Hamid Ismailov (right) and Hugh Barnes at the Cambridge PEN eventCambridge PEN

“Too many words are produced in the world”, Hamid Ismailov begins. “There is a devaluation and inflation of words”. 

A surprising statement, perhaps, from a man who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of words, to the extent that he was forced to flee his home in Uzbekistan.

Hamid Ismailov is the writer of a series of novels, poems and is also the current Head of the BBC Central Asia Service. Continent Magazine described him as having written one “of the best Russian novels of the 21st century”. Born in Uzbekistan, he was forced to leave in 1992 when the government branded his writings as having “unacceptably democratic tendencies.” 

To Ismailov, however, the answer to such censorship is not simply to keep writing; in its own way, the ‘democratisation’ and resultant proliferation of words in the modern world can be harmful. As he told a crowded room in his talk to Cambridge PEN earlier that evening, Ismailov believes that today there has been an “inflation of words, and people are... fed up with these words.” He points out that if BBC Radio Four produces 30 words a minute, and they are on for 24 hours a day, then that’s already 43,000 words. The Guardian, in a single print publication, clocks in at around 160,000 words.

But not all words hold equal power: fiction goes about “deconstructing the reality, understanding it, and then re-creating it”, he explains to me, and “this element of recreating reality is subversive” – more subversive, he argues, that journalism ever can be. 

This is why the fiction is so important, and so dangerous. “My aesthetical differences with the totalitarian regime were the cause of them banning me”, he insists, it was “not because I was writing against them, but my aesthetics, my outlook, was against them.”

It’s interesting, I observe aloud, that as twentieth century literary criticism grappled with the ‘death of the novel’, it is these totalitarian regimes that seem to really understand the value of fiction.

“Uzbekistan is continuing the communist experiment”, Ismailov observes. “The communists... they wanted to change the world”, but, “they found it extremely difficult to change.” So what did they do? “They decided to change the names of the world”: St Petersburg became Leningrad, Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad and it's the same with the roads and heroes of Uzbekistan. Totalitarian regimes understand the importance of words. 

Perhaps they do, and yet changing the words seems nervingly close to changing the reality; “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past", as another subversive novelist once put it.

“It doesn’t create any change”, Ismailov interrupts. “It creates stagnation, like it was shown with the Soviet Union, like it is shown with the Uzbekistan experience”. 

“Twenty years after Uzbek independence”, he adds angrily, “it's stagnating... four or five million people of Uzbekistan... are working in other parts of the word because nothing is changing in Uzbekistan.”

Certainly, Karimov, who has dominated the leadership of Uzbekistan since 1989, does not show any signs of yielding. Foreign media has been steadily expelled since the Andijan uprising in 2005, self-censorship is still wide spread and Ismailov’s books continue to be banned.

“Would you ever like to go home?”, I ask.

“Education is the only way”, he replies. “The more people who come here, the more people who study, that’s the only way”, and only, he adds, “when people start to understand the mechanics of this reality and its connections with the words”.

Hamid Ismalov has just published an English translation of his newest novel The Underground, currently available as an eBook. To hear more speakers like this or get involved with Cambridge PEN like their Facebook page or email Jamie Osborn on jo345@cam.ac.uk.