“Dans une situation plus humiliante pour la femme que l’esclavage lui-même, on verra comment, poussée par la nécessité, celle-ci peut se montrer experte en subterfuges. Il n’a pas compris, cet amateur de dociles concubines [. . .], que, de tous, le dindon, c’est lui. (p. 340).” Stéphane A. Dudoignon has translated with accuracy Chulpan’s verve and, consequently, the atmosphere of early-twentieth-century Turkistan.
Historians will be interested in the background of the “seasonal workers’ uprising” of 1916, which underpins this famous novel published in 1936, one year before its author’s arrest and condemnation. Besides, Chulpan seems to have written chapter 19 of his novel for their attention, remembering the eventful 1910s on the pretext of a defence speech in front of the Itinerant Commission of the Military Court of the Turkistan Territory (pp. 395-7). However, “Night” will also be of great use for present-day anthropologists, whose studies often lack profundity because of their lack of a testimony of this quality. Of course the novel can be read essentially as a . . . novel, but a novel whose larger-than-life and colourful characters (well reflected in the French translation) immediately warn the sensitivity of anthropologists of Central Asia, never disorientated by the situations and behaviours described by Chulpan. The overall climate preserved by S. A. Dudoignon’s translation indeed facilitates this perception, though anthropologists will feel on their own ground when Chulpan comes to the description of women’s everyday life, the marriage of young girls, the gendered distribution of tasks and the sexual segregation that rules even the private sphere. The author’s modernity and frank approach surprise the reader, for instance when as quoted above he condemns male domination or when he evokes, with thinly disguised irony, the corruption and negligence of Russian colonial administration. Nihil novi sub sole (Eccl. 1/9). The book’s title, “Night,” seems even more appropriate.
At the same time, if the multiple failings of early-twentieth-century Turkistani society rise to the surface on every page of the novel, tenderness is never absent from this social satire. Especially for those young girls who take profit of the absence of a tyrannical father, with their mother’s complicity, to offer themselves some days of leisure and innocent pleasure. The author, however, does not lose from sight the social realities of colonisation nor its impact on the reinforcement of tradition in the vernacular society: “La porte de la cage était ouverte! Il ne restait aux deux rossignols qu’à lisser leurs plumes, à prendre leur envol et à s’élancer toujours plus haut dans l’étendue bleutée du ciel. Il était temps de se ruer au-dehors [. . .] goûter aux délices de la liberté [. . .]. À l’instant où elles se faufilèrent dans la rue en faisant grincer le portail, la sirène stridente de l’usine de coton annonçait midi (31-2).” Who could tell that the action of the six first chapters has occurred in a relatively remote period of history, if the translator would not have warned his reader, in his postface, that it takes place in 1916 in the region of Andijan, and not in the 2000s in any other part of present-day Uzbekistan? To the exception of some historical details, chapter 7 to 9 do not seem anachronous at all to readers accustomed to Uzbek everyday life of the early twenty-first century.
Derision and commiseration take the lead when Chulpan paints (in chapters 13 & 15 to 17) the matrimonial life of his young heroine: derision caused by the absurdity of the situation, caustic irony towards old males puffed up with their self-importance, commiseration for the victim, young and pretty Zebi forcibly married with a lustful old man. “Y avait-il une quelconque alternative?. . . N’était-elle pas qu’une malheureuse esclave comme on en compte, dans ces contrées, des milliers, que dis-je, des dizaines, des centaines de milliers ? Une concubine mise à la vente, sur un marché débordant d’amateurs, n’échappera pas à son destin, qui est de finir dans la couche de l’un d’eux (336).” Such a discourse would not have been refuted by anthropologists if Chulpan would have located his plot in a present-day city or village. Complicity is expressed with the illegitimate couple who takes profit of surrounding disorder for offering oneself a little love trip to Russia, far from the stifling hypocrisy of a Central Asian provincial city (chapters 10 to 12). Last comes the author’s indulgence for the belated and awkward burst of revolt by some ‘rebels’ who, after having poured scorn of the weak for better serving the mighty (chapters 14 to 19), finally refuse the iniquitous order established by distant bosses and the local wealthy, perverted and corrupted clerics (chapter 20), and prefer to escape their own responsibility through madness, vengeance, and death (pp. 413-5).
Which more heartbreaking end than the sudden awareness of parents of their incapacity to protect their child could have been found by Chulpan to his apparently light and colourful, if not ribald but dark as night and premonitory novel? Despite Culpan’s arrest and his execution in 1938, one would like to hope that a manuscript of the second part of the novel, entitled “Day,” may be discovered some time, or that Chulpan’s poetical work may be translated with all the talent it requires so “Night” does not remain an isolated work.