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Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008)Winter moved away to the other side of the mountain pass. Spring was already driving in her blue flocks.There are still peoples whose literature is primarily oral and thus kept within the family, as it were, so when a member of such a people acquires another language to speak to outsiders, I am eager to listen. Two such authors come immediately to mind: the Tuvan shaman, poet and novelist who writes in German under his Mongolian name, Galsan Tschinag (at home he is called Irgit Shynykbai-oglu Dshurukuwaa), and the Kyrgyz/Soviet novelist, essayist and playwright Chingiz Aitmatov, who wrote primarily in Russian. Both authors afford invaluable insight into the lives of nomadic peoples as they live their traditional lives and as they confront the often hostile peoples around them who insist that they change their lives completely. And both offer a great deal more than exotic folklore.Aitmatov is the more graceful, the more artistic of the two, and some of his texts are the object of this review. Although Aitmatov was apparently more than merely tolerated by the Soviet authorities (he was awarded the Lenin Prize), I cant help but think that he was a token ethnic author to them, for the books by Aitmatov Ive read up to this point have not been in the approved Soviet realist style complete with Soviet Heroes of Labor and the like.(*) Perhaps because he usually worked folklore into his texts they thought he could be safely pigeonholed in that officially approved category. But Aitmatov did not employ the folklore of the eastern steppes and Siberia for the sake of exoticism, and certainly not in order to reconcile the Turkic peoples living in the eastern wilds of the Soviet Union with their Russian masters. No, the nature mysticism, the shamanism and the traditions of his Turkic, nomadic forebears actually resonated within him. What is more, he is able to communicate these to us creatures from a very different planet.Three novellas are collected in Tales of the Mountains and the Steppes (1969): Farewell, Gyulsary!, Duishen, and Jamila (1958); in the West the latter is probably his best known work. Set in the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic during World War II, all the fighting-age men are far to the west and the work on the collective farm is done by the women, old men and boys. For two generations the Kyrgyz have been living in the village, but still their customs and their sayings hearken back to the earlier nomadic life. The early-teenaged Seit narrates a tale whose center is Jamila, the young and beautiful wife of one of his elder stepbrothers away at the war, as she reluctantly, unwillingly falls in love with the injured and demobilized Saniyar under the spell of song. Louis Aragon called Jamila la plus belle histoire d’amour du monde,(**) and surely part of the beauty of this love story is Seits innocent and fervent love for his sister-in-law. Another element is a romantic, almost naive notion of the power of art, of Saniyars singing and Seits drawing. Its been quite a while since Ive encountered this sentiment without the obscuring filigree of sophisticated irony.Ak-Su, KyrgyzstanThe narrator of Duishen (1961) could be Seit grown to be a middle aged painter, but all the set up involving him turns out to be a frame for the actual story set in 1924. And in that story one sees the ideals of early communism as it played itself out in the Kyrgyz hinterland resulting in a complete change in the life of an abused fourteen year old girl, Altynai. It, too, is a love story - the love of a rejected child for a committed teacher. Then the old ways assert themselves: Altynai is forcefully married off to a middle aged relative and violence ensues. Now this novella truly is a beautiful love story.The longest novella, Farewell, Gyulsary! (1969), is also the most interesting to me. In the set up an old man, Tanabai, is trying to get his even older horse, Gyulsary, back home before he dies in his tracks. This occasions Tanabai to remember his history with the horse, which widens out into a history of the collective farm and its people. Here Aitmatov questions the dispossession of the kulaks (heralded in the previous story) and the long decades in which the Soviet Union (and its apparatchiks) grew more powerful but the life of the peasants hardly improved at all. He does this not at all abstractly, but concretely, down-to-earth - human beings are not overlooked in the name of abstractions and ideologies. Of particular interest was how the collective farm was held in debt by the pricing policies of the State; how it had to deal with banks for credit and the sacrifices the people had to make because eventually it would be given no credit; how managers came and went, for whom the farm was just another rung in the career ladder; and how year in and year out the State always got what it demanded, however denuded the collective was left thereafter. In fact, all of the party apparatchiks save one (or possibly two) in this piece are the lowest kind of opportunists. No, Aitmatov was not a propagandist for the State! This text must have been published during one of the periods of thaw.But my summary is too abstract. Aitmatov wrote about people in the midst of a hard life, not about ideas, and Ive enjoyed everything I have ever read from his hand.(*) But neither were they the bitter, blackly humorous satires so ubiquitous in the samizdat crowd.(**) And translated it into French.

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