Chingiz Aitmatov : In Memoriam 1928-2008

Public libraries are amazing places. There used to be one in Corby, where I spent a good deal of my time after school. I spent pointless physical education lessons in the football supporter's club with my father, which was one of the better uses of my time in my life, but in the public library I found worlds.

If you came from a concrete background as I did, you will understand that the free provision of treasures on an honour basis was and is one of the greatest inventions of the west. One day, and I can't recall the weather or the year, I remember discovering the works which had won Chingiz Aitmatov an all-Union soviet prize for literature.

Aitmatov was a Krygyz, named after Genghis Khan, whose father was murdered by communists in Moscow in 1938. Chingiz was ten years old at the time. Later, he worked as a truck loader, an engineer's assistant and a tax collector. By the time of his death in Nuremberg six days ago, he was known as a famous writer, and a friend of Gorbachev, the Christian who helped bring the abomination down.

Simple anticommunism is challenged by the likes of Chingiz Aitmatov. He himself had sat in the Supreme Soviet, and was also an Ambassador to Belgium, the EU and NATO, and Foreign Minister of his country.

In personal terms, he was something of an outsider who could always be found in insider clubs. After the fall of the USSR he was too Kyrgyz for Russians, too Russian for Kyrgyz, and was excluded from Russian national biographies. The role of a liminal observer, raised by women and marked by his times was one he seemed doomed to play. That said, it would have been difficult to find him condemning or actually being too attached to any thing; but he seems to have had a really good time being him, and being around people.

By all reports, Aitmatov loved and listened to people generally and specifically. Flitting between a land of tents on the silk road and a world of brutal secular modernity, his greatest quality was to regard and notice people, and their stories; not so much to see the skull as the heart and blood and flesh as well beneath the skin. I would recommend any of his books to you.

In his time, Aitmatov wrote Jamila--viewed by some as one of the most beautiful love stories in the world ; Farewell, Gulsary ; and The Day Lasts more than a Hundred Years. The latter in particular knocks those silly South American magic realist things the western middle classes swooned over into a cocked hat, and illustrates why some rich cultures just don't need science fiction to take people out of time and space.

At the end, a whole year was named after Aitmatov in Kyrgystan--2008. He was also described by the president of that country as a hero, and Mikhail Gorbachev lent him great praise. His works were translated into 160 languages and 60 million books, and some have claimed him as a symbol of the Turkic peoples. He was also a great supporter of Green Cross International, who wrote him a nice obituary.

Aitmatov's funeral, two days ago, was attended by national figures. Photographs of his last rites are available here. Because, far away in the long ago in a library since closed, he gave me the thrill of seeing another world with human beings in it, I wish his spirit well and pray that he rests in peace.

The paintings at the top of this blog are by Joanne Mattera, and illustrate her 'silk road grid' theme, as displayed in New York in 2006. You can see more of her works at the link. Mattera refers to herself as a 'lush minimalist' and her blogspot is excellent!


Neil Clark said…
I haven't read any of Aitmatov's work Martin, but you've certainly whetted my appetite.
Martin Meenagh said…
Thanks Neil. People are currently raving about James Riordan's translations, but often in second-hand bookshops you can find older editions of Aitmatov's work. Jamila and the The Day Lasts a Hundred Years, or Mother Earth and Other Stories are worth a pop.

I'm still looking forward to 'discovering' a Cyril Hare or two, as you recommended--they sound great!

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