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How is creative writing possible?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:52 UK time, Friday, 1 February 2013

This week I received as a present two textbooks in creative writing from our partners at the Open University, but I must admit that I'm of two minds about the very issue of creative writing.

On the one hand I ask myself why it is that to become a surgeon one needs to perform years and years of study, learning every tool and procedure relating to the human body, but when it comes to the human spirit - which is what a writer or a poet deals with - anyone can become a writer whenever he or she wants, very often without any study?

A fountain pen and paper

Anyone can become a writer whenever they want

Shouldn't a person who aims to influence the human spirit be even more learned than the person who deals with the human body? Yet everyone has a free licence to start writing whenever he or she wishes...

But on the other hand I have a deep suspicion that creative writing ultimately defeats its own purpose.

I'll try to explain exactly what I mean. The manuals in creative writing usually set the rules based on previous famous successful books and poems. "Dickens starts his novel with a phrase...", "McEwan sets up the main character in the following manner...", "Frost brings together his poem by..." etc...

However, creative writing starts beyond the stated and already achieved, it starts on top of that, on the shoulders of all those greats.

Its ever expanding quest is for the unknown, unsaid, unsung, unexpressed. In fact all those greats who are usually brought to the herbarium of creative writing textbooks, themselves were the breakers of the rules, traditions and achievements of previous epochs.

A famous Russian poet said: "A great poem is the poem in which the poet metaphorically builds a multi-storey building and all of a sudden throws himself out of the window of the fifth floor". I would only add that with every work that great poet goes higher and higher, throwing himself out of the window of the 6th, 7th, 187th floor... (though I'm aware that the pattern here also defeats my argument).

So how to reconcile these two contradictory theses? I think that with all due allowances, creative writing courses and manuals are useful, but only to a certain extent. In literature, unlike in other areas, one has to know the rules in order to bend, extend, dodge and break them. Now, just like in one of those creative writing course books, let me give you an example of a poem by the Russian poet Innokenty Annensky - which succinctly expresses everything I am trying to say:

Through macrocosm and scintillating orbs
I say the name of one celestial lover...
Not that I have been loving her before,
But that I have been wearied by the others.

And if the doubt exacts a heavy toll,
She is the one I'm begging for true guidance,
Not that she brings more light into the world,
But that with her one'd be content in darkness.


Romanticised criminals

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:28 UK time, Friday, 25 January 2013

The murder last week of "Grandpa Hassan" - the ultimate boss of the Russian criminal underworld - was in the headlines of the Russian press for three days. He was shot dead by a sniper while coming out of a restaurant in the very centre of Moscow and the courtyard where he was killed was widely shown from every possible angle.

That restaurant, according to experts, was his working office where he used to meet other criminals, sorting out different problems, planning new business schemes...

The courtyard where Grandpa Hassan operated

I spent years working behind the windows facing onto this courtyard

Here comes my turn. For three days I was nostalgically watching this courtyard, where I spent nearly 10 years of my life. It used to be the courtyard of the Union of Soviet Writers, where I represented Uzbek literature. The restaurant-cum-office of the criminal boss for all those years used to be the canteen I used every day.

So how did it happen that the most liberal, free-thinking and intellectual place in the whole of Moscow became the Casa Nostra, where murky dealings and contract killings were discussed?

To understand this metamorphosis we have to go right back into the thick of Soviet times. There are theories that the Stalinist regime, which sent millions and millions of the Soviet population to prisons and camps, itself organised the criminal hierarchy in order to run those imprisoned masses.

Later the genie got out of a bottle - those well-organised criminals replicated the structure of the Communist party and covered the entire Soviet Union. So-called "onlookers" were appointed to every Soviet republic, province, district. Just as the Communist Party had its regular congresses, so the criminal world had their "gatherings" every now and then.

In a country where the majority of the population lived double-lives (one in public, to tick all the boxes of communist ideology, and the other in private), it was perversely in the class of criminal outcasts that distorted rules of honour and integrity still meant something. For instance, they were quick to settle scores if you didn't keep your word or failed to repay a debt. "Grandpa Hassan" was one of the field marshals of that world, being the so-called "thief-in-law" - the highest rank in the criminal hierarchy.

That underworld came to the fore in all its might during Perestroika and the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Every thriving business was protected by criminal gangs at that time and it has been widely reported that many of the oligarchs had links with generals in the criminal underworld.

After the fall of the Communist Party only criminals were as well organised as their adversaries, the KGB.

Andrey Illarionov, a Russian expert who used to work as an advisor to the Russian President, recently wrote that after the break-up of the Soviet Union and during the big mess of the 90s, the alliance of those institutions - the KGB, the criminal underworld and the Nomenklatura (an equivalent of Civil Service) - came to power in Russia and still governs it to this day.

I have mentioned the pervasive code of honour and integrity which criminals maintained. Some parts of the Russian media - settling their own scores with the communist past of the country - made heroes out of those thugs, equating their disobedience to the Soviet authorities to a form of dissent. Publications in newspapers, glossy books, film and TV were produced to celebrate that world. The lives of gangsters were romanticised.

But the latest killing shows the way this criminal world operated, operates and will carry on operating.

These were the sad thoughts which occurred to me looking at the picture of the Moscow courtyard that was so dear to me...

A Man was Going Down the Road

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 11:27 UK time, Friday, 18 January 2013

Looking back at the festive season I realised that the best present I received was a book.

That book was written by my late friend, the great Georgian writer Otar Chiladze, and is called A Man was Going Down the Road. It is translated by Donald Rayfield - the ultimate connoisseur of Georgian and Russian literature.

This novel is the earliest by Otar Chiladze, written in 1972. I read it years and years ago when it was initially translated into Russian.

The novel A Man was Going Down the Road

As the blurb to the English translation says:

"...this novel is the key to his later work. It begins with the Greek legend of Jason and the golden fleece and the consequences for the obscure kingdom of Colchis after the Greek Jason comes and abducts Medea. But it is also an allegory of the treachery and destruction that ensued when Russia, and then the Soviets, annexed Georgia, as well as Chiladze's interpretation of life as a version of the ancient Anatolian story of Gilgamesh, and a study of Georgian life, domestic and political, in which women and children pay the price for the hero's quests, obsessions and doubts."

I still remember my utter joy when reading this book - as if my mouth was full of Georgian grapes and the taste of the famous Georgian wine, be it Kindzmarauli or Akhasheni, sending my head into a spin...

I had the same sensation - maybe even stronger - while reading the English translation of the book. But this time my dizziness came from the autumnal clarity of the language, from the transparency of the prose flow, from the typographic quality of the book. It is as if the Georgian wine of Otar Chiladze's novel has been matured even further in English barrels. Here's an excerpt from it.

"After the rain the world was shining, laughing in its primordial beauty, showing neither tiredness nor age, ready to begin everything again, to give birth, to create, to kill and destroy. Perhaps it was now, in this one minute, in the conjunction of muddy earth and baking sun, that so many different sorts of seeds sprouted, so many shoots, worms and insects broke through fibres, cocoons and eggs to emerge in the sunlight, where each had room to spread their limbs, to swim, to turn, because just as many were leaving the sunlight, dying, being washed up, rotting, and taking their place in the cycle of death and life, but in a new form, changed by the eternal transformation, coming back to earth after a myriad of years, transfigured when their turn came. But after a myriad of years their duty would be the same: to live and die, to die and live, and so on without end... Each creature must leave behind its likeness, and until it has created that likeness, it may not die, because death counts as rest for it. So on passing over into death, it can wait with its arms folded to be supplied with new vestments and new mask and to be called: 'Arise, your time has come!'"

When I studied biology at university in my youth one of our professors loved to repeat the formula: 'Every phenotype repeats its genotype', which in its simplicity means that species, especially in their embryonic development, go through the evolutionary stages of their biologic race. Sometimes I think that we live through the same process psychologically, i.e. repeating in our biographies to some extent the entire world history: the joyful Greek childhood, the Roman adolescence, the sombre Middle ages, the unexpected Renaissance, the wise Enlightenment, etc...

The last time I met Otar Chiladze it was in the centre of Tbilisi in 2006 at the flat of another great Georgian writer, his brother Tamaz. Otar told me then that he had written a new novel Godori - The Basket - which I promised to read, but never did. Otar Chiladze died in 2009 and ever since I have lived with the guilt of that unfulfilled promise.

Finally, I read it in parallel with the translation of his first novel.

Unlike A Man was Doing Down the Road, it's a bitter novel. In a nutshell it's about the intermarriage of Georgian NKVD killers and intellectuals. At the same time the novel's content is much wider - a discussion taking in the place of Georgia in history, its relationship with Russia ("it was digested by Russia 200 years ago to come out through its rectum"), Georgia's current situation in the world and its future... Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which tells the story of the Buendia family, Chiladze tells the story of the Kashelia family over the last 100 years, in which a son kills his father after he suspects him of sleeping with his wife.

The novel is written as series of streams of consciousness from different characters, but at the same time could be read as a series of confessionals. It gives a multidimensional view of modern Georgia with all its problems, labyrinths and cul-de-sacs.

"We beat our breasts - we are born warriors! Well, every nitty Georgian has a price on the black market - as a detergent, a condom or black pepper ... Add to that total theft, encouraged by the authorities and raised to the rank of the state policy ... " - one of the characters thinks.

Another one repeats: "Georgia has already outlived one life ... The world has changed and has been reshaped a thousand times, just to give us a chance to come once again into the world from the womb of the empire through her rectum; no one in this world will give us the room ... They would rather splash gasoline onto the linen, and set fire as to the bed of the plague ... ".

It's a bitter and honest novel which is relevant to all post-Soviet states searching for a new identity. I hope that one day Donald Rayfield, having brought to English readers Otar Chiladze's first book, will translate his last one too.

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