph Stalin and his secret police. He is also a series editor for books about Russian writers and intelligentsia. He has translated a wide variety of Georgian and Russian poets and prose writers.

Sergey Kwan

TCA