Kara-Choro, a boy on the cusp of manhood, learns that his father is Tagay-bii, the legendary leader of the Kyrgyz people. He takes to the road in search of his past and his destiny. Eshen-Kareg, a Tatar scholar at the court of Ivan the Terrible, is placed in fatal danger when his son, Yusuf, falls in love with Daria, the Tsar’s daughter. When Daria is expelled from Moscow to a strange foreign land, disappearing like a stone into water, the only clue to her fate is a silver lamp which will turn up, centuries later, in a mysterious Edinburgh antique shop.
Though there is no genie in the lamp, these tales from the Silk Road are told in the manner of the stories-within-stories of the One Thousand and One Nights. The caravans cross great grasslands instead of deserts and there is a capricious Tsar instead of a caliph, but Finding the Holy Path honours many of the conventions of the Nights. Cities are bottomless wells of mystery and possibility; there are slaves of love and irascible witches. Our storyteller is not Scheherazade but Shahsanem Murray, a Kyrgyz-British writer who lives in Edinburgh. She has previously translated a Kyrgyz sci-fi novel by her uncle, Begenas Sartov, into English, and her own novel shares the same publisher: Hertfordshire Press, which specialises in books about Central Asia.
I do not know if there were any detectable Kyrgyz flavours mixed into the original Nights, but Finding the Holy Path may retrieve some overlooked potential asmar from the history of Kyrgyzstan. There is a Scheherazade within this book as well: the modern-day storytelling lovely J.M., whose enigmatic initials, in line with the Nights’ own formula of femininity, correspond with those of her symbolic alter-ego, the witch Jane McKendry.
This is not realism and on these grounds Finding the Holy Path may be disqualified for you if you want to know what it is really like to look back on Kyrgyzstan from Edinburgh. I would suggest that the best way of reading Finding the Holy Path is to treat it as one of the Nights, though with its modern-day crimefighters battling over historical artefacts, it might also register the influence of Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller The Da Vinci Code. I am going to have to be imprisoned in a lamp for many centuries before I get around to reading Brown’s novel, so I cannot honestly comment on the likeness. Sometimes the story seems pleasantly like Scooby-Doo, particularly during the scuba-diving, pizza-delivery assault upon the villains’ island headquarters. Nonetheless, the unpredictable fun of the modern chapters successfully stands up against the inevitably more interesting native Kyrgyz material.
Finding the Holy Path is a first-time novel by a Kyrgyz-born writer and so there is naturally a bareness to the prose, but there is always robust and lively storytelling beneath it. One of the most powerful moments comes when the young Kara-Choro, desperate to learn the identity of his father, surprises his mother by forcing her hands around a scalding-hot corn cob, and begs to be told the truth. Alas, she is not a Scheherazade and a neighbour leaps in to tell the story.
You might wonder at how Tychy, a website which is tenaciously opposed to cultural nationalism, can find anything to admire in this book. But Finding the Holy Path is ultimately a tribute to Edinburgh and to the infinite opportunities of the super-city, where people and their nationalisms are blended and altered in countless fortuitous encounters. The city becomes a place where history is remembered and researched and retold. These stories shine with their old glamour and yet they will never be the same again:
“This earth is Kyrgyz earth! The earth of your homeland! Take it Kara-Choro and when, at the end of your journey, far from here, you finally find a safe place to call your own, pour this soil into the ground and plant a tree. May it grow to be strong and healthy and always remind you of me!”