A father calls upon the bazaar barber to cure his nose-bleeding son and returns home bald-headed, yet this is not a Molière play. The damage wrought by one devilish creature upsets an entire community and brings to light the cowardice of the villagers, yet we are not in a Mary Shelley novel. The encounter of an unread peasant with the distinguished editor of a city gazette gives rise to endless misunderstandings, yet it is not a Ionesco script. While making this series of Azerbaijani, Tajik and Uzbek short stories and dialogues available to the French public, Stéphane Dudoignon was well aware of the cultural gap involved. But, convinced of the power of these texts by modern Central Asian authors, he wagered that they deserved a true literary reception. The texts should not be accessible to a handful of Orientalists only. Instead, the translations must appear in a real literary journal on an equal footing with the writings of European contemporaries. The challenge is met.
An editor and a contributor to the satiric weekly Mollah Nasreddin, Jelil Memmedguluzadeh (1866-1932) was known in Transcaucasia for the biting wit of his narratives, and for his strong anticlerical and anti-colonialist positions. The plot of The Barber (transl. from the Azerbaijani) is simple. It is based on a series of embedded comic deceits. Memmedveli, Father Sadïg’s eleven-year-old son, suffers from an eye illness. Induced by a classmate to rub the inside of his nose with a nettle for a cure, the boy only succeeds in provoking a terrible bleeding. Father Sadïg is pressed by his wife to ask Master Hussein for help. But, while blaming the fellow for not following the precepts of Islam, the barber extorts the price of a head-shave out of him. When his father comes back home, Memmedveli is not bleeding anymore; but he is running around whinnying like a horse.
The story by Qâdir Rustam (born 1958), Genghis-Khan (transl. from the Tajik), owes much to oral storytelling. The author is pictured jotting down an old wisdom tale dictated by a friend. It is the tale of a fantastically strong and violent male-child born once upon a time in a village near Kuraband. The boy soon grows into a monster: “His head was big as a donkey’s, his neck was like a calf’s, his body that of an Asian elephant.” A glutton and a girl abductor, choleric and vile, his misdeeds owe him the nickname “Genghis-Khan”. But the villagers only pray in vain: They cannot come to terms with the devil or get rid of him. He even dies once but comes back from the dead. Until one day, the community resolves to kill him. All the men get together and stab Genghis-Khan while he sleeps. The monster at last is gone, and the story can end. Yet we are left with an enigma to decipher. Between mythology and political satire, what does the story really tell us? Who is the victim and who is the monster? The narrator himself admits that he never quite understood the meaning of the story until he became a man.
A leading figure of the Jadid movement in Russian Turkistan, Adbullah Badri was an editorialist and a publicist. His one-act drama, Idiot! (transl. from the Uzbek) was published in Samarqand in 1915. The two characters it brings together, the editor of a Jadid journal and a representative of the social estate of the Khwajas, could hardly be more contrasted. They clearly embody two opposite sets of values: that of the urban, educated and reformist bourgeoisie on the one hand; the traditional religiosity and tribalism of illiterate peasantry on the other hand. The villager comes to the office of the journal to have an announcement published on behalf of his brother. But the encounter only resolves into a radical misunderstanding and the matter cannot be settled.
In their appeal to social and political satire, the plot and props of these short narratives are not all that foreign to the Western reader. Yet they all share in a special Oriental nonsense of the Mulla Nasreddin kind, which lends them their salt and wit. It is owing to S. Dudoignon’s remarkable translations, therefore, that we may at once enjoy the particular flavour of these texts, and sense the urge that caused them to exist. One thing, at any rate, is certain: these pages, at once distant and near, are savoury pieces of literature.