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The National Writer

June 10, 2014 | by

Chinghiz Aitmatov and the literature of Kyrgyzstan.

Stamps_of_Kyrgyzstan,_2009-577-584

“Chyngyz Aitmatov and his arts,” a series of Kyrgyz postage stamps.

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.” Read More »

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