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A beguiling tale of khans, commissars, spies and poet-queens

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The Devils’ Dance. By Hamid Ismailov. Translated by Donald Rayfield. Tilted Axis Press; 200 pages; £9.99.

FROM Siberian banishment to the Soviet gulag, the cruelty of punishments under Russia’s tyrants has yielded a commensurately rich literature. It is unlikely, though, that any previous story has likened interrogation by Stalin’s secret police to a game of cricket, as a character does in “The Devils’ Dance”, a beguiling novel of sinister enchantments and mind-stretching affinities.

“One man in, another man out,” thinks the imprisoned Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy—a real historical figure—as his cell-mates in Tashkent in 1938 are dragged away to face trumped-up charges. Just like cricket, he reflects, a sport his companion Muborak, a well-travelled Uzbek Jew, has told him about.

As he sits in jail ahead of his betrayal, torture and probable execution, Qodiriy recomposes in his mind the historical novel he was writing at the time of his arrest. It deals with the…Continue reading

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