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Pursuit of Happiness

Black CatThe Dancer From Khiva: One Muslim Woman's Quest for Freedom By Bibish Translated by Andrew Bromfield Black Cat 256 pages. $14
Nothing is more crucial to the art of first-person storytelling than the reader's connection to the main character. Let us fall in love with the narrator, let us sympathize with her, and any other fault in a book's craft might readily be overlooked. A thinness of dramatization becomes a stylistic choice. Cliches are dismissed as endearing truisms. Redundancies in the narrative are nothing more than quirks of emphasis. A smitten reader will forgive all. And so it is possible to imagine how a roughly hewn first book -- a memoir scratched in A4 notebooks by a Central Asian immigrant uncomfortable in the Russian language -- might not only get published but go on to become a literary sensation.

Bibish's memoir, "The Dancer From Khiva: One Muslim Woman's Quest for Freedom," has now been released in English, in an enjoyable and highly readable translation by Andrew Bromfield. At first glance, the package has all of the elements that make an acquisitions editor of a publishing house drool: a strong female Muslim protagonist who overcomes sexual brutality and the strict edicts of her provincial village to achieve something of value in the wider world. Jaded readers, so familiar with tell-all memoirs in which the narrator is no more than a victim of fate, crying out for admiration (Look at what I've overcome!) might happily pass up the chance to suffer through another chronicle of hard knocks. We've all got it bad. Do we really need to read more of this stuff?

It turns out, we do.

Growing up in a village outside of Khiva in the late 1960s, at the age of 8 Bibish was kidnapped, driven out to the desert and brutally gang-raped -- a tragedy made all the worse because an Uzbek woman who had lost her virginity could never be married. (Understanding early on that Bibish is married as she recounts her story is an example of the subtle artistry hidden in this deceptively simple book.) The calamity will haunt her throughout the memoir, so that whenever she finds herself alone on the street, as she so often does, we feel her fear without need of explanation. Further tragedies fall hard and fast upon the first. Bibish is raped again as a teenager; she is prevented from pursuing her one great love, dancing (considered shameful in her village); she finds herself homeless in Leningrad, and then homeless and penniless again, as an illegal alien, with her husband and two sons in Moscow.

While Bibish is certainly a victim, this is no victim's story. Faced with misogynism, racism, jingoism and every other "ism" the universe can summon against her, Bibish refuses to suffer silently. She is always on the lookout for an escape from her fate, and the reader follows closely at her side, rooting for her. How it is that Bibish overcomes trial after trial provides the narrative drive here. And though all this suffering might easily have become heavy-handed, there is a magical buoyancy to this fast-paced book.

It is the force of Bibish's infectious personality that provides this lightness of touch. Verbal gaffes and all (as a vender in a bazaar, she mistakes the Russian word for "boot top" with "vagina," getting herself in trouble with a woman she is trying to sell footwear to), Bibish on the page is someone we want to spend time with. She is passionate in her convictions. One woman torments her for not obeying Russian traditions, a tension at play throughout the memoir, and Bibish replies, "And I if I go to Mongolia I have to live like the Buddhists, and in Italy like the Catholics, is that it? I have my own faith, here inside me, and I don't force it on anyone. And I advise you not to try to force yours on me."

While her independence and fierce sense of justice make her prone to mistakes, Bibish remains upbeat even at her lowest moments. She is at once self-aware and clueless. She allows her bag of bazaar goods -- her entire family's savings -- to be stolen while she's distracted looking at a pretty blouse. At the same time, she is the only one with resilience enough to rebuild her family's business, to search out apartments and legal advice, and to take care of her two sons and alcoholic husband. Her narrative voice is never tempered by political correctness (she rails against the gypsies who are "everywhere, in Russia and in Uzbekistan"), but she wins over the reader with her honesty, generosity and limitless humor. Even when she is recounting the horrors of being raped, or her multiple attempts at suicide, or the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of immigration to Russia, she is disproportionately grateful for the slightest good luck or help. She is a real-life Gimpel the Fool -- and her refusal to abandon trust in the generosity of man and God (though she has every reason to) is, like Gimpel's story, what is ultimately so moving here.

The memories pour forth in quick, one- or two-page bursts of prose, without any chapter breaks, spiraling out of chronological order, with the occasional aside for necessary moments of cultural explanation. (Sentences often begin, "You see, in our parts...") The book is told in simple, direct, colloquial language that makes it feel at times more oral history than literary work. Bibish brags about having read "all the volumes of 'The Thousand and One Nights'" as a child, and her memories roll out in this tradition, one colorful anecdote stacked upon the next. Unfortunately, the short, impressionistic memories do not always substitute for vivid scenes, and one continues to hunger for more details of Bibish's experiences. (An important dancing outfit, say, is described uselessly as "a very beautiful dress.") At the same time, she often displays the Dickensian knack of granting character and scene a single perfect detail that, in surprising ways, carries enough weight to satisfy. We're told, for instance, that "all our father had was a bicycle that was put together out of parts from other bicycles." It is a detail that, in itself, says worlds about the man and the home in which Bibish grew up.

Despite its congruous fit within the conventions of the tell-all memoir, "The Dancer From Khiva" manages to be something more. It is an inspirational survivor's tale, an accidental primer on how it is we might summon the will to pursue happiness despite great odds, and great resistance. Bibish's desire to make more of her life, for herself and for her family, by attempting an ill-advised move to Russia is a story that continues to play out across the region. It's the particularly post-Soviet expedition we've heard about all too many times: the desperate move from some godforsaken village to a provincial capital and, ultimately, to Moscow. For so many, the journey is a tale of dreams unrealized. But with the publication and reception of her book, Bibish, at the very least, is one immigrant who finally turned the page. "The period of bad luck," she writes, "seems to be over." A reader, upon closing this compelling memoir, will begrudge her none of its success.

Robert Rosenberg, author of the novel "This Is Not Civilization," is currently a fellow at The Black Mountain Institute.

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