The Backstreets by Perhat Tursun [A Review]

There are certain moments in history, where the reportage fails to capture the full horror and tragedy. Journalism is necessarily detached and impersonal in attempting to be objective. This is where literature needs to fill the void. The works of Eli Wiesel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have moved people, reached their humanity, in ways that the reporting of facts cannot. To them we can now add Perhat Tursun, whose account of the isolation and anxiety of daily life for China’s Uyghur minority in The Backstreets is informed by his own experiences and written before he was ‘disappeared’ by the Chinese state.

Cover image of The Backstreets by Perhat Tursun

At the end of a day’s work, a man in Ürümchi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China, leaves his office and takes to the streets. It is a foggy evening and as he walks the shapes of people and objects on the street are slow to emerge from it. Immediately his mind begins to wander and drift, thoughts surface and recede like the figures in the fog.

The man reflects on his past. A childhood in a rural village with a cruel, alcoholic father. His student days in Beijing, keeping to himself so much that he was never really impacted by the size and diversity of the city or its contrast with his village childhood. In this city, however, the sense of isolation, the dirt and congestion, the feeling of being lost and directionless, is ever present.

I was lost in the infinite universe. Just then I realised that everyone becomes a homeless wanderer after they are born and has difficulty finding a proper place for themselves as soon as they touch the ground and let out their initial cry. They will spend their whole life trying to determine their position – becoming anxious and griping about its vagueness. Everyone is a wanderer in space.

He has no friends or family here so, no matter how long he has been in the city, he remains a stranger. The only person he has close contact with is his boss whose unnerving constant smile, which fails to hide his animosity, keeps him on edge. He finds himself becoming sensitive to anything that might create a feeling of connection – sights, sounds and smells that arouse memories, nostalgia and imagination. He is becoming particularly obsessed with numbers, even ones he finds on rubbish and scraps of paper, wondering if they might have deeper meaning. Some might resemble addresses, phone numbers, dates and other things from his past and he can’t accept their appearance as coincidence but instead believes that they may hint at a direction he is supposed to follow, a purpose he is meant to find. But when he asks for help from others on the street he is met with stares, sometimes blank, sometimes confused, sometimes hostile.

The Backstreets is one of those books where it is insufficient to merely discuss the material between the covers; there is also the story of the story.

Author Perhat Tursun is Uyghur – a member of an ethic minority whose homelands span several countries across the Turkic, Asian steppe. Though there is a lot of diversity within this widespread people, most speak languages with Turkic origins and they have been majority Muslim for several centuries. Tursun, like his main character, is from the Xinjiang region of north-west, present-day China. In the past decade, the Chinese government has enacted policies that could best be described as genocidal against Chinese Uyghurs.

Tursun is himself a victim of this. Tursun disappeared in 2018 at a time when Uyghur intellectuals were being specifically targeted before the policy became more general and thousands of young men were disappeared. There are rumours that Tursun has been given a 16-year sentence and has been hospitalised during his imprisonment.

At the time of his disappearance, Tursun was at the height of his career. Influenced by Nietzsche and Nabokov, Kafka and Camus, Freud and Jung; his work had gained high praise, but he eschewed mainstream recognition. When he disappeared, he left five unfinished novels behind. The Backstreets is the first of his works to be translated into English. A Uyghur translator also disappeared during the process to bring this work to an English-reading audience.

Readers of literature know that alongside traditional storytelling in the novel form, with its emphasis on plot, characterisation, theme, etc; there exists an alternative which emerged in the last century which breaks these conventions. Given the list of Tursun’s influences mentioned above, it will not surprise anyone that The Backstreets belongs among these unconventional novels. Is The Backstreets postmodernist? I think probably, yes. At the very least it shares some familiar traits of the genre. Most obviously in its form and style which is in the first-person, subjective, dreamlike, introspective and uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative style.

A lack of meaning and a place for himself weighs heavily on the main character. Early in the novel, once he has left his office, he comes to an intersection and decides to choose the way forward at random. Throughout he notices trivialities and makes them large and meaningful, most often with his obsession with numbers. There is a sense of pointlessness, futility and a desperate search for anything that might give him direction and purpose.

I don’t believe in reading introductions before reading the main text. I think it is far more rewarding to discover the material for yourself and arrive at your own thoughts as to its themes and message. Plus, far too many publishers don’t seem to value avoiding spoilers in their introductions! That being said, with novels like The Backstreets which break conventions and have postmodernist techniques, it can be difficult to know what the author is driving at without a knowledgeable guide. I’ll admit that, while I am not a fan of postmodernism and prefer more conventional novels, a good introduction goes a long way to help you understand appreciate the novel.

This was certainly the case with The Backstreets and I am divided as to whether it is best to read the introduction before or after reading the novel. When reading it after, you might find yourself wanting to read the novel again! The excellent introduction by co-translator Darren Byler gave me new appreciation and respect for what I had just read. He shares the aspects of Tursun’s life that he has drawn on to give a semi-autobiographical realism to the main character’s immigrant experience and isolation. He compares and finds commonality between The Backstreets and Camus’ The Stranger and The Plague, Ellison’s Invisible Man and Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. Coetzee, incidentally, has called The Backstreets a “brave and heartrending book”. Most helpful of all to the uninitiated, the sceptical, the unsure; Byler interprets the meaning and purpose behind some of Turnsun’s techniques – the foggy streets, the behaviour of other characters, the obsession with numbers.

The murky condition of the city in the fog, the murky mental condition of my brain, and the ambiguous position of my identity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region seemed to be totally of the same substance; sometimes they mirror each other and sometimes they seep into each other. Due to the constant threat of choking from the inside, being smothered or drowning, for most people this peacefulness seemed to be more dangerous than the most frightening panic.

Literature’s greatest achievement is when it humanises us by allowing the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes, however vicariously. We read The Backstreets to feel the migrant experience of a Uyghur person on the streets of a frontier Chinese city. As Byler says in his introduction:

Nearly all Uyghur migrants I interviewed said that the experiences of alienation and rejection that I described from the novel resonated with aspects of their own lives: the cruel smiles, the open hostility, the bureaucratic indifference. Reading The Backstreets became a method of helping young men to tell their own stories and explore their own life paths.

The Backstreets will be published in September 2022 by Columbia University Press. I was provided with an advanced copy by the publisher in return for an independent review.

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