No Comment — June 11, 2008, 3:00 pm

Remembering Aitmatov

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2014

The End of Retirement

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Francis and the Nuns

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Return of the Strongman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
 Jessica Bruder on the end of retirement, Mary Gordon on the new Vatican, Laura Kipnis on narcissism, and more
Article
The End of Retirement·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“For those riding the economy’s outermost edge, adaptation may now mean giving up what full-time RV dwellers call ‘stick houses’ to hit the road and seek work.”
Photograph (detail) © Max Whittaker
Post
God Lives on Lemon Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Bethel was Oz-like for me. I mean that with all the awe, utter hopefulness, and mythic fear with which Dorothy and her friends had approached that magical city.”
Photograph (detail) ©© Clemens v. Vogelson (Flickr)
Article
The Octopus and Its Grandchildren·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Stanford University’s origins and vision
“The pervasive fantasy that Silicon Valley doesn’t need the government obscures the role of that government in funding much of the research that built it.”
Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
World Cup Boom and Bust·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m not giving a dime to FIFA. You know they’re not paying taxes on any of this?”
Photograph © The author

Chance that an American believes Ramadan is the Jewish day of atonement:

1 in 10

Mathematicians discovered the existence of a pseudoprime that is the sum of 10,333,229,505 known primes and contains roughly 295 billion digits but cannot be represented precisely because the mathematician who found it lacks sufficient RAM.

On the eve of Independence Day in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko delivered a speech in Belarusian instead of Russian for the first time in 20 years, disproving rumors that he can no longer speak the language.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today