Book 71: Kazakhstan (German) – Abai = Абай жолы (Abai’s Way) (Mukhtar O. AUEZOV =Мұхтар Омарханұлы Әуезов)
Beside Kunanbai’s yurts stood, closely-packed, those of the relatives. Multifarious life echoed through the afternoon steppe. Dogs barked; sheep and lambs bleated, blended with the calls of the shepherds, the clip-clop of the horses, which, enshrouded in golden glow-through clouds of dust, pulled to the drinking-trough; foals neighed, having just been released, and now rushed through the steppe, seeking the dams. From the campfires the smoke climbed into the clear evening sky and hung like a dark grey curtain over the yurts… Yes, that is what he had longed for in the city.
I have to admit that my heart sank when this one arrived in the post. Firstly I found that through some slip of the finger I’d accidentally ordered two copies. Secondly that the binding was of such poor quality that the spine was broken – already – on BOTH copies. (Perhaps I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been from an ex-Soviet publisher, but from a German one I expected a bit better). Thirdly, because it is in German. Well, of course I already knew that. (’Abai’ doesn’t seem to have been translated into English, despite being the, or one of the, key works in Kazakh literature). But how would my German stand up to the fourth point, which is: it’s gigantic – nearly 900 pages. What is it about Kazakh novels, that they’re as vast as the steppes? The Nomads by Yesenberlin (reviewed by Ann Morgan) is also very long. Reading in German slowed me down too, so I ended up spending a whole year on it at the rate of three pages a day, while I ploughed on through other virgin lands in my reading (not a fast year, since three of these were in French, one in Dutch, and four in Spanish – serves me right for trying to read in the original!) Reading this book felt like running a marathon. I should mention that ‘Abai’ was translated via Russian, so I hope it didn’t lose too much seeping through multiple filters. Perhaps my little translation above into yet another language is nothing but a ‘Chinese whisper’.
Mukhtar Auezov (Muchtar Auesow in German spelling) lived during Soviet times and promoted the works of Abai Kunanbaev. He was attacked during the paranoid 1930s for supposedly propagating feudalism in ‘Abai’, but he received an Order of Lenin for it after Stalin died. Ironically, Auezov himself and his hero Abai Kunanbaev were quite Russophile; for him, making Kazakhstan a modern, civilised nation certainly involved fostering elements of its traditional culture such as epic poetry (Abai was an akyn – wandering poet/bard – himself), but also considering Russia as apparently the sole source of modernisation, including introducing high points of Russian culture such as Pushkin’s poetry. Despite his Russophilia he is still the Kazakhs’ national cultural hero. Abai pretty much single-handedly created Kazakh as a literary language. I wonder how much this seminal work has influenced modern Kazakhstan, which seems to be less nationalistic and friendlier to Russia than some of the other new Central Asian nations?
‘Abai’ gives great insight into the dying traditional nomadic life on the steppes. Everything you need to know about Kazakh life in the 1800s and early 1900s seems to be in this book, and it was instrumental in fostering self-consciousness among the Kazakhs. (The divisions among the peoples of ex-Soviet Central Asia, especially between the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, originally were really quite artificial, and several of the nationalities were virtually created by Stalin for divide-and-rule purposes; and the physical borders that resulted are quite crazy. But since the divisions have congealed with the gaining of independence, the national identities are slowly becoming a reality).
Being nomadic, or semi-nomadic, much of the Kazakhs’ culture was portable and verbal. Hence their love and respect for the akyns.
The novel begins with Abai’s life in the aul (a key word which is not defined in the otherwise excellent glossary, but which here means a nomadic camp, though nowadays it can also mean a village, a district or even a touristy ‘traditional’ restaurant). Abai’s father was a powerful regional clan leader, who administers rough justice, and is hated by other clans for his imperialism. Abai spends periods in the cities. He comes back to the aul as a rare educated man – the clansmen think he’s a mullah and can cure illnesses (he doesn’t try to disabuse them). He is happy to learn from the Russians, including exiled revolutionaries. He counters the narrow-minded Kischkene-mullah, since he respects Western civilisation more. He becomes left-leaning and has a feeling of class solidarity with the poor Russians he meets.
Abai ended up with several wives, but he always remained in love with Togshan, whom he couldn’t marry for political reasons. Personally, I felt that his first wife Dilda was not described enough so I wasn’t sure why he didn’t really love her.
Basically, ‘Abai’ is the story of how he becomes a leader for the Kazakhs who is above the petty conflicts of the clans, and the Kazakh literary star by blending the oral tales of the steppes, Islamic literature and Russian literature. It is a fascinating journey into another culture, time and place. But please, someone, translate it into English!
AUESOW, Muchtar (1845-1904), Abai: vor Tau und Tag, translated from Russian into German by Hilde Angarowa, Berlin/Tübingen, Hans Schiler, 2010, ISBN 978-3-89930-262-2
(originally published in Kazakh in four volumes between 1942 and 1956)
Book 46: Uzbekistan (English) – The Dead Lake (translation of: Вундеркинд Ержан = Wunderkind Yerzhan) (Hamid ISMAILOV)
Towards evening Uncle Shaken took the children to the Dead Lake. ‘Don’t drink the water and do not touch it,’ he told them. It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples, no trembling – a bottle-green, glassy surface with only cautious reflections of the boys’ and girls’ faces as they peeped at its bottom by the shore. Could there possibly be some fairy-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water?
The bus driver called Uncle Shaken to help him with a punctured tyre. Yerzhan was left in charge of the class. He saw his long shadow reflected on the water’s surface. Dean Reed in the boundless steppe, underneath the limitless sky, above the bottomless water. He briefly took Aisulu’s hand. Then he let go of it and pulled off his T-shirt and trousers and walked calmly into the forbidden water. For a moment he splashed about in it and then, to the admiration and terrified twittering of Aisulu and the others, he walked out of the water, shook himself off as if nothing had happened and dressed again in his canvas trousers and Chinese T-shirt.
Nobody snitched on him. And for a long time afterwards everyone recalled with respectful admiration Wunda’s dramatic escapade.
I’ve long felt a special connection with Uzbekistan, both because of a long fascination with Central Asia and because I was privileged to visit in the year it became independent from the USSR.
The author Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, lived in Uzbekistan (whence he was forced to flee in 1994) and now lives in Britain, and this book is set in Kazakhstan. Does he qualify for my Uzbek writer? Well, it seems everyone doing a similar project to this one thinks so, and has chosen him. (Fair enough; after all, Uzbekistan lies at the very heart of the Silk Road, so you should expect a bazaar of influences, cultures and ethnicities, especially with the crazy, artificial borders left in Central Asia by the collapse of the USSR.) However, while they seem to have all gone for his The Railway, I’ve chosen The Dead Lake.
With a title like that coming from an Uzbek writer, you might (like me) expect the Dead Lake to be the what’s left of the Aral Sea (which perhaps should now be re-named the Arid Sea). But it refers to another Soviet ecological catastrophe, in another country altogether.
The scene is the Polygon, the poisoned zone in Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union carried out its atmospheric and underground nuclear tests, seemingly without any consideration for the people who lived on the supposedly empty steppe (which can’t help reminding this Australian of the British tests here).
The narrator meets “Wunderkind” Yerzhan on a train across the Kazakh steppe, where he is playing the violin. He angers Yerzhan, who has been permanently stunted by the incident of rash childish bravado I quoted above, by mistaking him for a 12-year-old boy (he is in fact 27). As the train rattles over the endless plain, he learns Yerzhan’s tragic story (and fills in some of the gaps himself).
After he realises at 12 that he has stopped growing, Yerzhan makes pathetic attempts to stretch himself.
The railway seems to be a symbol of progress, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish a nuclear test from a rumbling train. So often in this world you wonder whether ‘progress’, even on balance, is worth it, most especially for the people unfortunate enough to live where there are resources (minerals, forests, agricultural land, or just space) that others covet.
I’ll never forget Ismailov’s exquisite potted legend of that other Wunderkind, Mozart.
What a tragedy that this incandescent, angry and compassionate book, along with Ismailov’s other works, is banned in Uzbekistan.
ISMAILOV, Hamid (1954 – ), The Dead Lake, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, Peirene, London, 2014, ISBN 978-1-908670-14-4