Author of the “most beautiful love story in the world"
The works of the writer Chingiz Aitmatov, born in Sheker (Kyrghistan) in 1928, are characterised by the tensions and contradictions that lie between tradition and the modern age – between Kyrghisian myths, tribal culture and the new social system, between shamanism and industrialisation. Aitmatov has been the recipient of prizes and prestigious awards for his novels and short stories, which have now been translated into 90 languages.
Chingiz Aitmatov was born on 12 December 1928 in Kislar Seker in Kyrghistan. He grew up with the Kyrghisian traditions which were passed on to him by his grandmother, but also learned the Russian language from his father at an early age. Aitmatov is at home in both languages, writes in both of them and obtains a productive tension from the different means of expression in both these languages which then appears in his novels, frequently in motifs which are placed in antagonistic contrast to one another. In 1937, Aitmatov’s father fell victim to the Stalinist Terror, and the family moved back to the village from the town. Aitmatov had to leave school when he was only 14 years old because of the war, during which he took on administrative functions, initially in the village, and later also in the district. In 1946 he went back to complete his school-leaving certificate, studied at the Veterinary Technical College in Zhambul, and thereafter at the Kyrghistan Agricultural Institute.
His first short story was published as early as 1952, and during a period of employment as a stockbreeder on an experimental farm, he began to work regularly as a journalist and writer. In 1956 he began a literary training at the Gorky Institute in Moscow, which he completed two years later with his graduation work, “Jamila”. This novelette, praised in 1959 by Louis Aragon as “the most beautiful love story in the world,” established Aitmatov’s worldwide fame, and is one of the most translated works of Soviet literature. The story is told from the perspective of a 15 year old and describes the love story of Jamila, who is unhappily married to a front-line soldier, and Daniyar, a soldier who has been dismissed because of an injury.
The short story “Face to Face” was also published in 1958. Several of the themes most important to the author are to be found in this story, such as love and betrayal, egoism and public spirit, poverty and the war-tormented Kyrghisian people’s struggle for survival. In 1990 Aitmatov published an extended version of this story, which was initially heavily criticised in the press because of the taboos it breaks. This later version gives more psychological credibility to the protagonist, a deserter, and criticises the war, both in itself, but particularly here as “imposed”.
Following his studies in Moscow, Aitmatov worked as editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Literaturnaya Kirgiziya” (Literary Kyrghisia) and as correspondent of “Pravda” in Frunze (now Bishkek), and in 1959 he became a member of the CPSU. The stories and novelettes of this period are set almost exclusively in his native Kyrghisia, whose sublimely beautiful nature is the subject of his descriptions again and again, as are the living and working conditions as well as the mentality of the population, whose hard life in the countryside he knew well from his own observation and experiences.
“The First Teacher” (1962) discusses the violent departure from former practices and the radical changes connected with this, which Soviet society demanded from the moral concepts which were handed down through generations of Kyrghisians, and where the teacher’s struggle for the new society which is to be achieved assumes heroic forms.
“Farewell Gulsary!”, which was published in 1966, the same year in which Aitmatov was elected to the Supreme Soviet, vividly shows the problems which the building of Socialism and Stalinism cause. Very precisely, in the human protagonists’ dealings with and attitude to the title figure, the horse Gulsary, and in the failings and failures of their relationships with one another, moral concepts come to light which could scarcely be more dissimilar. Already here Aitmatov uses parts of two ancient epics in order to accentuate one of the conflicts of his principal character; changes the perspectives from which the story is told; bestows the maltreated creature with an impressive voice, and finds a traditional Kyrghisian lament for the mourning. In the second part of the novelette, the realistic perspective predominates.
During the seventies, Aitmatov’s poetics changed when he broadened the realistic narrative mode by a present characterised by antagonisms. References to Kyrghisia’s myths, epics and fairytales, which were predominantly handed on by word of mouth until late in the 1980s, permit the author to discuss the problems of the collision of a patriarchal system of values with contemporary Soviet society, to add a commentary that is distanced both from tradition and genre, without having to judge or take sides. Aitmatov describes, from the perspective of an unnamed seven year old boy, the harshness of an exploited and exploitative life, which even the myths no longer have any power to endow with sense.
He contrasts the figures, whose failure emphasises the pointlessness of a merely material attitude to life even more sharply, with the level of mythical tradition, which feeds personal relationships and commitments – even when strength is insufficient for resistance. The linking of the myth of the Maral hind, the saviour of the Kyrghisian tribe, which having turned into wild game, vanishes from the region, but then reappears in the “real” narrative and becomes a catalyst for the protagonists, with the young boy’s personal fairytale, which originates in his longing for security, confers the dimensions of an ancient tragedy on events, without having to take on its concept of fate.
The novelette “The Cranes Fly Early”, published in 1975, almost seems like an epic of our times. Here Aitmatov tells the story of five youths whose father was killed in the war, the war which forced them to undertake hard and responsible work, stretched them further than they could go and allowed them to mature – but they never had the opportunity to make use of the fruits of their work and their disciplined development.
“The Boy and the Sea”, published in 1977, is devoted to the Nivkhy, a people from the Sea of Okhotsk in Siberia, and their cosmogonical myth of the duck Luvr, and creates a totemistic weltanschauung which focuses on the way in which humans strive to live in harmonic union with nature and thereby points to humans’ responsibility with regard to nature, whose subjugation simultaneously means the destruction of this life aim. The heroes of the narrative are at a point between the elements and in this extreme borderline situation show where their ethos lies, as well as their strong and weak points. Speaking of this novel, Aitmatov said: “It’s about seeing whether reason, culture, art, under conditions of the incompatibility of forces which are at opposite poles and fighting one another, the sharp collision of different ideologies, under the conditions of the global scientific-technological revolution, are in a position to change human nature so that it is the eternally great, immortal passions which predominate: the creation, prolongation and preservation of the human species, the human capacity for self-knowledge and the realisation of humans’ purpose in life.”
The novel “The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years” was published in 1980. In this, Aitmatov again returns to myth and legend, but combines these with elements of science-fiction, through which a situation, in reality recognised to be dangerous, is intensified and exaggerated to great effect. For Aitmatov, the fantastic is a “metaphor of life, which with its help is presented from a new, unexpected viewpoint.” The novel’s principal character lives near the siding of a railway track in the enormous steppe of Kazakhstan, together with a few other people who have mainly landed in this place as a result of the Stalinist Terror. A friend dies and is supposed to have a ritual burial at the tribal cemetery Ana-Beijit (Mother resting-place). However, the cemetery belongs to a space station which is shared by the Russians and Americans, and can therefore no longer be entered. By using this construction, the author has the opportunity, in the principal character’s retrospective monologues, to reflect on the lives of this handful of people, in the science-fiction parts to examine the cynical deployment of technological progress – implemented in this regard equally exclusively by Americans and Russians – purely from the point of view of power politics, and in an impressive way to find the images in the legends which give his fear of the loss of memory lasting expression.
Heiner Müller was also sufficiently impressed by the myth of the Mankurts, slaves who lost their memories, will and with that their identity, through a form of torture – a circlet of fresh camelskin, which contracts as it dries and presses against the head to make use of it in his own work. Aitmatov sees this process, which was originally associated with extreme cruelty, as a danger in a transposed form which he counteracts with his writing. Technological possibilities permit a “circlet” of defence missiles to be drawn around the whole world, in order to keep its inhabitants from “memories of the future.” The boundless possibilities of human inventiveness become instruments of torture through bigotry and the restrictions of the sheer exercise of power, which are then capable of turning humankind into weak-willed slaves.
With the beginning of Gorbachev’s reform-oriented politics in 1986 “The Scaffold” was published in the journal “Novy Mir” (“New World”) as a preprint of the novel itself. Aitmatov was still writing the final chapters as the first were already published, which made censorship impossible. Not least because of this, the novel was considered to be a perfect example of a “Perestroika novel”, praised by reformers and heavily debated in the conservative press. In three interwoven stories, Aitmatov does not only discuss taboo topics such as drug trafficking and the plundering of natural resources in order to achieve the output target, but also – unusually for an author who comes from the Muslim tradition – shows Jesus with Pontius Pilate in a conversation in which the Roman governor holds the same opinions as the drug traffickers and antelope hunters, while Jesus speaks out for a religion of reason and self-fulfilment. Once again, the pursued, maltreated creature is given a voice, this time in the form of a she-wolf, whose fate is closely connected to that of the people of the steppe, the scene of drug trafficking and poaching, which cannot be prevented by any well-meaning individual.
In 1989 Aitmotov became a member of the Congress of Peoples Deputies of the USSR, then head of the Permanent Parliamentary Commission, and was finally appointed to Gorbachev’s presidential council. He used his reputation as an author and his political prestige to control imminent conflicts between different nationalities, and travelled to the crisis regions of 1989 and 1990. Already in November 1990, however, he retired from an active role in domestic politics, and became ambassador in Luxembourg. In the same year, supplements to two earlier works, “The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years” and “Face to Face” were published, as well as “The White Cloud of Ghengis Khan”, in which Aitmatov clearly criticises the Stalinist era, which robbed him not only of his father, but also went directly against his idea of a humane social system.
Since 1990, Chingiz Aitmatov has only published fragments, but remains a much-read author, whose works, briefly described here, have found enthusiastic readers all over the world. It is not only the exotic nature of the unknown scenes of Central Asia, for whose beauty, size and formative power Aitmatov finds such moving words, not only the voices of the animals accompanying the people, which demand esteem and respect, not only the antagonistic attitudes of the characters, which lead to tragic conflicts of heroic proportions, not only the link between the Soviet present and the legends and myths of the peoples who inhabit this realm, not only the moral strength of the humane perspective of this author which are responsible for making these books so charming and fascinating. Even in translation, the rich imagery of the language, the alternation between narrative levels, the sentences which are inserted in the manner of a leitmotif, and which keep something of the rhythm and structure of epics which have been handed down by word of mouth, all captivate the reader. The emptiness of the space emphasises the conflicts – whether between human beings, between humans and nature, between humans and technology, or the conflicts within a person which have to be solved – and the question of values is posed visibly and absolutely concretely. The reader’s need for size and meaning is fulfilled in Aitmatov’s texts, which invite the reader to identify with them, but at the same time remain foreign – a poetic power, which reaches from the “other time” into the present.
Events at the HKW:
3 June 1989
Small cultures in large countries
Chingiz Aitmatov – N. Scott Momadi
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Author: Beate-Ursula Endriss
Chingiz Aitmatov was born on 12.12.1928 in Kislar Seker, in Kyrghisia. He grew up bilingual (Kyrghisian and Russian), lost his father at the age of 9, was forced to leave school at the age of 14 because of the war, and had to undertake administrative tasks. In 1946 he completed his school-leaving certificate, worked as a stockbreeder on an experimental farm, and at the same time began to gather his first journalistic and literary experiences. From 1956 to 1958 he studied at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. In 1958 his graduation work, “Jamila”, which established his worldwide fame, was published, as well as the short story “Eye to Eye”, whose principal character is a deserter from the Soviet Army in the Second World War. Following his studies, Aitmatov worked as editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Literaturnaya Kirgiziya” (Literary Kyrghisia), as correspondent of “Pravda”, and as a member of the editorial staff at the “Literaturnaya Gazeta” (Literary Newspaper), and he was director of the Kyrghisian Film Association. In 1959 Aitmatov became a member of the CPSU, and in 1966 was elected to the Supreme Soviet. In 1989 he became a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, then head of the Permanent Parliamentary Commission, and was finally appointed to Gorbachev’s presidential council and attempted to mediate in the conflicts between nationalities which were beginning to flare up. In November 1990 he became the ambassador of the USSR, and later of the CIS, in Luxembourg.
Ode to the Grand Spirit: A Dialogue
I.B. Taurus. Together with Daisaku Ikeda
Azbuka - klassika
Kogda padayut gory. Vechnaya nevesta
London: Hodder and Stoughton 1970 (Translation: John French)
Jamila. Mother Earth and Other Stories
London and Boston: Faber and Faber 1989 (Translation: James Riorman)
The Place of the Skull
New York: Grove Press 1989 (Translation: Natasha Ward)
Do the Russians Want War?
Cranes Fly Early
The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 1983
The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual
Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1981
The Ascent of Mount Fuji: A Play
The White Ship
New York: Crown Publishers 1972
Tales of the Mountains and Steppes