Xinjiang Has Produced Its James Joyce

And he’s now sitting in a prison camp.

A bus in nighttime streets lit by the glare of streetlights
Traffic in Ürümchi, Xinjiang's capital, in 2018 (Carolyn Drake / Magnum)

One hundred years ago, James Joyce’s Ulysses collapsed Dublin (plus all of Western civilization) into a single day’s epic stroll. The radical, kaleidoscopic novel ended not with that famous final “Yes,” but with the coordinates of its lengthy composition: “Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914–1921.” It was a record of endurance and exile (the odyssey as much Joyce’s as his hero, Bloom’s), and a way to put the reader’s own efforts into perspective. This shape-shifting beast of a book might have been hard to conquer, but imagine how tough it was to write.

That tagline might have found its match in the one appended to The Backstreets, the first book by the Uyghur writer Perhat Tursun to appear in English. A century removed from Ulysses, this short novel is likewise a deeply interior, one-day affair, in which a nameless narrator stalks the fogbound city of Ürümchi. (According to a 2015 profile, Tursun “devoured” Joyce, along with other modernists.) After the book’s shattering conclusion, Tursun shares its gestation and itinerary, in a way that extends the tour de force.

Written in Ürümchi in 1990–1991.
Revised in Ürümchi in 2005.
Typed in Beijing and finished at 9 p.m. on February 15, 2006.
Revised version finalized in Ürümchi at 12:30 a.m. on March 7, 2015.

There’s a note of mystery (why those huge gaps?), and a hint of pride in the exacting time stamp: We can imagine Tursun glancing at the clock in the wee hours of March 7, putting down his pen at last.

Today, chillingly, the coda resembles an unfinished tombstone. Ürümchi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China’s largest province, where, according to the U.S. State Department, Beijing has since 2017 “carried out a mass detention and political indoctrination campaign against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim … [using] surveillance technologies and trumped-up administrative and criminal charges.”

In his introduction, Darren Byler, one of the novel’s translators, writes that Tursun was a victim of this alleged persecution, disappeared “at the height of his powers” by Chinese authorities in 2017, along with other Uyghur intellectuals (including Byler’s anonymous co-translator). That year, a high-ranking Xinjiang official made a push to “round up everyone who should be rounded up,” and it’s not hard to imagine that The Backstreets, with its depiction of anti-Uyghur racism, put Tursun on the authorities' radar. In 2020, Byler heard that, while in detention, Tursun, then 51, had received a 16-year prison sentence.

The irony is that Tursun, a secular Muslim steeped in 20th-century Western literature and philosophy, was himself the target of death threats from conservative Uyghur Muslims outraged by his 1999 novel, The Art of Suicide. (The journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who wrote that 2015 profile, dubbed him “China’s Salman Rushdie.”) Persecuted by the religious right and its foe, the Chinese Communist Party, Tursun would be a heroic figure regardless of the quality of his output. It’s bittersweet for us Anglophones, then, that the slim evidence we have—136 pages, distilled over a quarter century—is close to a perfect work of art.

The Backstreets is a restless book that shifts freely among various modes. Some pages brim with dark workplace comedy; in other parts, it reads as a dreamlike opus of amnesia or insanity, à la Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled or the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut. Byler’s introduction notes that Tursun had “translations of even the most obscure Nabokov novels,” and The Backstreets calls to mind the glittering gloom and warped realities of Bend Sinister, Invitation to a Beheading, and especially his 1930 novella, The Eye, whose narrator is dead. William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson is here, too, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

In the end, the book plunges into pure horror, with a resolution at once jolting and fully earned. The necessary clues have been threaded through the preceding pages, not least in how the city of Ürümchi is portrayed as a body in distress, located in a valley resembling “the scar of a deep wound,” with buildings whose lit windows glow like “the spit of a man whose teeth are bleeding” or “yellowish pus.” Hilariously depressing detritus surfaces from the constant fog: a broom with a handle “worn down to the size of the body of a rat,” a stepped-on newspaper with “an advertisement for a hospital’s treatment for impotence and an advertisement for a missing person.”

The anonymous narrator is a quintessential antihero, pedantic and unhinged, petty and grandiose, sex-starved and repressed, educated yet superstitious. He left his village in Xinjiang for university in Beijing, where he majored in math, nurturing his “abnormal desire for numbers.” Curiously, when he moves to Ürümchi, closer to home, he feels more lost than he did in the Chinese capital. Far from grounding him, his mathematical talent feeds his delusions. For him, numbers are a mystical code masking universal truths, possibly controlled by some ancient superpower or secret society: “Every time I saw some sort of number, I couldn’t walk away until I had forcefully memorized that number and it was stuck in my mind.”

Thus, some digits found on a scrap of paper guide him in his futile quest to find lodgings. His homelessness is both real and metaphorical. His curious unfamiliarity with the streets reflects the fact that Ürümchi has expanded from a city of about 1.5 million in the 1990s to more than 4 million today, while its area has quadrupled. By 2020 it was one of the most polluted cities in the world. The Ürümchi of The Backstreets feels like a small, run-down place that grows more impossible to navigate with each page, the fog turning toxic.

By day, the narrator sits at a desk with just one usable, rickety drawer, which he cherishes as “the only thing in this city that belonged to me.” The rest of the drawers are locked, still filled with the belongings of someone who was there 11 years ago and refuses to clean it out. His co-workers, who appear to be Han Chinese, casually terrorize him for his lack of social status and imperfect Mandarin. When the hat is passed to collect funds for flood victims, he refuses to donate. One colleague “hissed that people across the whole world, even our enemies, were mourning this disaster. She asked me why I was so uncaring. She said that I had gone beyond the limit of propriety.” Even after chipping in, he still can’t catch a break:

I told them my condition was even worse than those whose houses had been destroyed in the floods, because I didn’t even have a house to be destroyed in a catastrophe. After they heard this, they were even more angered at my inhumanity … Every word I used to justify my position made me guiltier.

The Backstreets gives voice to the downtrodden, registering the narrator’s past traumas and present indignities in a rapid stream of consciousness free of chapter breaks. His observations have a synesthetic quality: “The endless sound of the cars in the fog could be heard. As this sound mixed with the fog, it made the fog seem even denser. The lights of the cars faded away like the last embers in ashes. The unceasing sound of the cars was precisely the silence of the city.” Such a pile-up of noise, air, and light risks claustrophobia, but Tursun makes it thrilling, as the density of the fog finds its way into the prose.

The fog is a useful obscurant, allowing the narrator to periodically drift back to his upbringing out in the sticks: “I missed the wide, white hillsides, the sand that rises up everywhere along clean village roads, the bright yellow fields of ripened wheat.” This idyllic take turns out to be a sham as he gradually discloses the sordidness and sadness of his youth. He recalls wearing hand-me-downs from his older, mute sister, and nights spent with his mother, searching for their father, who they feared had passed out drunk in an irrigation ditch. There is a glint of  humor amid the bleakness: His sister wound up marrying a man 30 years her senior, before his brother one-upped her by running off with a woman 40 years older.

If his rural Uyghur upbringing was harsh, his life as a Uyghur man in Ürümchi can be downright brutal. Byler’s own recent book, Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City, uses The Backstreets as a conversation starter with Uyghur men in similar situations as its protagonist—adrift, marked as minorities. (“We talked about how in the city young migrants needed to develop a new sense of direction; how the geographical features they had used to organize their world appeared scrambled.”) The people he encounters at work and during his lonely, paranoid meandering are nameless grotesques. No one will help him. A madman vows to “chop” up Uyghurs in a certain region; Tursun prints the word more than 200 times in a row. A woman whom he mistakes for a “bundle of clothes” comes at him with a cleaver. A “smiling-faced” office supervisor makes it apparent that “talking to me was not just a waste of his time, but was actually the crime of wasting the time of his entire ethnic nationality”—that is, Han Chinese.

At one point, a stranger emerges from the fog, “like a dead fish bobbing in the water,” with a Uyghur folk song on his lips. The narrator hears him fast-forward through one of the lines, from which he deduces the stranger has only a short way to travel, because some Uyghurs (as a translator’s note informs us) “measure space by the time it takes to sing songs while walking.” At certain moments, The Backstreets feels less like a traditional novel than a threnody, a song of mourning, with a chilling refrain (“I don’t know anyone in this strange city, so it’s impossible for me to be friends or enemies with anyone”) that sounds more desperate with each occurrence. The pitch escalates as its singer traverses the “winding disorder” of Ürümchi, everywhere oppressed, assaulted by memory. Without giving anything away: As soon as he learns what his song is about, it’s over.

The book’s title may sound too Springsteenian to the American ear: There’s no triumphant chorus or bracing chord. Such music will resound only when Perhat Tursun is released. Until then, those who observe Bloomsday every June 16 to celebrate Joyce’s Ulysses should honor March 7, the day Tursun finished his own great work and possibly sealed his fate.

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