Chingiz Aitmatov: Life and Works

By Professor Iraj BASHIRI*
Chingiz Torekulovich Aitmatov, non-Russian prose writer and diplomat, was born on December 12, 1928, to Torekul and Nagima Aitmatov in the village of Sheker (Talas Valley, Kirov district). Aitmatov's father, Torekul Aitmatov (1903-1937), who was born into a middle class peasant family on the banks of the Kurkureu River, graduated from high school (gymnasium) in 1917 and was elected secretary of the Committee of the Poor in 1920. Between 1924, when he joined the Bolshevik Party, and 1935, when he was sent to Moscow to study at the Institute of Red Professorship, he worked in a number of positions in the Party apparatus. In 1937, Aitmatov senior, one of the first Kyrgyz communists, a well-versed literary figure and a politician, was liquidated on charges of "bourgeois nationalism." Nine-year-old Chingiz, the eldest son, coped with the shame and held the family together. At the age of fourteen, he abandoned his studies and contributed to the war effort. Bai-feudal tyrants, unpredictable political turns, and bad luck prevented the family from rising above poverty.
Aitmatov's mother, Nagima Hamzaevna Aitmatova (1904-1970), was a true product of the Soviet system. She joined the Komsomols in 1919 and served in various positions including the Head of the Department of the Karakol cantonal Komsomol Committee. After her marriage to Torekul Aitmatov in 1924, she continued her efforts at promoting women's rights, fighting illiteracy, rooting out vestiges of Islam, and working to put forth land and water reforms. From 1938 until she went on pension in 1954, she worked in the Kirov Region Financial Department.
Aitmatov's paternal grandmother was also his closest friend. To teach him about Kyrgyz culture, she took the boy to traditional jailus (field festivities), tuis (weddings), and oshes (funeral repasts). Aitmatov also accompanied her to meetings with manaschis (storytellers), bards, and akin singers. She told him about village traditions: a Kyrgyz must marry the widow of his brother, or a Kyrgyz must know seven generations of his ancestors. And Chingiz knew his, including what each ancestor had accomplished and how the community perceived them. In fact, throughout his writing career, he drew regularly on the Russian education that his parents provided and the rare experiences he enjoyed while accompanying his grandmother. The Cranes Fly Early: A Short Novel (1983), for instance, makes one realize that, rather than by Bolshevik role models, the boys are inspired by Manas and his jigits (warriors).
In 1951, Aitmatov married Keres Shamshibaev. They had three sons and a daughter before they divorced. He married Maria Urmatov in 1981. Although the Aitmatov family's home base is in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Aitmatov's demanding schedule kept him from living in Bishkek for the better part of each year. Besides, the prominent Kyrgyz writer lived a life that was not ruled as much by societal norms as by himself. In June 1998, for instance, he decided not to celebrate his 70th birthday in December; rather, he thought, May 1999 would be a better time to hold his birthday.
Between 1943 and 1952, the year his literary career began, Aitmatov served as the Assistant to the Secretary of the Sheker Village Soviet. During that time, he translated Katayev's Sons of the Regiment and Babayevsky's White Birch into Kyrgyz, only to discover that both works had already been translated. Between 1952 and 1954, he wrote two stories in Russian: "The Newspaper Boy Dzinio" and "Ashim." His first Kyrgyz contribution was "Ak Jann" ("White Rain"), which was published in 1951. Thereafter, until 1966, he worked as a livestock specialist and attended the Animal Husbandry Division of the Kyrgyz Agricultural Institute in Frunze.
Before 1959, when he joined the Communist Party, he attended the Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow and took advanced courses in literature (1956-58). After graduation, he edited Literaturnyj Kirgizistan for a while and, in 1958, became a roving correspondent for Pravda (truth), in Kirghizstan, a job that he held until 1964. He also served as the First Secretary and Chairman of the Cinema Union of Kirghizia; Chairman of the Writers' Union of Kirghizia; and the Editor-in-Chief of the Foreign Literary Journal.
Aitmatov wrote in both Kyrgyz and Russian. Over the years, as his own horizons changed, the volume of his writings in Kyrgyz decreased. He needed venues that afforded him expression of bold philosophical statements on larger issues such as peaceful cooperation between the East and the West and globalization. Perhaps this very motive persuaded him to throw himself into international politics. As a diplomat, he served as Ambassador to Luxembourg (1990-94) and to Belgium (1992-94). He was a member of Gorbachev's Presidential Council, 1990-91, held ambassadorial posts in the Benelux countries, and represented Kyrgyzstan in the European Union, NATO and UNESCO.
Aitmatov won many awards, including the Lenin Prize for Literature (1963) for his collection of short stories entitled The Tales of Mountains and Steppes, and the State Prize (1968) for his first novel, Farewell Gyulsary!, which was published in 1966. In 1978, he was distinguished as Hero of Socialist Labour and, in 1988, he received both the Mediterranean Culture Research Centre Award and the Academy Award of the Japanese Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Tokyo. He won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1994.
Aitmatov suffered kidney failure and on 16 May 2008 was admitted to a hospital in Nuremberg, Germany, where he died of pneumonia on 10 June 2008, aged 79. His obituary in The New York Times by Bruce Webber echoed throughout the world and the present author is honoured to have had a part in it. Aitmatov is survived by his wife, Maria; a daughter; and three sons; one of whom, Askar, was foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan from 2002 to 2005. The government of Kyrgyzstan has proclaimed 2008 the Year of Aitmatov in honour of his 80th birthday.
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Aitmatov's fictionalized accounts of his experiences as a young adult impart substance and direction to his fiction. Reporting for Pravda is one such experience. Odd jobs like cotton weigher, wheat harvester, livestock breeder, shepherd, tax collector, and secretary of the village council are other examples. Those experiences brought Aitmatov into contact with ordinary people, enhancing the veracity and credibility of his characters. Positions like tax collector and Secretary of the Village Council involved Aitmatov in the intimate details of the lives of many peasants, who had to itemize for his inspection every household article they possessed.
Aitmatov placed his reader at the centre of 20th century global concerns; perennial concerns like the tragedy of two world wars, especially WWII, the growing struggles for national identity, the ever-present nuclear threat, the hopeful prospects of peace movements; and the dwindling hope for a resolution to the Aral Lake environmental catastrophe, not to mention water shortage and land and water contamination. Unbridled technology, Aitmatov thought, has the potential of placing unprotected individuals at the mercy of exploitative cartels. More poignantly, he intimated that the misdeeds of a few leaders at the top ultimately filters down and corrupts the masses. The operative means of this oppressive process, indoctrination, is illustrated in two of his works. In The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, he compares the suffocating circumstances of Soviet rule—loss of identity, language, traditional customs, and land tenure—with the inhumane treatment that prisoners received at the hands of the Zhuan'zhuany. These cruel overlords shaved the heads of their victims and placed a shiri (cap made of fresh camel hide or udders) on their skulls. Under the intense heat of the sun, the hide shrunk. The agony caused by the contracting hide killed most, but those who survived were left with no memory of their past. Called mankurts, they were sold as special, most obedient slaves, at high prices. In the same story, he intimates symbolically that the Muslims of the Soviet Union could not find a grave in which to be buried. In his unfinished work, The Brand of Cassandra, he is less symbolic. Nevertheless, he shows how a whole civilization could find itself at the mercy of a world that has gone technologically haywire.
The mastery of Aitmatov is in his ability to let ordinary Soviets—a boy whose only wish is to see his father; an unhappy married young woman who finds love and freedom in a man other than her husband; a shepherd saddled with quotas he cannot possibly meet; and an advocate who defends a case he knows he is not allowed to win—to speak for themselves. The failure of the system, Aitmatov shows, is in the bleak life it provides. When such failure becomes the norm, no one notices it (cf., Plato's parable of the cave). As a realist writer true to his profession, Aitmatov had no option but to portray what he observed accurately. Had he ignored it, he could hardly remain a viable commentator. Being open to change, he said, is the best indicator of a writer's loyalty to his craft. This openness could, of course, be easily confused with vacillation. But Aitmatov's record of literary activities supports the conclusion that he was steady, informed, and loyal to his craft. He believed in Gorky's assessment that the writer, rather than listening to the echo of his own soul, must himself become an echo of the soul of society.
Aitmatov is well known for his use of myth; more so in his earlier stories, to wit, The White Steamship and Piebald Dog Running along the Shore, than in later works like The Mark of Cassandra. Additionally, in earlier works, he uses myths that belong to the Kyrgyz culture, like the myth of Horned Mother-Deer about the migration of the Kyrgyz from the northern shore of the Baikal to Lake Issyk Kul. Or the myth of Naiman-Ana that involves the idea of the mankurt discussed earlier. In his later stories, he uses Nivkhi, Christian, even Greek myths. In this sense, The Place of the Skulls (1989) is less myth and more reality. It examines the destruction of humanity through abuse of drugs and alcohol, and heedlessness to the primordial inner voice that has guided us all along. Critics have tended to evaluate Aitmatov's works in terms of the amount and brand of myths he has used as opposed to whether he has fathomed the depth of the chasm that separates individuals and nations, or whether he has brought us a better, more clear understanding of democracy, or more willingness to accept responsibility.
Aitmatov's works reflect a detailed knowledge of his culture and a deep respect for tribal traditions. These traditions include those of the akin musicians, Buzkashi, and the tradition of the hunters of Kyrgyzstan. These traditions play pivotal roles in communicating Aitmatov's message of love and dedication, on the one hand, and loss of dignity and humanity, on the other. By juxtaposing these traditions with modern realities of the 20th century, he intimates that mankind's socio-political, economic, and ideological, even environmental, problems would disappear if education could be advanced beyond rote memorization, and if a true communal concern, a true love, could meld humanity with nature. Aitmatov's dialectics of love view man for what he is rather than for what he seems to be. Jamila's memorable character, Daniyar, epitomizes Aitmatov's ideal of the unassuming yet deliberate and effectual man. In Farewell, Gyulsary!, Tanabai Bakasov reveals the darker side of the spectrum, wherein an individual is systematically deprived of reaching his potential in life.
Before looking at a couple of episodes in Jamila and Farewell, Gyulsary!, let us summarize Aitmatov's artistic endeavour as a product of realism. Simplicity and precision, comprehensibility, historical accuracy, and sensitivity to demands of the times distinguish his work and, as shown further below, he does not impose his own opinion.
In Jamila, a coming of age story, the young narrator is not sure where he should place his loyalty and love. Should he place it in Jamila, his brother's young bride, or in art? As the story develops and he learns more about people and art, he decides to become a painter. Years later, viewing his own painting of the village, he recalls the cultural conflicts between the Muslims and the Communists; the traditional struggle within, and across the sexes for domination; the tragedy of the Second World War, and the all-encompassing power of love. He realizes how love made the barriers within him crumble, allowing Jamila and Daniyar to shine in their own light. He saw all that in a simple painting that depicted two sets of diminishing footprints walking out of the picture frame. Jamila and the play, The Ascent of Mount Fuji (1975), which examines the raw sentiments of a group, one of whom might have caused the incarceration of an absent friend in a concentration camp, were rare Communist works when first released.
In Farewell, Gyulsary!, he uses the tradition of Buzkashi to illustrate the grab for power at the lower levels of the Soviet hierarchy. Tanabai Bakasov, whose sense of justice had sent his own brother to Siberia as a kulak, is tried in a kangaroo court for having the audacity to defend himself against a Party official. The court proceedings read like a page describing the movements of the riders in a Buzkashi game in which Tanabai is the headless goat.

Finally, Aitmatov's stories are well balanced. In Farewell, Gyulsary!, for instance, through the characters of Tanabai and Choro Sayakov, he shows that the deterioration of the Soviet system happened gradually. Tanabai, who was convicted of a crime he had not committed, and who, after conviction did not understand why he should surrender his Party card, blamed the Party organizer, Choro, for his misfortune. He thought that Choro had abandoned him at the trial. Whereas, throughout their long friendship, Choro had been advising Tanabai to update his views of the Party and learn about the changes that made it increasingly untenable.
Since Kyrgyz culture prevented him from confronting Tanabai directly, on his deathbed, Choro requested that his old friend Tanabai should take his Party card to the District Party Committee. The unexpected cold reception by the clerk and the District Committee Secretary made Tanabai realize what hell Choro had been going through, and why he had not hurried to his rescue at the trial.
What sets Aitmatov apart from Sadriddin Aini of Tajikistan, Mukhtar Auezov of Kazakhstan, and Sadiq Hedayat of Iran, is his wide-reaching artistic and political capabilities, as well as his global influence that transcended Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, and Russia. He was familiar not only with the milieu in which he had come of age, but also with the full spectrum of socio-political issues, survival mechanisms, and cultural mores embedded in his Islamic culture, a proud culture that had to kowtow to communist overlords. A nomad at heart, Aitmatov saw the walls surrounding him and his people and rose to tear them down. He did that, at a time when no information was coming out of the Soviet Union, by turning the system against itself. Following orders to write realist pieces, he made his prose reflect the reality of the Soviet experience to a fault: He transformed his fiction into a tell-all mirror that reflected the poverty, lack of freedom, and the overall mankurtization of a people, without actually lecturing about those issues. The very innocent look that his prose wore enabled Aitmatov to bypass the censors. How else did characters like Tanabai Bakasov and his kangaroo-court trial, or his lambing fiasco, or the growing conflict between Islam and Soviet culture reflected in works like Jamila and "To Have and to Lose," see the full light of day, let alone get translated into English?

1. For Aitmatov’s autobiography, see “Chingiz Aitmatov on Craftsmanship,” in Vasili Novikov’s Chinghiz Aitmatov, Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1987. Pp. 101-182.
2. For a biography of Torekul Aitmatov and a discussion of his political activities, see Joseph P. Mozur’s “Doffing ‘Mankurt’s Cap’: ‘Chingiz Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years,’ as well as “The Turkic National Heritage,” in The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, University of Pittsburgh Center for Russian and East European Studies, No. 605, 1987, pp. 6-12.
3. Osh is a memorial feast held after burial to lament a death.
4. For akin, see, Beliaev, 30-35; Junger, 65-70. For Aitmatov’s use of the akin motif, see Bashiri,
5. See, V. Novikov, p. 102.
6. Cf., Harber, Erika. The Myth of the Non-Russian, Lexington Books, 2003, p. 144.
7. See, V. Novikov, p. 112.
8. About Aitmatov’s use of Kyrgyz and Russian, as well as how the two languages enhance his worldview, see Robert Porter. Four contemporary Russian Writers, Berg Publishers, Ltd., 1989, p. 57.
9. See, V. Novikov, p. 111.
10. Joseph P. Mazur, Jr. Parables from he Past: The Prose Fiction of Chingiz Aitmatov, University of Pittsburg Press, 1995, p. 107.
11. See Harber, Erika. “Chingiz Aitmatov,” Russian Prose Writers after WWII, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 302, 2005, p. 13.
12. Cf., Nina Kolesnikoff. Myth in the Works of Chingiz Aitmatov, University Press of America, 1999, pp. 123-24.
13. Also referred to as Kup Kari, Ulak Tyrtysh, and Kok Beru, Buzkashi is a game in which the headless carcass of a goat (buz) becomes the bone of contention between two teams of first-rate horse riders. In a no-holds-barred
struggle, one of the riders, helped by his associates, grabs the carcass, brings it, and throws it in the middle of the winner’s circle.
14. For the tradition of the Kyrgyz hunter, see Aitmatov, “Farewell, Gyulsary!,” Tales of the Mountains and Steppes, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973, pp. 268-71; see also Porter, 1989, pp. 63-64.
15. This play was staged in Moscow in 1973. In addition, 7 of Aitmtov’s scripts were made into motion pictures by MosFilm, KyrgyzFilm, and TajikFilm.
16. For a list of Aitmatov’s publications, see volume three of Chingiz Aitmatov’s Collected Works (in Kyrgyz). Frunze: Kirghizistan Publications, 1983. Pp. 419-420.

*Department of History University of Minnesota © Iraj Bashiri, 2008

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