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)
The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.
So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.
HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)