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Chingiz Aitmatov, one of the most gifted writers of the Soviet era, and Central Asia’s leading novelist, died from pneumonia in a clinic in Nuremberg on Tuesday. He was 79.
Aitmatov’s work had a wide readership on the territory of the former Soviet Union and a growing following abroad. He was in a sense the consummate author of the perestroika period, and a leading expositor of the idea of convergence. But beyond its political dimension, Aitmatov’s work furnished a compelling portrait of the landscapes of Central Asia, especially of the steppe of Kazakhstan and the mountains and Alpine lakes of Kyrgyzstan, and in his subtle, ironic presentation of the effects of change and industrialization upon the nomadic traditions of this region he offered something of a challenge to Soviet precepts. But above all, Aitmatov loved the mountains, valleys, and lakes of his native Kyrgyzstan, and he paid a great deal of attention to its wildlife. Some of his most fascinating figures are feral or domesticated animals—the story of the mother wolf Akbara (“The Great”) in The Place of Execution (?????, 1988), for instance, or the amazing camel who carries much of the plot line of his great science fiction novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (? ?????? ???? ?????? ????, 1980).
At a meeting once on the shores of Lake Issyk Köl, where Aitmatov regularly organized writers’ gatherings, I asked him why he was so drawn to animals in his writing—why he seemed almost to present them as an extension of the human family. “Because they are extensions of our family,” he said. “Humans overrate themselves, do they not? When we forget the little brothers, the animals, we redefine our world in a way that drains it of richness and color.” Before he was a writer, Aitmatov explained, he thought of a life in animal husbandry; it was in this process that he found his vocation as a writer.
The Day Lasts is certainly Aitmatov’s best-known work. Two stories form its core. One is the tale of a Kazakh stationmaster who has lived in quiet solitude on the steppe and learns of the death of a close old friend. He is determined to travel to his friend’s funeral and make sure the friend is properly honored. His trip provides the background for a recollection of his life: The protagonist had been wounded in World War II and given a sinecure at a remote railroad station; he had lived a life on the periphery of the world, but the major developments of Soviet history in this era are paraded before us. Rabble-rousers, repression, the disappearance of political malcontents—all of this marks Stalin’s reign of terror, the thaw under Khrushchev, and finally the appearance on the horizon of a notion of convergence. Man did not have to end in nuclear holocaust; cooperation between the capitalist and socialists world was not merely possible, but imperative. Moreover, the interests of these two terrestrial empires was seen as steadily converging, the differences fading.
The second plotline carries the theme of convergence forward into the realm of science fiction. America and the Soviet Union have launched a joint expedition to reach out to highly intelligent life on another planet, Lesnaya Grud. A U.S.-Soviet team travels to Lesnaya Grud and reports back. It is a society that knows no war but is very concerned about environmental degradation; they are eager to identify future alternative homes. The Americans and Soviets agree to keep this entire operation a secret. The alternative life style of Lesnaya Grud is simply too threatening.
Aitmatov’s message to his readers was plain enough: The Cold War was causing West and East alike to forget the duty they owed to the earth, which was being devastated and lost for future generations while its plundered wealth was funneled into mutually assured destruction. Aitmatov presents his Central Asians as passive spectators, and he presents the notion of the mankurt, taken from an ancient Turkic legend, which has subsequently been used to describe the Central Asian who was transformed into homo sovieticus, who lost his national identity, roots, and love of the nature and wildlife of his homelands.
This was an audacious vision for a Soviet writer. But one of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life 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; Aitmatov spent his last years as a voice and conscience of his homeland upon the European stage. For his people, Aitmatov defined the vision and possibilities inherent in the artistic vision. For the world, Aitmatov gave a glimpse of an obscure and long-unseen corner and offered us a strong vision of humanity’s common challenge.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”