From Soviet Realism to Global Humanism
One of Aitmatov's most important literary mentors was the French poet Louis Aragon, who translated the Kyrgyz writer's best-known novel into French in 1959 and said of it: 'Jamila is the most beautiful love story in the world'. A German edition was published as early as 1960 and since then, the literary works of Chingiz Aitmatov have spread to all four corners of the globe – a widespread fame that is known only to a select group of contemporary authors.
A good forty years after the huge success of Jamila, over 20 novels and stories are available on the German language market alone. For many years now, Aitmatov has been a political ambassador of the Kyrgyz Republic to the Benelux states in Brussels.
Moreover, his public appearances, which give those attending them the opportunity to experience a unique blend of literature and world history, always get what for a contemporary writer can only be described as an overwhelming response.
Steadily turning away from Soviet realism
Aitmatov usually only reads a few extracts from his literary works at such events. Instead, he fills these sparkling occasions, which he co-ordinates with translator Friedrich Hitzer, with lively, vivid stories about the conditions in which his books were written and, consequently, about the history of his native country.
His well-known books such as The First Teacher, were written in the early 1960s and are interesting for one reason in particular: they reveal a Soviet writer subtly turning away from Stalinism and confessing in literary form the necessity of political reforms. In Farewell, Gulsary!, The Path of the Reaper, The Day Lasts More than 100 Years or his latest book Childhood in Kyrgyzstan, the reader is repeatedly confronted with a moral and ethical expertise that goes far beyond a personal profession and that offers orientation for the reader's own search for values.
Producing world literature in a silent corner of the world
Chingiz Aitmatov's works can always be read as model answers to the questions and decisions of life, regardless of the environment and atmosphere in which the novels are set or read in.
Almost all of Aitmatov's stories are set in the country of his childhood and youth, in Kyrgyzstan. It was here that he experienced that which he later used as symbols of the world per se. And these symbols can be understood by readers from cultures all over the world. To date, Aitmatov's works have been translated into over 90 languages.
Chingiz Aitmatov was born in December 1928 at the time of the enforced collectivisation of the nomads in Kyrgyzstan: an initiative taken by the Soviet powers that be to settle the nomads. Aitmatov experienced first hand this traditional way of life in Kyrgyzstan and was also told much about it. He says that for him, his grandmother became one of the greatest teachers of the history of her people and also a master of story-telling.
Suffering from Stalin's purges
After briefly and rapidly rising through the ranks of the Soviet system, his father, a dedicated communist, fell victim to Stalin's purges and was murdered in his mid-thirties. Aitmatov and his mother returned to Kyrgyzstan from Moscow, where he bore the stigma of being the son of a victim of the repression. Nevertheless, both he and his family fought to get him a basic education.
In the middle of World War II, in 1942, he was made party secretary in his village because he could read and write and all older boys were away at the front. Among other things, it was his responsibility to inform the widows and families of war victims that their loved ones had been killed. At the age of 14, he had experienced all the horrors of life.
Rising to worldwide fame
He was later responsible for collecting taxes, a job that gave him the opportunity to explore not only the far reaches of his country but also the conditions in which Kyrgyz farmers lived. He studied livestock breeding and qualified as a veterinary technician. And he wrote.
He published in newspapers, was admitted to study literature at the legendary Gorki Institute in Moscow, and wrote a novella (Jamila) that became famous all over the world. He linked themes from Central Asia – methods of storytelling with an oriental touch – with the Russian literary tradition, and rose to fame.
From 'optimistic neo Leninist' to 'pro-reform communist'
Chingiz Aitmatov has changed from being what his biographer, Boris Chlebnikov, calls an 'optimistic neo Leninist' to being a 'pro-reform communist', an advisor to Gorbachev and laterally a man with conservative values. As a writer, the hopes of the entire Soviet Union were pinned on Aitmatov; he was viewed as a ray of hope in the dark years of the Breshnev era, as one of the very few who was able to cross spiritual borders.
With his literature, Chingiz Aitmatov always walked the very thin line between what was tolerated by the Soviet literature censors and what was not. But for readers of the different nationalities that made up the Soviet Union, he was a writer who traced the rudiments of humanity and political decency. With every book, Aitmatov's renown abroad increased; his literature was received with just as much enthusiasm by the cultures in Europe as those in East Asia.
Aitmatov's Islamic background
Nor is Aitmatov afraid of confrontations with the great thinkers of his day: the books that grew out of his conversations with philosophers and religious leaders like the Japanese philosopher and Buddhist reformer, Daisaku Ideka, or the representative of the Bahá`í religion, Feizollah Namdar, bear witness to Aitmatov's willingness to really get to grips with his own background, the Islamic tradition, the loss of religious values during the Soviet era, and other cultures and civilisations.
'I don't consider myself to be an atheist' he says and explains where this development led him: 'For me, the common root of faith is respect for life and people. This is why I respect every religion, because they help people to live.' His literature is a unique testimony to the fact that he always sees the world as a whole, both in intellectual discussions and in his novels, regardless of how easily they are structured and in how simple a language they are written.
From Soviet realism to global humanism
The former Socialist, who was indeed true to the artistic principles of socialist realism, joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1959; received one of the Soviet Union's highest accolades, the Lenin Prize, in 1963; was a member of the Supreme Soviet from 1966, won the State Prize of the USSR in 1966 and 1983 and the medal for the Hero of Socialist Work in 1978. He has since turned into a moralist who feels a responsibility for the environment.
'I wanted the reader to think about what is above this concrete life, what is above everything, what is above the human race,' said Aitmatov at the launch of his novel The Boy and The Sea, 'that we are humans and must fight with dignity for the continuation of life on earth.' His transition has taken him from the Communist Party to the search for stable, moral values, to the 'questions of humanity'.
'Thou shall not think in the categories of killing'
Aitmatov was one of Gorbachev's closest advisors during Perestroika and Glasnost. About one month before Gorbachev was elected secretary general, Aitmatov published an article entitled 'reason in the atomic siege' in the party newspaper Pravda.
In this article, Aitmatov called for a total renunciation of atomic weapons, he called for 'the birth of a new human spirit, new historic ethics and morals, new global humanism based on a principle that holds not only that 'thou shall not kill'; but also that with regard for general safety and the self-preservation of the generations, thou shall not think in the categories of killing.'
Chingiz Aitmatov has always worked for the rights of humankind – in particular the rights of minorities – and for environmental issues. He raises his admonishing voice not only in his literary works, but also in his concrete political works. It is this aspect of this great author that rounds off our portrait of him and shows him to be a committed, political person as well as philosophically deep author with multi-faceted story-telling talents.
© Qantara.de 2003
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan