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Lit 101: Intro to Aitmatov

December 1, 2010

I’m researchifying in Lake Issyk-Kul this week, away from the wonderful world wide web, so I thought I’d write up something to keep you entertained during my absence. I’d like to share with you about Chingiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyz literary superstar.

If you’re from Kyrgyzstan, you consider him world-famous. “Surely you’ve read him in your literature classes?” I’ve been asked. He achieved great fame for his novels and short stories during the Soviet era, and was translated into a variety of European languages. Yet his name and country and prose itself remain unknown to damn near every American soul. Which is a shame, because his writing’s wonderful.

When I visit a new country, I have a compulsion to read every last printed page I can find about it. Guidebooks and travelogues, though, only satisfy me up to a point. They tell of history and culinary delights, sights to see and so on, but never really show you the true nature of everyday life. That’s why I love reading the local literature like Aitmatov. You get tales of common people and their thoughts and passions, all without the filter of foreign eyes that clouds the rest of available texts. In hearing a person’s stories, you can understand his people’s worldview and their mindsets, what they care most about in the world. In Aitmatov’s world, it’s horses and rivers, shepherds and elders, the pure life of the Kyrgyz people, up in the mountains of the Tien Shan.

The idioms and metaphors he draws upon all taste distinctly Kyrgyz. They serve as a segway into understanding a variety of  local phenomena, and speak to the complexity of Kyrgyz culture. To give you an idea of how Aitmatov does this, here are some examples I’ve collected:

“The languid harvest sun blazed like the mouth of a burning tandyr.” A tandyr is a clay oven, used for baking bread.

“Your hair is like a horse’s mane.” This is probably a very romantic comment for a Kyrgyz. The local park here in Bishkek has several stone sculptures dedicated to man-horse love. If your woman’s hair is comparable to your horse’s, you’ve found a winner.

“The wind was howling like a shaman.” Before the coming of Islam, Kyrgyz people were a pagan people like the rest of Central Asian nomads (Kazakhs, Tuvans, Mongolians and so on), worshipping a sky god called Tenger and visiting shamanistic priests for ritualistic healing.

“Are you trying to make a mullah of him?” Not quite sure what this comment means, but it seems snide. It speaks, though, to the current common religion of the Kyrgyz people. A mullah is a teacher of Islam.

“Everyone froze, as taut as the strings of a komuz” The komuz is the three-stringed lute that is the backbone of traditional music. In case you forgot, see the previous post where I visited a komuz-maker.

“This is no caravanserai! Get out of here.” Like all of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has historically lied at the crossroads of the world’s great civilizations, and it was here that the Silk Road curved its way through on its way from China to the West. A caravanserai was a trader’s hotel, often a stone fortress high in the mountains where itinerant folk could hide from the savagery of the elements.

“He tensed his body like a golden eagle ready to soar” My favorite quote of course. There’s plenty more where this came from, too – birds of prey are central figures in the traditional imagery of Kyrgyz epic poetry, all passed down by oral tradition.

So the wordplay is distinctly local in flavor, but the stories themselves revolve around distinctly Kyrgyz concerns, often with a Soviet sheen. “Dzhamilya” tells of a young girl who marries early, yet falls in love with another when her husband is away at war. Her new guy sings her traditional songs and together they work on a kolkhoz. “The White Steamship” is a story about a young boy and his grandfather living in the mountains above Lake Issyk-Kul, and their encounters with figures from Kyrgyz mythology. “Farewell, Gyulsary” is as Kyrgyz as it gets, pretty much a love story about a man and his horse. His horse lays dying on the side of the road, and the man recounts their lives together. The Kyrgyz really have a deep understanding of these animals, so much that Aimatov gives us some first-person POV of what’s it’s like to be a baby horse, nursing on your mother mare: “Her teats were firm and sweet, the milk frothed on his lips and he choked on its abundance and sweetness.”

Even when I was lying in bed in Santa Cruz, California reading these stories, I was always transported to Kirgizia, where horses roamed and tulips grew. Aitmatov’s stories are certainly idyllic notions of what it means to be Kyrgyz – the realities of city life and poverty rarely figure into his visions. Yet the worlds he creates are so contagious, so real, that I didn’t mind the deception. You really feel like you’re there. All your senses are activated, so that you understand Kyrgyzstan from a real basic, bodily perspective. It’s hard to understand. Here is a collection of Kyrgyz scents from Aitmatov’s writings. Just smell this and tell me you won’t come visit:


“He was permeated with the bitterish scent of hay pollen.”


“The house smelled of hot resin and the smoke of pine.”


“The wind was heavy with the smell of apples, the warm, milk-like scent of flowering maize and the smell of drying dung bricks.”


“The springtime fragrance of the earth, the smell of new milk…”


“The smell of sweet clover and sage…”


“The air was fragrant with wormwood and tulips, and we breathed this air of freedom.”

Breathe it in! Find his books! (Buy them on Amazon, find them in your library). Watch his movies! (There’s a dozen that are streaming on youtube. Dzhamilya is a fantastic film, even if you don’t understand Russian). Enjoy.


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