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Accepted Paper:

Arrested Development: Central Asia in European Imagination  
Alexey Shvyrkov (Columbia University)

Abstract:

Bianca Bellová’s debut novel Jezero (The Lake) was published in 2016 and won several prestigious European literary awards, including the EU Prize for Literature. The narrative of The Lake is laid in an imaginary kolkhoz by the dying lake in an indeterminate time period. From the episodic references, it becomes clear that the narrative is taking place in an imagined collective Central Asian country shortly before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bellová, I contend, constructs the image of the Central Asian Orient by reproducing the trope of arrested development of colonial subjects. Even though the novel is structured as a coming-of-age story, Nami, a boy protagonist, is never destined to grow up. Nami’s inability to grow up is connected to sexual inhibition caused by his witnessing a Russian soldier raping Zaza, a girl Nami is in love with. Nami’s arrested development is juxtaposed with the environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea. Shown not as a result of the Soviet “modernization” efforts, but rather connected to the Sea Spirit that demands sacrifices, this novel solidifies the idea of the Soviet “East” as backward, savage, and mystical. As Russians left the country, everything is dead and gone. The imagined geography that Bellová constructs produces an infantile colonial subject who is left with with no alternative to the empire. Thus, Czech “escapist” writers, like Bianca Bellová, by placing their characters in “exotic” settings continue the European orientalist radiation and strive through literature to reinscribe themselves into a larger European history of colonial expansion.

Panel T80LIT
Literary Representations of Central Asian Ecocatastrophes: Orientalist Imagination, Collective Trauma, and Post-Soviet Nostalgias
  Session 1 Friday 7 June, 2024, -