by Timothy Walsh
Kazakhstan is an ancient land with a fascinating culture little known in the West. Even though it is the ninth-largest country in the world, few Americans can place it on a map. It is where humans first domesticated the horse and the genetic homeland of all our cultivated varieties of apples. It is also a place with a rich literary heritage largely unknown outside its borders.
Along with the rest of Soviet Central Asia, Kazakhstan was kept closed off from the Western world during the long night of the Russian occupation. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a few writers were “discovered” by the West—Chingiz Aitmatov from Kyrgystan, Hamid Ismailov from Uzbekistan—but this only scratched the surface of the deep literary ore running through this storied crossroads of the world, where once the fabled Silk Road had been the main cultural and commercial link between East and West.
Now comes Talasbek Asemkulov’s A Life at Noon (Three String Books, $29.95), translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. Astoundingly, this is the first post-Soviet novel from Kazakhstan to be translated into English, but it is an inspired choice. Originally written in 2003 in Kazakh, it was translated into Russian last year by the author’s wife, Zira Naurzbayeva, and now at last into English. Asemkulov died in 2014, but his novel stands as a lasting monument to his art, both literary and musical.
A Life at Noon tells the story of Azhigerei as he grows up in a rural aul in the 1960s, a time when the traditional Kazakh culture of steppe nomads was in danger of completely dying out due to the often brutal and disastrous policies of the Soviet regime. Even if you know nothing about Central Asia or Kazakhstan, Asemkulov will quickly pull you into this spellbinding tale, whether riding out with Azhigerei on horseback into the mysterious and life-giving steppe or sitting in the felt-carpeted comfort of a yurt on a summer night, sipping hot tea while listening to beguiling music.
This is also the coming-of-age story of an artist, as young Azhigerei is tutored by his father, Sabyt, to become a master player of the dombra, the ancient national instrument of Kazakhstan. In lucid, haunting scenes we see Azhigerei listening to old men’s stories by firelight, suffering through the first bittersweet pangs of young love, and losing himself as he plays an intricate kuy, the dombra in his hands turned into an instrument of revelation as he feels some higher power playing through him.
This is not a sugar-coated novel—there are chilling stories of Soviet atrocities and scenes of mindless brutality—but there are also moments of almost mystical beauty and poetry. And Fairweather-Vega’s translation preserves Asemkulov’s vigorous and lucid prose. Unlike some Kazakh writers who can tend to prolixity, Asemkulov’s writing is spare and tight, painting vivid pictures of the Kazakh countryside or characters in a few deft strokes. Fairweather-Vega renders all this in a natural idiomatic English free of footnotes or glossary, preserving occasional Kazakh words that are best left untranslated (kamcha, jigit, barymtash, shanyrak) since the reader can figure out their meanings in context.
A Life at Noon is mainly Azhigerei’s and Sabyt’s story, but it is also the story of dozens of other vivid characters, both living and dead—and in this way it becomes the story of Kazakhstan itself. Integral to this novel is the act of storytelling, of tales told by wise old aqsaqals in yurts over endless cups of tea (or vodka). There are vivid stories of the Russian occupation, Bolshevik death squads, Stalin’s forced collectivization of this proud nomadic people, the confiscation of livestock and the resulting starvation of millions. These stories are tragic, but there are also stories of earlier times—of thriving auls, years of plenty, and legendary dombra competitions at festivals.
As we follow Azhigerei through his early teens, the novel’s other interwoven stories gradually and masterfully construct a vivid portrait of the Kazakh people and culture over the last two hundred years. Through it all, it is music, the unique, lyrically percussive voice of the dombra, that knits things together. The dombra speaks through sound and melody, but it is also a storytelling instrument—its repertoire of kuys (virtuoso instrumental compositions) as consciously programmatic as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
In this way, Azhigerei’s story and the stories the dombra tells through his dexterous fingers culminate in increasingly profound meditations on what it means to be human in a world where love must give way to grief, bliss to tragedy and death. The tradition of virtuoso instrumentalists playing the dombra was almost extinguished by Stalin and the Soviet regime, but it survived in people like Sabyt and Azhigerei—and in Asemkulov himself. Besides being an accomplished novelist and screenwriter, Asemkulov was a master dombra player, a true kuyishi, one of the few able to pass on the authentic secrets of the old masters (and therefore perhaps the only person who could have written such a book).
As Sabyt explains at one point, after laboriously reconstructing a lost kuy, playing the dombra for days on end until he succeeds, “That kuy vanished long ago. When I caught that small piece of it, I spent a few days drawing it out of the other world.” This novel feels exactly like that—drawn out of the other world by an artist uniquely qualified for the task.
Serendipitously, coinciding with the publication of the Asemkulov novel comes the groundbreaking anthology Contemporary Kazakh Literature: Prose, which contains a short story by Asemkulov that functions as a fitting sequel to the novel. (The anthology, published by Cambridge University Press in partnership with the National Bureau of Translations, is available as a free pdf download.)
“The Old Kuyishi” picks up with Azhigerei a few years later when he’s beginning his obligatory military service. On leave, he’s returning home when he runs into Zuman, a fellow dombra player, now an alcoholic and down on his luck. Azigherei is disappointed, but Zuman unexpectedly informs Azigherei of an even greater kuyishi who has dropped out of sight and who, if still alive, has many secrets to impart. And so Azigherei goes off on a new quest.
There are many other riches in this anthology, including ten or twelve absolute gems translated into English for the first time, from Sherkhan Murtaza’s traditional story, almost a folktale, to Didar Amantay’s disaffected postmodern sketch that reads something like a Jean Cocteau script.
The alphabet came late to the Kazakh language. Although an Arabic script had been used for centuries to write Kazakh, among the people the ancient traditions of oral storytelling and the singing of historical epics were the main forms of cultural transmission well into the twentieth century. Even today, the zhirau (singers of epic poetry), akyn (improvising oral poets), and sal-seri (shaman-like trickster poet-singers) are still revered. In 1929, a Latin alphabet was introduced, which was changed to Cyrillic in 1940 to better unify the far-flung corners of the Soviet Union. (Kazakh will change back to the Latin alphabet by 2025.)
With the growth of cities in Kazakhstan (not a prominent feature of its nomadic past) came printing presses, newspapers, magazines, and books. The storytelling instinct so strong in Kazakh culture soon burst forth in these new written forms, opening the floodgates on a steady stream of literary efforts, including a surprising number of thick historical epics and weighty trilogies spanning centuries.
Sadly, many of the most talented Kazakh writers from this early period were executed in the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s—Beimbet Maylin and Saken Seyfullin among them. This anthology picks up with the next generation of writers, born in the 1930s and later. Many of their stories are, for obvious reasons, heavily influenced by Russian literature, particularly Chekhov—but this is not a bad thing, considering that most of twentieth-century short story writing around the world has been influenced by Chekhov, the master of the modern short story.
Consider Kalikhan Yskak’s “A Quiet Autumn,” one of the real treasures in this anthology. Here, Yskak deftly fuses elements from the ancient Kazakh storytelling tradition with lessons learned from Chekhov and other Russian writers like Turgenev. The result is something both unusual and original. Yskak’s sympathies are plainly for the pre-Soviet times when the Kazakh people lived in harmony with nature, but the beginning of the story—when the protagonist, Kasym, encounters a former love by chance on a forest road—is Yskak’s subtle homage to Chekhov, whose short story “The Huntsman” begins in precisely the same way.
There are many other gems in this collection—such as Dulat Isabekov’s “Growing Pains,” which begins in tragedy, then surprisingly morphs into a slow-burn comedy; or Marhabat Baigut’s fascinating “The Kazakhs of Hamburg,” focusing on the sizeable German population forcibly resettled in Kazakhstan by Stalin; or Sayin Muratbekov’s unforgettably poignant “The Scent of Wormwood.”
While it is true that twentieth-century Kazakh literature is heavily dominated by men, it is still surprising that of the thirty authors in this anthology, only two are women. Why the anthology doesn’t include other notable women writers like Sharbanu Kumarova or Altynash Dzhaganova is a puzzle and a disappointment.
The anthology does include Rosa Mukanova’s celebrated story “The Image of the Eternal Child” (translated elsewhere as “Leyla’s Prayer”), which deals with the horrifying legacy of the Russian nuclear testing program in the dreaded “Polygon” area of eastern Kazakhstan. Here, over 450 nuclear tests were carried out between 1949 and 1989, and hundreds of thousands of Kazakh villagers were purposely exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation and fallout.
In this haunting story, which reads something like a cross between a parable and a dark fairy tale, the disfigured girl, Leila, finds that her only friend is the moon—and the compassionate moon consciously watches over her while lamenting the degradation and destruction let loose on the land.
A few of the stories in the Cambridge anthology are real clunkers, weighed down by heavy doses of Soviet social realism and heavy-handed moralism. One might also quibble with editorial decisions, including the use of the “ISO 9 Standard” for Romanizing Cyrillic characters, which results in words burdened with inscrutable diacritical marks, unpronounceable to most English speakers who are not phonologists.
More questionable is the organizational principle of the anthology, where the authors are simply presented chronologically by date of birth. This is a missed opportunity—it would have been far better to present the stories so that the readers’ familiarity with Kazakh culture and history gradually builds, since some stories are much more dependent on this than others (and as it is, some of the weakest stories come in the first ten.)
With this in mind, here are the stories I would most recommend, ordered so that they build on and complement each other more organically:
1. “A Quiet Autumn,” Kalikhan Yskak
2. “Grandmother’s Samovar,” Didakhmet Ashimkhanuly
3. “The Kazakhs of Hamburg” Marhabat Baigut
4. “The Old Kujsi,” Talasbek Asemkulov
5. “Kerbugy” Oralkhan Bokey
6. “The Smell of Wormwood,” Sayin Muratbekov
7. “The Song,” Sofy Smatayev
8. “Growing Pains,” Dulat Isabekov
9. “Bojtumar,” Sherkhan Murtaza
10. “The Nest of the White Cranes,” Nurgali Oraz
11. “The Image of the Eternal Child,” Roza Mukanova
12. “Pygmalion of the Backwoods,” Dauren Quat
From there, you can wander through the rest of this essential and wide-ranging anthology, from Tolen Abdik’s “The Battlefield of Sanity,” with its hints of Kafka, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky, to Kabdesh Zhumadilov’s quietly tragic “A Beggar Man.”
Prior to this Cambridge anthology of contemporary Kazakh prose (there is also a companion volume of poetry), Cognella Academic Publishing released two anthologies of Kazakh literature—the only others available in English translation. First came The Stories of the Great Steppe (edited by Rafis Abazov, translated by Sergey Levchin and Ilya Bernshtein, $69.95) in 2013 followed by Summer Evening, Prairie Night, Land of Golden Wheat (edited by Rafis Abazov, translated by Sergey Levchin, $72.95) in 2016. Both are ably edited by Rafis Abazov and include valuable introductions. The main drawback of these otherwise recommendable anthologies is their steep price (and reasonably priced used copies are difficult to find).
Stories of the Great Steppe focuses on Kazakh literature since World War II and includes a number of notable writers not included in the Cambridge anthology. Summer Evening, on the other hand, spans all of modern Kazakh literature, beginning with the great poet Abai. It includes many short stories and prose excerpts from the earlier generations of writers, including Mukhtar Auezov, as well as more recent stories like Altynash Dzhagonova’s memorable “Anima, Wolves, and the End of the World.”
It also includes a large selection of early Kazakh poets—with Abai, Zhambyl, Saken Seyfullin, and the wonderful Mariam Khakimzhanova among them. The beauty and freshness of their verse hits you like a breath of rare mountain air.
All of these anthologies are gifts to the English-speaking reader. But really, if you want to fall in love with Kazakh literature, start with Asemkulov’s A Life at Noon, then use it as a bridge to the wider pool of contemporary Kazakh voices.