Yonathan Raz Portugali On:
Summer in Samarkand by Elif Batuman
Reading Summer in Samarkand four years ago was a true revelation to me. I instantly loved a number of things about it: the refreshing tone, ironic but at the same time passionate about the subject; the wonderful rhythm; the humor. But the thing that especially struck me was the way Batuman relates to knowledge and its link to writing and life in general. In one of the first paragraphs, she writes that the chain of events that will be described in the story was motivated by her decision to study Russian Literature. So, at the very start, she places her work in contradiction to the constricting instruction: “write about what you know”, which every person who has ever participated in a creative writing workshop or read a list of tips for the beginner writer is demanded to internalize. Batuman’s story depicts an amusing, strange journey, full of eccentric encounters and sensitive insights, in search of something the writer still doesn’t know. This journey after knowledge, after the Russian language and literature, also dictates the structure of the story – three short excursions, from the academia to the Russian and Uzbekistani speaking territory, and back again.
No less thrilling, as far as I’m concerned, is the nonchalant, funny and alluring way in which Batuman describes the rich literary knowledge she does possess, being a diligent PHD student at Stanford University. As a writer and research student myself, I am all too familiar with the romantic premise according to which the academia and “too much knowledge” “ruin” writing. Reading Summer in Samarkand dismantles this premise with a sweeping gesture. It reinforced a feeling I have always had but didn’t know how to articulate – every reality in which a sensitive, interesting person lives is a reality worth writing literature about, even if that person very much loves to read. The passion for reading is in Batuman’s story an endless potential for interactions with people and places in the world, in a way that is clearly disparate from yet another romantic ideal – the reader (or writer) hidden away among the bookshelves. And maybe the strongest feeling I had after reading Summer in Samarkand, and the whole of Batuman’s brilliant first collection “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them”, is this – happiness to discover contemporary literature that is so close and relevant to my life.