Manaschi, the latest novel published by Uzbek writer-in-exile Hamid Ismailov in English, begins with a radio presenter’s disturbing dream: Bekesh has a vision of his foster-father Baisal standing in a yurt with his hunting eagle perched on one gloved hand and a bowl of milk in the other. When Baisal drinks the milk, a hoard of horsemen charge in, accompanied by a howling wind, and the dream climaxes in an explosion of sound and movement. The following day, Bekesh learns of Baisal’s death and immediately sets off through the mountains to his native village.
Baisal was a celebrated Kyrgyz bard and shaman called manaschi, who gave up his craft some years before the start of the book. Manas is the Kyrgyz national epic, comparable to the Kavevala or The Song of Roland, though even longer. A manaschi learns and recites the poem, which is primarily concerned with the Kyrgyz battles with Turkic and Chinese people in the 9th century. It has been interpreted and reinterpreted (arguably, every time it is told) over centuries, including as a nation-building exercise for modern Kyrgyzstan. In fact, Kyrgyz may come from the Turkic word for the number 40, referring to the 40 clans united by the epic’s hero, and Kyrgyzstan’s flag features a 40-ray sun in allusion to these tribes.
Back in his village, populated by both Tajiks and Kyrgyz, Bekesh interprets his dream as a possible call to become a manaschi. He forges an uneasy bond with his foster-father’s grieving eagle and renews his friendship with his young nephew, Dapan. The manaschi tradition is usually passed down via a significant male relative or mentor, but both Dapan and Bekesh learned the legends from their mother and grandmother, subverting a tale otherwise focused on men and masculinity.
There is no such thing as an ‘official’ Manas text — it is made anew by each manaschi. A true manaschi develops a shaman-like power, reciting the epic in a trance state, endowed with mystical abilities to move through time. We catch snippets of the epic retold by Bekesh and Dapan, and in Bekesh’s radio recordings of the late Baisal. It is heroic, melancholic and occasionally uncomfortably lewd. Above all, the Manas is as violent and divisive as it is ultimately unifying. Ismailov recites his modern Manas gravely, giving all the necessary weight to the contemporary parallels — Islamists against the spiritual manaschi, Tajik against Kyrgyz, villagers against Chinese development in Central Asia.
Like much of Ismailov’s work, Manaschi plays with ancient myths and the cadence of history, hinting that it is storytelling itself that truly transcends time. As Bekesh reckons with his possible calling, he instead finds himself playing a character in the epic’s real-life reenactment and must find a way to face history’s endless repetition. The novel is rich in legend, poetry, and parables, Ismailov’s unmistakable tragicomic voice expertly translated by Donald Rayfield. A beguiling, elegant work of mastery from a celebrated storyteller.
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