The main thing isn't Shakespeare, it's the footnotes.
- Mark Twain, Following the Equator
1. In principle, almost all a writer's works provoke reactions both acute and equivocal. To be sure, even the astonishing Dzhamilia (1959; Eng. Jamila), that early masterpiece by Chingiz Aitmatov, was rejected at the outset by some Kyrgyz writer-elders as a "foreign body" at the very time the whole literary world was delighting in it, calling it a national phenomenon. Further, Aitmatov's ascent to the summit of the literary Olympus was even more dramatic, if not tragic. That's how it was. But what is taking place now around Aitmatov in Russian literary criticism - in a certain quarter, of course - is beyond all comprehension.
As a result of the sharply reduced flow of information from Russia, I do not know everything that was published about Aitmatov's 1995 novel Tavro Kassandry (The Mark of Cassandra) and where it all was published. But I do know that this most complex novel has not only its confirmed, highly competent defenders, but also its spiteful detractors. The critic V. Bondarenko is one of the latter (Nash Sovremennik, 1995, no. 4). Bondarenko can now take pleasure in the fact that accomplices of sorts have turned up in Kyrgyzstan as well; obsequious and snakelike, they have reprinted the Russian critic's magazine article in its entirety in the newspaper Kyrgyz Madaniaty, which, coincidentally, is convulsively and feverishly living out its final fateful days.
Bondarenko's article, if we are to speak frankly, is in no way the stuff of literary criticism; neither by its content nor in the manner of its execution does it belong in any way to that genre. It is something else altogether. And if we are to call things by their right names, it is simply tabloidesque innuendo, brazen slander against the high prestige of a world-renowned writer. Is it really worth our while to pay heed to such groundless disparagement and enter into an obviously futile discussion with this obscene hack?
In this connection, I offer a quotation from a different article by Bondarenko, published in the magazine Moskva (1987, no. 12): "Today one can be the author of whatever banality, obscenity, or literary murk one likes; one can indulge the lowest tastes of the public, cater to it, thereby corrupting it as well. This is the way to gain popularity with consumers, with the masses, with the average person." Bondarenko penned these fiery lines in a different connection, not suspecting that they would return here to haunt him. And what a coincidence that the statement should boomerang so and paint his own portrait with such surprising accuracy. If we add to this fairly expressive self-portrait one more piquant brushstroke, the resulting image will doubtless turn out to be none other than Bondarenko entire, in his very essence.
The fact is, the article, titled "Essays on the Literary Life," appears as a kind of "program text" (like program music) for the critic, who has defined from the very beginning his hostile stance vis-a-vis the historical events of the second half of the 1980s. Not much earlier, the then-unknown Bondarenko (as I can report responsibly, having read Russian criticism consistently and systematically up to the beginning of the 1990s), riding the new freedom-of-speech wave, got on his high horse and spoke with candid hostility on the idea of perestroika (restructuring), particularly as it concerned writers. He wrote: "How are Rasputin or Astafiev, Bykov or Kuznetsov, supposed to restructure themselves?" No, this is not a mere rhetorical question but rather a deliberately adopted counterposition.
It so happened that at the very same time as the appearance of his novel Plakha (1986; Eng. The Place of the Skull), Aitmatov was not only at the epicenter of a new trend in the all-Union artistic process, but in a sense was the galvanizing force behind a new way of thinking in the cultural-public life of Soviet society. It is not difficult to understand that, after all this, Aitmatov would naturally become the object of fanatical and demagogic attacks by the most unyielding opponents of the new thinking. They saw in him one of the chief authors of the ideology of the restructuring of socialism. One of Aitmatov's rowdy ideological opponents was Bondarenko.
But, we wonder, just what did we expect from this Bondarenko after the appearance of The Mark of Cassandra, a novel that posed the problem of a worldwide cataclysm in harsh and uncompromising terms? We expected everything, with the sole exception of a literary appreciation of the work itself. After all, in Bondarenko's article there is not a trace of anything resembling such appreciation; there are only randomly chosen fragments Torn out of context, treacherously and crudely forced onto the Procrustean bed of ready-to-hand political standards.
Who can deny Bondarenko's ability to slander and to misrepresent facts in such a way that even the Issyk-Kul Forum, which undoubtedly played a historic role in the establishment of the new way of thinking, is reduceable, in Bondarenko's interpretation, to nothing but the disgracefully calculating actions of the organizer - that is, Aitmatov? Even while leveling such slander, however, Bondarenko might have considered it worth his while to try and avoid being left with egg on his face if the lie were to be revealed. But that is just what happened. Let it be known to Bondarenko and others like him that among the personalities of the Issyk-Kul Forum there was not and is not now one single member of the Nobel Committee.
Here I must ask myself how I am to take my argument with Bondarenko any further without falling into baseness myself, since his whole article is constructed on these sorts of banalities, trite remarks, and demagogic pronouncements. It is fundamentally distasteful to me even to quote Bondarenko's twistings of Aitmatov (but in an argument one cannot get by without quoting); I simply do not want to see them in print again. Nevertheless, let us go on.
2. One of Bondarenko's main theses holds that The Mark of Cassandra is written from an anti-Russian position. That's right, from an anti-Russian position. In order to claim such a thing about the work of the Russian-speaking and Russian-writing Aitmatov - for which, by the way, he has gradually and secretly been attacked by several Kyrgyz writers as well as by those who have now openly allied themselves with Bondarenko - any self-respecting critic, unless he has evil intentions beforehand, unless he is bearing some grudge, must absolutely and unconditionally prove this distressing accusation by close analysis of, at the very least, individual plot lines and literary forms. There is nothing resembling such analysis in Bondarenko's article, if one approaches it seriously, from the position of Russian literary criticism.
But, possibly, there does appear in Bondarenko's piece something not unlike an argument in favor of its own harsh thesis. Here is what this argument sounds like: "Aitmatov painstakingly, amateurishly, struggles to excise from his cultural memory all Russian influence, constructing a literary Americanized 'clip.'" Here we have before us a global opposition: "Russian" versus "American." But the meaning is simple to the point of being primitive. The renunciation of Russian realism in favor of the American sound-bite or "clip," in Bondarenko's version of things, defines the anti-Russian position of the novel The Mark of Cassandra. It's all very simple: you have only to contrast two phenomena, using the black-and-white principle, and you get the desired algorithm. I am certain that such a direct juxtaposition of "Russian" and "American," and the corresponding straightforward division into "realism" and "clip," hardly became necessary to the critic by accident. This sort of coarse, insolent schematism works toward only one goal: to arouse in a certain segment of the populace the very basest feelings.
Knowing that the activity of pulling apart a text and vulgarizing its ideas attains its own goal to a certain self-fulfilling degree, the critic pursues his project with still greater frenzy and malice, as if there stood before him not the artistic text of a novel but some furious brigand. In just such a way Bondarenko proceeds with his tabloidesque episodes (at issue are the scenes of the "Afghan war" and others), violently wresting them out of the intricate artistic structure of the novel, not once taking the trouble to understand the sense of these scenes in the philosophical context of plot development.
If the novel really were written from an anti-Russian position, as Bondarenko zealously maintains, that could only be realized by virtue of some sort of plot movement and embodied in some concrete artistic form. Inasmuch as Bondarenko's article is built on the dominant ideas of aggressive demagoguery and showboating disparagement, it is natural that it be absolutely immaterial to the critic that the artistic forms of the novel assert just the opposite.
Many have written that The Mark of Cassandra is in its artistic structure an unusual and unexpected novel. They have written this from both positive and negative perspectives. But be that as it may, it does not mean at all that Chingiz Aitmatov is not recognizable in this novel. As always, he is recognizable from the first sentence, from the first measure, for unexpectedness is an abiding characteristic of Aitmatov's talent. This time, however, the unexpectedness has, as it were, surpassed all expectations.
The main surprise, the key unexpectedness, is the fantastical monk Philophei, in reality the great scholar-biologist Andrei Andreyevich Kryltsov. He is a man of two banks, of two rivers. Accordingly, he is both realistic and fantastic, a classical conformist and a modern prophet. Such is the ambivalent form Aitmatov constructs for him, if we can so characterize it summarily and schematically. The image of Kryltsov/Philophei is unified and undivided in its ambivalence. What does this denote? "Here he had reached the Bank, and farther on was another River," says Kryltsov (he has not yet become Philophei), referring to himself. What is beyond the bank this great scholar has reached, and what other river lies there?
In the heightened metaphorical structure, it would seem, the simple words river and bank are written with initial uppercase letters. Quite obviously, therein lies their sense. "River" and "Bank" in the present instance form a distinctive water-barrier, like a moat between two lives, two destinies of one man by the name of Andrei Andreyevich Kryltsov. Right on this boundary, in this no-man's land, the most improbable and unexpected thing takes place: the sublimation of the scholar-biologist Kryltsov into the monk Philophei. No, it is not simply a mechanical substitution of names. It is a qualitative transformation of the classical conformist Kryltsov into the modern prophet Philophei - more precisely, a qualitative transformation from one state of being to another.
This happens, not as in a classical novel, as the result of a process of psychological evolution. This transformation takes place instantaneously, in a literally catastrophic way, as the result of a sudden and drastic catharsis. Kryltsov goes through this mysterious catharsis after what would seem an ordinary meeting with a prisoner by the name of Runa Lopatina, who strikes him with her "unthinkable act." It is Runa Lopatina, a simple Russian woman, who fearlessly and selflessly calls the all-powerful professor to account in order to open his eyes to the truth, to the inhumane nature of the production of anonymous children. Thus she dooms herself to even worse, possibly fatal, circumstances, for she is crossing swords not so much with a single scholar as with the state system itself, which is mercilessly and with a far-reaching political aim bringing about this same inhumane production of anonymous infants - X-ers, if you will. Runa quickly becomes a victim of her own truth, but, at the cost of her own life, she also becomes the irresistible force that produces the catastrophic reversal in the fate of Andrei Kryltsov.
It is in this drastic reversal that Kryltsov reaches his own "Bank," where the next "River" lies ahead for him. The sense of the metaphor is predetermined by the complex, I might even say inexhaustible, mysterious poetic structure of the novel, where the real and the fantastic, the diabolically sinister and the prophetic, are synthesized in one personage, that of Kryltsov/Philophei. This ambivalence constitutes the essence of the artistic form Aitmatov is developing here. Kryltsov, for example, as a foundling - a kind of "X-er" himself - is realistic; he is realistic also as a scholar-biologist, visiting terrible harm upon the human race. His scientific discovery works in full harmony with the interests of the cruel regime that craves dominion over the entire planet. It should be noted that Aitmatov traces this key plot line with finesse and extraordinary elegance, but the essence of the artistic form lies not only in this aspect.
The artistic representation of Kryltsov is far from full-fledged without Philophei and his heresy. The scientific discovery with which the monk Philophei crashed into the cosmos carries with it "a new chance for perfecting the evolution of the human race"; it appears as a heresy that is "completely unexpected for humanity, as though there had suddenly appeared in the sky, out of the depth of the universe, a second sun alongside the first." What a powerful, universal idea! All this is expressed in one personage - the personage of Kryltsov/Philophei. Not for nothing did Robert Bork, earthly brother and congenial colleague of Philophei, say: "Everything is to be expected from the Russians now. They have seen such things in their time."
The critic Bondarenko, unceremoniously grabbing the first segment from the text cited above and, setting it alongside others torn out of context in the same insolent way, draws his undisguisedly provocative conclusion about the anti-Russianness of Aitmatov's novel. Indeed, everything may be expected from the Russian Kryltsov/Philophei; he may work evil for the sake of his own frail fame, but he is also capable of accomplishing "a revolution within himself, merciless and rash," and, for the sake of his truth, for the sake of his cosmic heresy, voluntarily departing this life.
The image of Kryltsov/Philophei stands clearly chiseled and utterly tragic, if we try without prejudice to understand what a powerful, all-embracing idea that image carries; the essence of the tragedy lies not in the fact that he departs this life, but rather in the fact that he could not convince the world of the truth of his cosmic heresy, that it really did contain within itself a new idea for the perfecting of the human race.
What can one say of a critic who, without even trying, at least summarily, to understand the essence of the image of the Russian woman Runa Lopatina and the Russian scientist Kryltsov/Philophei, categorically blackens the novel as a product of the anti-Russian order? I need not bother to expand on this subject, knowing that Bondarenko's article is the sort of anomalous occurrence that does not fit at all into the mainstream of Russian criticism. I have not the slightest doubt that Bondarenko's article is written from a biased, I might even say spitefully hostile position. This position hardly sprang up overnight; it has existed for a long time, only secretly, as if under a veil. And it is not by chance that some Kyrgyz men of letters immediately picked up this insinuation of Bondarenko's and praised it to the skies - men, by the way, who only yesterday were still dancing to every successive tune Aitmatov's literary fortunes called.
So what has happened today? What has happened is what was the reality all along. The potential opponents (to put it mildly) have cast off their camouflage and come out into the open, showing their true faces. That is why my response is aimed not so much at rebutting Bondarenko (by the nature of his article there is essentially nothing to rebut, for it consists of sheer lies and nastiness) as at addressing the local supporters of the Russian critic.
3. It is apparent that Kyrgyz supporters of Bondarenko have found the critic's thesis that Aitmatov "remains on the sidelines even of his native Kyrgyz literature" especially to their liking. In this insistence, however, Bondarenko is not singing in his own voice. This song is an old, long-lived one; it came into being under specifically local conditions, and it has, so to speak, its own prehistory.
Many think - are even certain - that Aitmatov's creative destiny developed too fortunately and too easily, without obstacles, without stumbling blocks. But I will not be making a mistake if I say that Chingiz Aitmatov is perhaps the most tragic figure in the realm of multinational Soviet literature, more tragic even Pasternak, Akhmatova, or Zoshchenko. In order to illustrate the literary situation that had already developed around the figure of Aitmatov in the early 1960s, I will note one specific admission of his.
Sometimes the author of a work from modern life that does not correspond in every particular to the "generally recognized" national tradition of the literature in question is regarded as "cut off," a sort of black sheep. That, for instance, is what happened with my story "The Camel's Eye," which was published in Novyi Mir. A writer whom I respect announced: "What do we have in the way of people - by conduct and by character? Not Kyrgyz, not Russians. They're mongrels." (Literaturnaia Gazeta, 8 June 1961)
As is clear from the context, the "writer whom I respect" (it's not hard to guess who that might be) was disputing with Aitmatov not over details, not over trifles, but over the cardinal question of artistic development - that of the national identity of the hero. In this way, back in the early 1960s, a certain segment of the Kyrgyz cultural intelligentsia viewed Aitmatov as "one cut off," literally catching him in the act of corrupting the national character and degrading the dignity of the Kyrgyz. This attitude toward him was not at all a sporadic or isolated phenomenon, but instead had a consistent, orthodox character and in fact persisted up until recent times.
Here is proof of this attitude, proof worth pondering: an arrogantly patronizing pronouncement by Tokombayev about Aitmatov's writerly destiny, as told to us by Stamov. Reminiscing about his meetings with Tokombayev in the 1970s, Stamov wrote the following: "Aitmatov is not a writer, he is nothing but an adequate journalist. . . . Remember, he didn't grow up on Kyrgyz soil. He will not last in the history of Kyrgyz literature" (Kyrgyz Tuusu, 19 September 1992). These words, Stamov assures us, belong to Tokombayev, from whose mouth he copied them straight into his own notebook. Knowing and perfectly understanding the absurdity and injustice of these words, Stamov tries, as it were, to excuse Tokombayev, resorting to a rather clumsy analogy. If we follow Stamov's primitive logic, we find Tokombayev in this case to be much like Tolstoy, who adamantly refused to accept Shakespeare's works as genius. In this comparison, however, Stamov does not take into account one very simple fact: Shakespeare and Tolstoy belong to different epochs, the Renaissance and the peak of critical realism. Tolstoy, for example, was not competing with Shakespeare for any laurels; there was nothing for him to share or compete for with the genius dramatist. From this point of view one cannot even transpose Tolstoy's literary situation to the modern era, much less to Soviet reality.
In the case of Tokombayev, the essence of the question is much more straightforward and elementary. What is at work here is simple creative envy and not the desire to understand an alien, possibly diametrically opposed esthetic system. And today there is no point in closing one's eyes to the truth or sugarcoating it; one must call things by their names, and in the present instance the question is one not simply of esthetic opposition but of an open and unceremonious bar to the creative "takeoff" of a new, powerful talent.
Now, imagine how things stand in a literary situation in which national authorities of the first rank assiduously set up obstacles for a young writer who is not yet firmly established and has not yet found a place for himself in his native literature. How, then, should Aitmatov proceed? He proceeded, in my opinion, very simply and ingeniously. He pretended that nothing was going on around him, and the more his opponents ranted, the more persistently and energetically he moved toward his main goal: the definitive, innovative renewal of the national literature, the achievement of worldwide artistic heights.
All this was like an underwater reef of only local significance in Aitmatov's path. A still more sinister "monster" awaited him: the iron shackles of socialist realism. If it was possible to close one's eyes to local mudslingers and go about one's business, it was impossible to elude, even by a step, the vigilant guards of the unshakeable principles of the esthetic of Soviet (state) literature.
Of course, to deny all the good connected with socialist realism for the new Soviet literature, especially in the process of its formation, would be a historical aberration, a distortion of reality. But in proportion to the solidification of one-sided agreement within the framework of the ideological regime, national literatures found themselves more and more driven up a blind alley - that is the absolute truth.
The beginning phase of Aitmatov's work coincides exactly with the stretch of time that witnessed the development of national literature. It fell to him to keep up a double defense in order to realize his lifelong idea of carrying national literature beyond the confines of provincialism and local limitations. Under such conditions, he lived and worked not only with extraordinary creative energy but with constant dramatic tension. So, carrying this cross, this burden, down to the present day, he continues to create in an anguished search for truth, in an extraordinarily intense rhythm, as a result of which we have the novel The Mark of Cassandra.
By the way, in Bondarenko's article, amid all the demagogic bombast and the violent squalls of invective, there is, however paradoxically, one fleeting passage resembling a rational thought: a mention of the fact that "it is the school of great Russian literature, in conjunction with a natural gift and unquestioned grounding, a deep feeling for his own people, that has made Chingiz Aitmatov one of the leaders of our literature." Indeed, Aitmatov, who began his work in the midfifties, had by the late sixties become one of the undisputed authorities and leading lights of all Soviet literature, with both the Lenin Prize and the State Prize to his credit. In defiance of every prediction and verdict as to the groundlessness of his work, he stood before the whole world in his full stature as a national phenomenon, for in his works such specifically national - I might even say archival - material as "the stolen bride," "the horse race," and "the ancient world" became universal phenomena, accessible to all.
In order to render the national both universal and all-embracing, Aitmatov first and foremost turned the leading edge of his creative search toward the deepest essence of man and, in so doing, moved decisively away from the esthetic of black-and-white thinking. From the very beginning, an individualistic paradigm of artistic conception permitted the writer to see in a man not the familiar contrast of black and white, but his essential contradiction and ambivalence, which often leads to tragic situations and conflicts. Starting from the fate of the simple Kyrgyz woman Seide (in the novella "Face to Face"), Aitmatov carried this tragic line throughout his work, down to the cosmic monk Philophei. It would even seem that the fate of Diushen in the novella "The First Teacher," who gave up his youth for a new life, while written according to all the rules and canons of socialist realism, did not take shape according to any predetermined scheme of existing literary rules and conventions. The most striking thing, however, is that all this was going on at the same time that the mainstream of Soviet literature was being defined by praise and panegyric on the subject of contemporary reality, which, according to socialist-realist doctrine, was unfailingly portrayed only "in its revolutionary development." But this certainly meant barefaced embellishment and obvious lies.
So, Aitmatov, acting and creating, "dying" with every book and being "reborn" for every new one, under cruel conditions of open and secret confrontation with puny local glory hounds on one side and crammed into the iron framework of ideological regulations on the other, in the final analysis turned out to be not on the sidelines of national literature, as Bondarenko and his accomplices/informers would have it, but at its forefront, blazing a trail for his countrymen toward universal artistic images.
Not the breadth of the empirical material used, but the depth of its artistic comprehension in the light of the essence of the national world - that is the creative credo of Chingiz Aitmatov, which has determined the course of his inevitable and steady creative ascent. He was faithful to this creative motto to the end; never and nowhere did he betray it one iota, but kept his faith in all situations and circumstances.
Clearly, it happens only rarely in the practice of world literature that one creative figure, declared to be "cut off," a "foreign body," a "newcomer," and the like, succeeds in establishing essentially a completely new direction in his national literature, shaking up that literature through an unprecedented artistic reformation. This is just the sort of thing Aitmatov accomplished, in defiance of the rigid limits of socialist realism and despite every kind of openly hostile confrontation. The essence lies in the fact that those works by Aitmatov that are the most problematical and, in their artistic conception, even counter to party ideology were, paradoxically and almost incredibly, distinguished by the highest state prizes, thereby creating for him, as he would later say, an unusual immunity from the imposition of ordinary obstacles and barriers.
Indeed, Aitmatov's speeches and articles were in the spirit of the times - that is, answering to the unwavering demands of party directives and norms. But not surprisingly, even in such circumstances as these he remained essentially himself, holding constant to his main creative goal of achieving the universal through the national. If you wish to confirm this, just leaf through those books wherein his most important programmatic articles and addresses are collected, and in them you will clearly see the true face of the Kyrgyz writer, always intense and uncompromising on his creative quest. And the most important thing is that for all the years that the doctrine of socialist realism held sway, Aitmatov did not simply proclaim his own esthetic conception, different in many ways if not in its central aspect, but unfailingly and irrevocably implemented and realized it with each new work, departing more and more from his countrymen and contemporaries in matters of artistic conception and sensibility. And now that the vast distance between Aitmatov and his colleagues as regards national literature has become clear, Aitmatov's position is depicted by the critic Bondarenko as on the "sideline" or margin. Unbelievable! A blasphemous lie!
4. Surely it is not necessary to demonstrate that there is too much quibbling noise and verbal clatter in Bondarenko's article. And in the midst of it is the tricky question of plagiarism. It is well known that during the span of Aitmatov's career there was been written in Russian alone virtually an entire library, and the most important of his works are studied far and wide, as much "vertically" as "horizontally." The thought has never crossed anyone's mind, however, to utter so loathsome and unjust a word as plagiarism in regard to so distinguished a modern writer. It has never crossed anyone's mind because such plagiarism, by the nature of his work, simply does not exist.
Well, Bondarenko has suddenly detected just such a sin - "detected," of course, on the slander principle - and perforce it is necessary to respond even to this absurdity. In its ridiculousness, Bondarenko's slanderous hatchet job has no analogue in any literary criticism I have ever read. As we know, there exists in literary studies a special methodological trend that scrupulously and painstakingly occupies itself with the comparison of specific texts, subjects, and image structures, with the goal of establishing scientifically of their genetic, typological, and other interconnections for the clarification of completely appropriate and natural intertextual borrowings and reworkings, assimilations and imitations, allusions and quotations, and the like. This is a great scholarly tradition, however, centuries old and employing mature and versatile methodological principles. One wonders what possible relation there can be between all this and the casuistry that links the names of Anatoli Kim, V. Sangi, K. Mukhamedzhanov, A. Kekilbayev, O. Bokeyev, and finally Mikhail Bulgakov to that of Chingiz Aitmatov? In the present case, none, except that this chicanery pursues the single, consciously preconceived goal of blackening in any way possible, be it even the most filthy and most dishonest, the name of Chingiz Aitmatov.
We'll begin with the story "Pegii pes, begushchii kraem moria" (1977; Eng. "Piebald Dog Running Along the Shore"), which is, in Bondarenko's characterization, nothing more nor less than Aitmatov's "appropriation" of a "find" of his "Eastern colleague," Sangi. Yes, Sangi's anecdote about certain events from his childhood did serve Aitmatov as a plot outline, but more exactly as a starting point for the writing of a story. In order to understand how far Aitmatov departed from this starting point in the process of creating his "excellent mythological novella" (Bondarenko's expression), however, the critic should have turned, like any conscientious and honest man of letters, to Sangi's commentaries on the subject in his dialogue with the critic A. Rudenko, "Legend Created Anew" (Druzhba Narodov, 1978, no. 1, pp. 256-60).
In his commentaries, Sangi retells in detail the content of his oral stories about Luvr the duck(1) and about things that happened to him at the seashore in his early youth; he emphasizes Aitmatov's modern, creative, individualistic approach to this subject, in so doing accentuating the summarizing, generalizing, universalizing content that defines the philosophical conception and energy of the story. In this connection, Sangi makes one very sharp observation not simply as a Nivkh, well acquainted with the atmosphere of seaside hunting life, but also as a sensitive word-artist. Sangi notes: "All the events of the story are concentrated around the dwindling reserve of fresh water in the boat, which has lost its way on account of fog. Aitmatov writes of the monstrous thirst that torments the hunters, of the one small keg of precious water. This is the experience of a man who grew up in hot regions, who knows what thirst means on the steppe, under the scorching sun. But the Nivkhs, floating in the sea fog, in the cold of the Okhotsk Sea, would not experience thirst, nor would there be a keg of water under the seat of the boat."
If we proceed from these observations by the Nivkh writer, of whose reliability and sincerity there can be no doubt, then the whole artistic thrust of the story "Piebald Dog Running Along the Shore" apparently becomes very unstable. After all, the pivotal plot reversals, leading in the final analysis to the voluntary death of all three adult hunters, are supported by unbelievable human thirst and a keg of water. If there is no thirst, then there is no need for the keg of water that must be conserved for the sake of preserving life. In such a case, the pivotal line on which the whole philosophical and moral problematic of the story is based simply collapses.
But is this so? In order to be more objective, let us turn to that same Sangi and see what he thinks in this regard. He concludes his commentary to his oral story in the following manner:
But if we remove the motif of inhuman thirst, there would be no problems of life and death for the heroes to resolve; there would be, in effect, no story. Rather, these problems would appear in a different light - as in the real incident from my childhood. And a correspondingly different resolution would be needed: to appreciate it, one would have to be a resident of the Okhotsk seacoast and not of hot Central Asia. . . . All the same, life is one thing, art another. "Piebald Dog" persuasively demonstrates this. An important lesson is presented by Aitmatov here.
I don't think you could say it more clearly and distinctly than this. The most important thing is that the storyteller Sangi himself testifies more than persuasively, and without bias, as to how far Aitmatov has departed in his work from the everyday content of what we hear.
This same inexorable artistic logic, as I see it, led Aitmatov to the story's only possible plot variant, the inhuman thirst and the keg of water. What is it if not strange that this very keg of water became a kind of focal point, the gauge of the deeds and actions of each of the adults? Clearly, from this perspective, the most important thing to the writer was not the degree to which these circumstances correspond to local reality, but the exceptional nature and the hopelessness of the situation in which the Nivkh hunters find themselves. Finding himself in such a situation, a man should not only experience cruel torment and suffering within himself, but also see and understand at first hand the value of survival. That is why the water-keg situation truly becomes the pivotal point, most vividly and strikingly expressing the whole tragic drama that takes place in the Nivkhs' kayak. For the sake of such an artistic goal, it is not even a sin to extrapolate quite deliberately the reality of hot Central Asian life and transpose it into the atmosphere of a cold maritime setting.
After all this, there only remains one detail to clear up: what exactly Aitmatov "appropriated" from his Eastern confrere; we may decline thereafter any "reference" to the colleague about whom Bondarenko writes so maliciously. Indeed, Aitmatov honestly "appropriated" an oral reminiscence about the childhood of a fisherman's son, which, like a true artist of the word, he converted to a unified philosophical parable; and thanks to this "appropriation," he dedicated "Piebald Dog," one of his favorite stories, to Sangi. This dedication (Bondarenko calls it a "reference"), moreover, is repeated with every reprinting of the story, as in The Mark of Cassandra, which includes "Piebald Dog."
Critical tactlessness and lack of discrimination, accompanied by a seemingly pathological ill-will, manifest themselves especially clearly in Bondarenko's provocative claim that "mankurt, in essence, is taken entirely from Kekilbayev's 'Ballad of Forgotten Years.'" In my opinion, it would be impossible to come up with a more absurd accusation than this. So as not to get caught up again in Bondarenko's quibbling nonsense, I will try to clarify this matter by appealing to the authority of N. I. Konrad, a prominent expert in the history of world culture, who writes: "Anonymous folk storytellers composed the sad story of Leila and Medzhun, that Romeo and Juliet of the East. The Azerbaijan Nizami (1141-1203) turned this tale into a poem, one of the pearls of human verse. The Uzbek Navoi (1441-1505) retold it in his own language." Konrad goes on to pose the question, "Could this be plagiarism?" and then and there gives a clear answer: "There is nothing more absurd than such a supposition." Here one should note that, according to the scholar's precise definition, Nizami "turned" the folk plot into a poetic image of the East, whereas Navoi three hundred years later "retold" it all in his own language. Nevertheless, Konrad saw nothing criminal in all this, to say nothing of plagiarism, explaining very simply and persuasively the pattern of artistic development and seeing in each subsequent version only independent work in Azeri and Uzbeki.
I will cite one more familiar example. We all know that Faust is not an original invention of Goethe's but was first an actual historical personage, only later becoming a hero of folk legend. Many poets before Goethe had recourse to this attractive image to create their own Fausts. But the world recognizes only the single genius image of Faust created by Goethe. I speak of such well-known matters with only one purpose in mind: to emphasize the right of each author to turn, to the fullest extent possible, to the source: to folk plots and themes. And only he among them who has it in his power to grasp folk wisdom in all its depth and in its correlation to and organic, integral connection with the modern philosophy of life and its central problems will rise to the summit of a poetic Mont Blanc. That is why, in speaking of mankurt, whose unique creator is Chingiz Aitmatov, one should at the very least be somewhat cautious.
Abish Kekilbayev, one of the most interesting Kazakh writers, is not relevant here. Bondarenko's malicious intent, in the present case, is crystal clear: he wants to set Kazakh and Kyrgyz against each other. The source of mankurtism - no, I didn't make a slip; that's mankurtism - goes back to the epic Manas. And no, this is not some artistic detail or fine point, but rather a phenomenon of cardinal, pivotal rank. The epic Manas and Chingiz Aitmatov form a continuum of ancient tale-telling - in other words, its revival, its Renaissance. Here is a case of an ancient epic headed for oblivion, then being revived in a new form, on a new scale of space and time.
At the time of the creation of his novel I dol'she veka dlitsia den' (1980; Eng. The Day Lasts Longer Than a Hundred Years), Aitmatov was carrying an immense workload in his capacity as editor-in-chief for a selected edition of Sagymbay Orozbakov. Later he acknowledged in an interview that the idea of mankurt occurred to him spontaneously as he read certain lines from the epic Manas (Komsomol'skaia Pravda, 17 April 1981). Here are the lines:
Balany karmap alalyk Bashyna shire salalyk Uigye alparyp kiynailyk Alty zubun kalmaktyn Ayak bashyn zhinailyk
(Let's catch the boy We'll put a shire on his head Cart him away home and torture him We'll gather together Our people, the Kalmyks, one and all.)
The boy in question is young Manas, the future hero of the Kyrgyz. The Kalmyks, having found out about this boy, are immediately concerned that he is fated to stand at the head of the Kyrgyz peoples. Therefore they decide to "catch" him, "mankurtize" him, put a shire on his head, and torture him.(2)
It is clear, is it not, that the mankurt motif existed in the epos a thousand years before Aitmatov's and Kekilbayev's appearance on the scene - and before that of Bondarenko himself as well. I do not presume to assert irrevocably that these specific lines attracted the writer's attention, for similar verses in the epos, like a regular formula, can exist in different variations, of course, while keeping their original sense. In any case, there is absolutely no doubt that the existing legend of the shire gave Aitmatov the idea of returning it to literature. But how to return it to modern literature? Not, of course, in its "naturalistic," empirical aspect, but necessarily by imparting to it a broader, global meaning. That is exactly what Aitmatov did. And as a result, there arose in the novel a whole metaphorical system, denoted on three levels - the shire, the "cordon of barbed wire," and the "cordon of rockets" - corresponding to three strata of plot development: the mythic-past, the actual-modern, and the fantastic. The universal-parabolic image of mankurt is based on such fundamental metaphorical substance. Without at all detracting from the worth of Kekilbayev's story, it may be said that between the story "Ballad of Forgotten Years" and the novel The Day Lasts Longer Than a Hundred Years there stretches a tremendous distance, defined first and foremost by the difference in artistic problems and the manner of their realization. I repeat again that the example of Kekilbayev and the names of the writers Kim, Mukhamedzhanov, and Bokeyev are put to service by Bondarenko for one goal: to shock the man on the street and to slander Chingiz Aitmatov at all costs.
5. In conclusion, a brief note about how and why Bondarenko places The Mark of Cassandra so frivolously, with one stroke of the pen, in the category of antiartistic phenomena, defining it as a "Kyrgyz-Kazakh-Russian-English-German novel." One only wonders what it is about this novel that throws the critic into such a violent rage? Apparently some thought, some idea, generated by the novel. Of course, Bondarenko does not care for this thought, this idea; they are not to his liking, he being a man with the morality and philosophy of the Soviet empire ingrained in him. So powerful an idea and so powerful a thought, capable of throwing certain circles into a frenzy, do not simply lie on the surface; they erupt from the depths of the text. Precisely that is the case with Aitmatov's novel. Cassandra must be read word by word, paragraph by paragraph, omitting nothing, not a single detail, setting snobbery and narrow-minded quibbles aside.
Bondarenko's definition of The Mark of Cassandra as "Kyrgyz-Kazakh-Russian-English-German" is not at all degrading, although the critic intended thereby to say that the novel is a confused conglomeration, without its own national identity. Aitmatov was deliberately and steadily aiming at a single goal: to raise national literature to a universal level. This is what he saw to be his mission as a writer. And despite the iron shackles of nationalism and ideology that bind him, he has accomplished the task brilliantly.
Translated from the Russian By Anne Barthel
1 Luvr the duck, as Joseph Mozur explains in Parables from the Past: The Prose Fiction of Chingiz Aitmatov (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), is the central figure in a creation myth of the Nivkh people of Siberia.
2 Mozur illuminates the symbolic system at work here as follows: "The legend of the mankurt depicts the mistreatment by the Zhuan'zhuany of prisoners taken during their raids. One of the methods used by the tribe to torture captives was to shave their victims' heads and to stretch taut caps (shiri) of fresh camel hide over their skulls. As the hide dried and contracted in the intense heat of the steppes, most of the prisoners died in agony. The few who survived the torture suffered a complete loss of memory and thus became submissive slaves of the Zhuan'zhuany. Their captors referred to them as mankurt and placed a price on them many times that of normal slaves."
KENESHBEK ASANALIEV is a member of the Kyrgyz National Academy of Sciences and a specialist in contemporary Kyrgyz literature, particularly the work of Chingiz Aitmatov.
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|Title Annotation:||on Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov and critic V. Bondarenko|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1996|
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