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)
Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.
This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:
“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”
While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.
GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4