My favorite short story from Hurramabad was the third one, “Sammy.” An old Russian woman has a garden snake live with her that slithered up from her basement. She domesticated it with milk and benign kindness only to find out later that it is a poisonous viper. Interesting ending which I thought must have a lot of symbolic meaning to it. If only the author would unwrap some of the mystery to this simple story. The others like “A Local Man,” “First on the List,” “The House by the River,” and “A Foreigner” are about men trying to fit into the society but because of war, prejudice and general chaos, the stories either have ambivalent or dismal endings.
Some quotes I found interesting from “Hurramabad:”
p. 20 – “The ills to which all flesh is heir.” [I wonder where that quote is from?]
p. 28 ‘ “Bud-nabud, iak kase bud…” Maybe it happened, and maybe it didn’t, but once upon a time…” Traditional beginning of Tajik fairtytales [Volos perhaps used much truth from his living in Tajikistan to build his fictional short stories]
p. 35 “Apparently, there is in this world a sophisticated pleasure to be derived from making a fool of a man, and knowing that not only is he unaware of what you are up to, but is actually under the impression that your derision is the height of hospitality. If Makushin had not later stayed in Tajikistan, if he had not insisted on squeezing himself into a foreign skin which rankled to this day, he would have remained in blissful ignorance of who they had crucified him, their drunk and happy guest, at the table of hospitality. He was a foreigner, an outsider, he didn’t belong. He failed to register even ten percent of the overtones with which their words resonated; he saw only what was on the surface. They played their game with him as if he were an insect blindly crawling over a puzzling glass surface which others could see through.”
p. 37 “In olden times, they say, at the feasts of the beks, there was one special little sheep’s bone they put in here for guests they did not approve of…Clever people say God created it specially for such a purpose…Do you see how? Yes, they would place a little, tiny bone so that the guest would surely choke and die…Oh, things like that the beks would surely do!
p. 49 “Then he heard the shrill voices of two old traders at neighboring counters and, coming closer, halted in amazement. To his ear it seemed that, however improbably, they were furiously reciting poetry, trading menacing, singsong lines from some infinite epic. Listening as carefully as he could, Makushin finally made out that this verse dialogue revolved around something called piez. He decided, upon reflection, that this must be the dawn, the beloved, a nightingale or some such entity. He had heard a lot about the beauty of oriental poetry. On the other hand, given the way those present periodically burst out laughing and slapped their knees, the poem might be of a humorous nature. When the recital finally began to pall, he sought clarification from a stocky greengrocer who, smiling courteously, explained that Shavkat and Fotekh were simply swearing at each other, piez being an onion. Fotekh was railing at Shavkat for selling his pathetic Reghar onions at the same price Fotekh was charging for his fine Danghara onions.
“But why are they arguing in rhyme?” Makushin asked in perplexity. Judging from the greengrocer’s expression he had no idea what rhyme was, but was not about to admit that to a stranger.
p. 66 “Farukh sits high on the back of a sheep. Bright shine the stars in the dark sky so deep.” [a kind of shibboleth/sibboleth test] So that was their game. They were making him recite this nursery rhyme in order to test his pronunciation. A Kulyab from the countryside would invariably come to grief on the sibilants in “sheep” and “shine.”
p. 218 “Muslim [that’s the character’s name] had called him brother since fate had set the two of them side by side in the ranks of one of the vigilante units, handfuls of frightened and unfortunate people who had joined together at the crossroads in tight little groups on a February night of pogroms. The crucified city was howling in fear and pain; the air itself seemed full of violence, rape and robbery.”
p. 228 “What kind of life are we living now? We’re like troglodytes!”
p. 232 “The past was open and comprehensible, but for some reason there was no future. In place of lively pictures of his aspirations he was seeing only a grey shroud in which there seemed to be no place for him at all.”
p. 237 “Beat your own people to scare the foreigners”
As we celebrate this Good Friday another “stranger” who came to earth and was beaten and brutally killed for our sins [just watch Mel Gibson’s “Passion” to know what bloody violence is], I pause to reflect on the hope that we have come Easter Sunday. Hurramabad has no hope though it is supposedly “the mythical city of joy and happiness where there is always an abundance of fresh water and shade.”