The Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928-2008) is one of the few Central Asia writers to have won acclaim outside the Soviet Union. His works have been translated into English and other 150 other languages and have been published in places as diverse as Kuwait and Bolivia. The son of one of Kyrgyzstan’s leading Communist officials who was executed in Stalin’s purges, Aitmatov studied animal husbandry in college before turning to writing. For a while he worked for Pravda, once covering an earthquake in Uzbekistan that collapsed part of a mountain into a river.
Aitmatov is loved in Kyrgyzstan and widely revered throughout Central Asia. A newspaper editor who named her first-born son after him told the Wall Street Journal, “His works gave us a great push to talk about national identity, about sovereignty.” A human right activist told the same newspaper, “Every family read him and then reread him. His books taught us to be brave. He proved to us that even a single man can change things.”
Mark Yoffe wrote in The Guardian: Aitmatov “was the most celebrated representative of Kyrgyzstan. A bilingual and bicultural writer, Aitmatov wrote his prose and plays in both his native Kyrgyz and in Russian...Described as a "magical socialist-realist" in the Russian press, he was able to combine elements of Kyrgyz folk-tales and epics with formally traditional Russian realism. [Source: Mark Yoffe, The Guardian, July 15, 2008 ==]
“Aitmatov's life was itself full of paradoxes of epic proportions: the son of a victim of the Stalinist purges, he became the most decorated of all Soviet writers, gaining three state prizes and a Lenin prize. A beneficiary of the thaw, the cultural liberalisation which took place under Nikita Khrushchev, he became a world-famous author in the 1950s while still writing in Kyrgyz, gradually switching to Russian in the mid-1960s to became one of the most eloquent practitioners of the language. Aitmatov was deeply in love with his native land and lore, but he was also a Soviet patriot and a true internationalist.” ==
Chinghiz Aitmatov’s Early Life Life
Mark Yoffe wrote in The Guardian: Aitmatov was born on December 12, 1928 in the village of Sheker, in the Talas region of Kyrgyzstan at the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, near the Chinese border. His father was a Kyrgyz and his mother a Tartar. In childhood, Aitmatov was familiar with ancient tribal customs and the nomadic life of his people, but it is to his mother he owed the exposure to Russian literature and culture which led to his harmonious assimilation of two cultures, the poetic synthesis of which became the secret of his art. When Aitmatov was just nine years old, his childhood was marred by a deep tragedy that affected the rest of his life: his father Torekul, one of the first Kyrgyz communists and a regional party secretary, was arrested in 1937 and executed on a charge of "bourgeois nationalism". [Source: Mark Yoffe, The Guardian, July 15, 2008]
Aitmatov was raised by his grandmother who exposed him to the Kyrgyz traditional way of life. His family spoke both Kyrgyz and Russian languages and this no doubt influenced the bilinguity of Chinghiz's works. In 1948 Aitmatov graduated from the Veterinary Technikum College in Jambul and enrolled in the agricultural institute in the Kyrgyz capital, Frunze (now Bishkek) without taking exams. While he was a a student he wrote short articles and stories published in local newspapers. He successfuly graduated from institute in 1953 and worked in Cattle Breeding Research Institute for three years during which he kept on writing stories. [Source:fantasticasia.net ~~]
Chinghiz Aitmatov’s Writing Career
In 1956 Chinghiz went to Moscow to study literature studies. Upon completion of th e course he came back to Kyrgyzstan and worked as an editor at "Literary Kyrgyzstan" and was a "Pravda" newspaper's correspondent in Kyrgyzstan for five years.
Mark Yoffe wrote in The Guardian: In 1952 he started publishing his first Kyrgyz-language short stories in periodicals and four years later he entered the higher literary course at Moscow's Gorky Institute. His first short story translated into Russian appeared in 1958, the year he graduated. In the same year, he published “Jamila” ("Djamilia"), the tale that brought him international acclaim. [Source: Mark Yoffe, The Guardian, July 15, 2008]
“Jamila” made Aitmatov famous and became a part of "Stories of Mountains and Steppes". Other acclaimed stories by Aitmatov included "First Teacher", "Mother's Field", "Wellfare, Gulsary!" and "White Steamship" and more. Aitmatov’s first novel was "A Day Lasts More Then a Hundred Years".
Turkey nominated him - as a writer in a Turkic language - for the 2008 Nobel prize for literature. Several of his stories were turned into popular movies. Aitmatov was working on the set of a film based on his science-fiction-infused philosophical parable “The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years” when he was stricken by his illness.
Chinghiz Aitmatov’s Writing
Philip Shiskkin wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “To read Mr. Aitmotov is to step into a world where ancient myths of the Asian steppes share the ages with futuristic space stations; where animals get nearly as much ink as human beings; where love, courage and decency manage to thrive even wen war, treachery and repression conspire against them; and where a lapsed seminarian becomes a marijuana dealer.”
Yoffe wrote: “A communist true-believer, he never shied away from exploring and exposing in his prose the darkest aspects of Soviet reality, just as he tackled the issue of drug abuse and drug-related crime in his bestselling novel of the perestroika period, The Scaffold (1988). He was not a political dissenter but possessed an honest heart and melancholy philosophical mind, and tended to attribute the shortcomings of Soviet reality not to the evils of the political system, but to the inherent flaws of human nature, which the system was expected to correct. But until that happy day arrived he tended to show the world as he saw it: full of bigotry, prejudice, cruelty, sexism, patriarchal brutality, and general lack of harmony in the way people treat each other. ==
“All this is punctuated by beautiful scenes of human kindness, wisdom, love and devotion, set against the background of the stunning central Asian landscape which he poetically evoked. These themes are also present in his other novels and plays, including The First Teacher (1962), Farewell Gulsary (1966), The White Ship (1970), The Dreams of a She-Wolf (1990) and The Mark of Cassandra (1995).” ==
Works by Chinghiz Aitmatov
Among his novels are Early Cranes (1970), A Day Lasts Longer Than a Century (1980), The Place of the Skull (1986), The White Steamship and Dzamilya. Cassandra’s Brand (1994) is about a monk-philosopher traveling in space pondering such issues as human cloning. He also wrote screenplays for films well known to Soviets.
Many of his early works deal with his experiences growing up in World-War-II-era Soviet Union. Face to Face, a short story that established him as a serious writer, was about a deserter who jumped a train and was taken care of by his wife and mother.
A Day Lasts Longer Than a Century (1980) is his most famous work. He wrote it during three-month period of inspiration while living in a house along the lake Issyk-Kul. Set in Central Asia steppe, it is a set of mini-novels and stories that begin with the death of an old man. The stories deal with subjects as diverse as a horny camel, Genghis Khan, Stalinist repression and contact with space aliens.
Aitmatov’s Later life and Politics
Aitmatov considered Gorbachev to be a close friend. During the perestroika years, Aitmatov served in the Soviet parliament and was a cultural advisor to Gorbachev. In 1989, he helped mediate a bitter dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
When Kyrgyzstan became independent many wanted Aitmatov to be president. But he declined and suggested that Akayev be leader instead. After independence he has served as an ambassador for Kyrgyzstan. In the early years after independence he played a major role guiding Kyrgyzstan through difficult times.
Aitmatov succeeded to build a diplomatic career. During the Soviet era he was a USSR ambassador in Luxemburg. In 2005, he was based in Brussels where he served as an ambassador to four European nations, the European Union and NATO. Aitmatov was the Kyrgyzstan ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and spent many years in Brussels.
Aitmatov died at the of age 79 in 2008. He is survived by his wife, Maria; a brother, Ilgez; a sister, Roza; a daughter; and three sons, one of whom, Askar, was foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan from 2002 to 2005.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016