“Manaschi”: Enigmatic Adages in Hamid Ismailov’s new Novel

Just finished Hamid Ismailov’s new novel Manaschi, about a conflicted half-Kyrgyz, half-Tajik man who feels increasingly fated to become a reciter of the ancient Kyrgyz epic poem, Manas. It’s an oddly compelling tale in which Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Chinese laborers — newcomers to the village which straddles Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — eventually come to blows in ways that echo bloody battles recounted in Manas

The novel is chock full of adages of one sort or another. Neither their language of origin, nor even their meaning, are necessarily evident. For one thing, if we are to believe Wikipedia, Ismailov is quite a polyglot; born in Kyrgyzstan and raised in Uzbekistan, he has published works in Uzbek and Russian, and translated Persian works into Russian. And it is not even clear if these are genuine folk proverbs, or the product of a creative author . . .

Manaschi are not limited to Kyrgyzstan, and a new biography of Xinjiang’s master reciter, Jusup Mamay, recently appeared in English. A bit later, I hope to write an essay contrasting the state of the Manas “tradition” as described in Ismailov’s novel set in the ‘stans, and this hagiography of a Kyrgyz born and bred in what is now the People’s Republic of China. 

There are a few dozen of these pithy folkish sayings in the novel. Here are a few of my favorites:

If work affects your head,
water gets into your boots

If a frog pisses,
then it’s a dowry for the lake

If you’ve left your horse behind,
then you’re flirting with death

When a blind man sees a white spot,
he shakes his head till the skin comes off

If a heifer gives the wink,
the bull will break its tether

The sort of crooks who’d
cook a deer in a stone oven

A man with a well-greased throat
has a robe with a moth-eaten hem

If your guts hurt,
your navel gets colic

When you see a black sheep,
bury it deep in the grave

You can’t hire out your camel
if it’s tethered to six geldings

Your garden doesn’t stretch as far as Talas,
you shouldn’t be so conceited

The mouse couldn’t get into its nest,
so it tied a sieve to its tail

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