Intended for the general public, this anthology aims to provide the amateur with a significant selection of the major poetic works of Uzbekistan, both past and present, in a French translation. Its most remarkable feature no doubt lies in the resolute focus on contemporary Uzbek poetry, to which the whole of volume 2 is dedicated (displaying little less than 30 poets, grouped by language: 5 Tajiks and 22 Uzbeks) — the second half of the twentieth century thus being attributed roughly the same space as the eighteen centuries represented in volume 1 (a dozen of classics, from the twelfth-century poet Khwaja Ahmad Yasawi to the founder of modern poetry, Chulpan). In tune with this modern slant, volume 1 somewhat tends to resolve into a mere background for contemporary Uzbek poetry.
Each volume opens on a separate foreword by the Editor Hamid Ismailov, himself a poet whose work is included in the second volume of the anthology. After Frantz Grenet in his general preface, Ismailov insists on the remarkable continuity, at once thematic and formal, witnessed in Uzbek poetry up to the present day. Composed by men (and women) of power like Babur and ‘Ali Shir Nawayi or by such unequivocal anti-conformists as Mashrab, in Persian and Turkic alike, the bulk of Uzbek poetry can indeed be said to share in the vivid regional Arabo-Persian heritage. Throughout its own varied patterns, the editor insists, classical Uzbek poetry would confirm the unchallenged domination of a single form, the ghazal, to which it proves truthful in its typical uniting-and-parting dynamics, in its specific imagery of terrestrial or spiritual love, and even in its lexicon (khajr, khijran, ayriliq, firaq, the Arabic, Persian and Turkic words for “separation” are found all over Central Asia).
Entitled “Treatise on Contemporary Poetry in Uzbekistan” and arranged in numbered propositions, the introduction to volume 2 goes a little further. At the principle of modern Uzbek poetry, the editor identifies one literary practice, which he claims may account for its exponential increase, namely: nazira, a composition “in answer to,” or “by imitation of” a preexisting piece. But Ismailov acknowledges no more than two significant events in the entire history of the Uzbek language: the early blending with Arabic and Persian, which paved the way for a “classical literature” and determined its characteristic bilingualism from the start; and the nineteenth-century Russian invasion, which ultimately led to the breakup of classical rules by Fitrat and Chulpan, and to the invention of a modern poetry in which the accentual (barmak) metrics of popular Turkic poetry replaced the old quantitative Arabic meters (‘aruz). As for the disintegration of the USSR, it would have brought about nothing but a minor shift in focus, from a socialist content to a fascination for the national past. Except for Altai’s syllabic poetry experience in the 1920s, no noticeable change would be registered since, though new poetic forms may be expected to issue from the recent extended contacts with the outside world, notably from the “School of Fergana” and the poet of free verse, Shamshad Abdullaev (surprisingly absent from this collection).
Unfortunately, the edition proves to care little about the basic standards of a consistent — not to say scholarly — edition. Each poet is introduced by a short biographical notice, but no explanation is given for their selection, nor any source quoted for their works, and explanatory notes are almost inexistent. And, though interspersed with a few convincing adaptations by French poet Henri Deluy, the translations themselves, mostly literal renderings in blank verse, do not seem guided by any clear principle. As for the Tajik material, it does not only lack a background; it was boldly translated from an English version! Besides, a promising development on the historical intercourse between the Tajik and Uzbek languages, with reference to Nawayi’s seminal work, the Muhakamat al-lughatayn (محاکمت اللغتین), is left bluntly missing (vol. 2, p. 13, § 15 and 16), and referred to another publication. Lastly, the very will to highlight the unity of the literary tradition is disputable. We are told that, while undergoing many surface transformations, the Uzbek poetic tradition has remained bound to one central immutable axis, like a Rubik’s cube of sorts. Such a perspective runs the risk of leveling the whole poetic production, stripping it of its own variegated flavors. One is forced to admit, in other words, that the present edition does not quite do justice to the rich material it displays, or to the otherwise praiseworthy attempt to make known the vivid accomplishments of the younger generation of poets.