The National Writer
June 10, 2014 | by Ted Trautman
Chinghiz Aitmatov and the literature of Kyrgyzstan.
Six years ago today, when pneumonia claimed the life of the Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov, I learned about it the old-fashioned way: from a man weeping in the streets.
I don’t mean to imply that all of Kyrgyzstan had thrown its hands up in despair at the loss of its best writer and most famous native son, though I wouldn’t have blamed them if they had. I just happened to come across an old man—an ak cakal, or “white beard,” as the elderly there are known—sitting next to a small radio on a park bench, letting tears run down his face as he listened to the news. I’d been living in Kyrgyzstan for a year at that point, halfway through a tour in the Peace Corps; my Kyrgyz was not so sharp that I could clearly understand the radio, but it was more than good enough to ask the man if everything was all right. In response, he lifted a tattered copy of Aitmatov’s novel Jamila toward me and whispered, “He’s gone.”
It’s hard to overstate Aitmatov’s importance to Kyrgyzstan’s national identity. In my time there, new acquaintances regularly quizzed me on the country’s national this and national that. Kyrgyzstan’s national food? A fried rice dish called plov. The national music? Anything played on the ukulele-like komuz. The national writer? Chinghiz Aitmatov, obviously. (My younger English students had a hard time understanding why I couldn’t as quickly recite the United States’ national writer, et al.) December 12, the author’s birthday, is celebrated nationwide as Chinghiz Aitmatov Day. After Kyrgyzstan gained independence, Aitmatov represented the young country as an ambassador to the European Union, NATO, and elsewhere. “One of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life,” Scott Horton wrote for Harper’s shortly after the writer died, “was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage.”
Even in death, Aitmatov sits at the center of Kyrgyzstan’s complicated relationship with literature. One the one hand, books there are a genuine status symbol: many families prominently display elegant leather-bound encyclopedia sets and other attractive books in the rooms where they entertain guests. My host family, which lost many of its possessions in a fire before I met them, held on to their badly singed volumes even in cases where half of every page had burned away.
But in other contexts, books are valued only for their most basic functions. On my first visit to Bishkek’s main bazaar, I ordered an empanada-like samsa, and it came wrapped in a grease-stained page torn from a collection of Alexander Pushkin’s poetry. When it came time to expel the byproduct of that samsa, I found half a history book leaning against the outhouse wall, offering itself up as toilet paper.
I never met him, but Chinghiz Aitmatov, born in 1928, often felt like a guide to me as I lived and worked in his country. I started reading his masterpiece, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, in my mother’s living room in Minnesota and finished it seven thousand miles away, in a village called Murzake. Improbably, the book juxtaposes a Kazakh community’s quest to bury a dead man in a remote desert cemetery with an astronaut’s and cosmonaut’s efforts to prepare their countries’ bickering leaders for first contact with an alien ambassador. Cloaked in the guise of science fiction, Aitmatov’s satire of Soviet leaders managed to slip past censors more easily than more explicit condemnations, like those of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Moderate social criticism recurred frequently in Aitmatov’s work, as did complicated portraits of rural Central Asian communities, which Aitmatov produced without ever straying into “village prose,” a Soviet literary movement extolling the virtues of rural life and Russian nationalism that, for the USSR’s Turkic minorities, might loosely be compared to writing in the voice of Uncle Tom.
Aitmatov wrote The Day Lasts and much of his later work in Russian, seeking a larger audience, just as Vladimir Nabokov switched from Russian to English after fleeing the Bolsheviks. But the fact that Aitmatov wrote his early work in Kyrgyz challenged me to see the beauty in a language I often thought of as limited. Compared to English, the Kyrgyz vocabulary is quite small: present and future tense are one and the same; the subtle distinctions between words like similar and same are folded into a single word that hangs on its context.
Shortly before Aitmatov passed away, I tried to start learning Russian. My tutor was an old Russian woman, racist toward the Kyrgyz and nostalgic for the days when Kyrgyzstan was still a part of the mighty Soviet Union. So nostalgic, in fact, that my lessons hued closely to the Soviet style of teaching: on my first day she handed me a copy of War and Peace in the original Russian and instructed me to start reading out loud so she could correct my pronunciation. At the next lesson, I asked her if we could start with something a bit more basic. “I know just the thing!” she told me, digging through some boxes. She rose with a copy of Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts and explained that a novel by a “mere” Kyrgyz writer would be much easier for me to comprehend. I didn’t see a need for a third lesson.
Whether a person in Kyrgyzstan is mocking a writer’s work or cherishing it or throwing it into the toilet, she lives in a country fundamentally shaped by the tradition of storytelling. Before coming under the control of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz were a historically nomadic group. The pre-Soviet Kyrgyz left few monuments or traditions with obvious applications in the more urban, post-Soviet country today. This is one of the reasons Aitmatov mattered so much: he embodied Kyrgyz culture at a time when it wasn’t clear what that meant.
But long before Aitmatov wrote his first words, the Kyrgyz had a robust oral storytelling tradition. The most famous of these stories is the Epic of Manas, the legendary founder of Kyrgyzstan, whose story takes days to recite. Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, Manas is a story of conquest—of Uighurs and Afghans, mainly—followed by a long journey home. As Aitmatov himself said of the oral tradition, while other peoples display their culture in tangible arts like architecture and written books, the Kyrgyz “expressed their worldview, pride and dignity, battles, and their hope for the future in [the] epic genre.”
Every name in Kyrgyzstan tells a story—a village called Mailuu Suu, or “Oily Water,” for example, helpfully reminds travelers that it sits on top of a nuclear-waste dump. And a shameful number of new parents give their daughters names like Boldu (“Enough”) and Burul (“Turn”), to indicate that they would have preferred a son. But less discussed is the name Kyrgyzstan itself, which means more than its primary definition, “the land of the Kyrgyz.” The word Kyrgyz is derived from the phrase körk küz, which means “forty girls”—a reference to the forty daughters of Manas, who became the mothers of the forty tribes of Kyrgyzstan. I can think of no other country whose name is derived from a work of fiction, unless you count the Bible. Even as Kyrgyzstan continues to face the struggles of a developing country, it’s worth remembering that the country came to be in part because its bards told its story again and again. It falls to the storytellers on Aitmatov’s shoulders to write the next chapter.
Ted Trautman has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Wired, and others. He lives in Puebla, Mexico.