Aqsaqal, Begenas Sartov, Book review., Books, History, Humanism, Kyrgyz Literature, Kyrgyzstan, Literary criticism, Marxism, Modernity, Morality, Nationalism, Shamanism, Soviet Union, Stalinism, Tradition, When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish
[The following contains spoilers.]
Tychy has been given a gift: a new English translation of Begenas Sartov’s 1978 novel When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish. Sartov was born in rural Kyrgyzstan in 1945 and prior to his untimely death at the age of 33, he had figured prominently in Kyrgyz letters as an editor, novelist, short-story writer, and poet. He had founded a movement which championed new Kyrgyz writing and he was purportedly the first to write science fiction in Kyrgyz. For all of these heroics, Sartov is today a mote lost in the sunbeam of history. The Kyrgyzstan-based blogger Ian Claytor recently tried to scratch together an article about Sartov, only to concede that, “I… ran into considerable problems … there wasn’t that much information available.” When the Edelweiss… has been translated into English by Sartov’s niece, Shahsanem Murray, with the aim of rectifying this neglect.
I wish to commend this book, but with certain qualifications. At first, it has the appearance of being self-published; there are numerous blemishes to the text, mostly concerning punctuation and presentation. One of the six accompanying short stories, “Human or Android,” is even immortalised in print without a question mark in the title. Yet When the Edelweiss… has been actually issued by a professional publisher: Hertfordshire Press, which specialises in literature from and about the Central Asian republics. HP seem to have published the translator’s manuscript verbatim, without proofreading it. We have limited scope for condemnation since our only alternative is for this rare book to remain unpublished, but it is a shame that HP have reneged on their editorial responsibilities.
The sheer quirkiness of When the Edelweiss… will leave many Western readers feeling only rueful about the wonky English. No doubt some of the subtleties of Sartov’s writing perish in translation, such as when we are told that the heroine had “large green eyes that sparkled like blackberries.” A graver inconvenience for Western readers is that this edition rather abandons us in the wilds of Kyrgyzstan, without imparting the literary context from which Sartov’s novel had emerged or what its original readers had made of it. Tychy is admittedly more of a tourist than an expert on this particular terrain, and contextualising Sartov’s work will require us to begin at the beginning.
When the Bolsheviks reached Central Asia in 1924, they found themselves in something of a fix. With mass illiteracy and endemic nomadism, the natives were too culturally unsophisticated to be hailed as comrades, but to treat them otherwise would be to succumb to the imperialism of the Soviets’ enemies. Nationalism was accordingly imposed from the top: Kyrgyzstan was identified as a plausible geopolitical bloc, furnished with its own (supervised) national institutions, and taught to be Kyrgyz through a succession of educational programmes. In 1919 Lenin had invited Ukraine to join “a voluntary union of nations—a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another.” This fate awaited the Kyrgyz nation, whenever it was ready.
Dr Ali F Igman’s study Speaking Soviet with an Accent (2012) argues that the Kyrgyz could accommodate this social engineering due to the flexibility of their nomadic culture and Islam’s shaky hold over the country. Igman concludes that, “Soviet modernity and Kyrgyz tradition did not collide but converged, resulting in something that was new.” In his contribution to Central Asia: Aspects of Transition (2003), Robert Lowe is altogether less appreciative: “the cultural and belief systems of the nomads were shattered and became reduced to a contrived element of the Kyrgyz’s new fake heritage, retaining only a sentimental place in their hearts.” For Lowe, Kyrgyz self-determination is at once an identity crisis:
Modern Kyrgyz identity was… shaped by the Soviet planners, who rearranged and presented the politically correct trappings of nationhood as a clearly defined, yet somewhat sterile, set of identity constructs. The post-Soviet Kyrgyz have had to decide which of these elements to retain and how to invigorate them.
Sartov’s problem is that he wishes to retain everything and square apparently irreconcilable elements of the Kyrgyz identity. We find him pondering this venture on the wrong side of independence, but his stance would be essentially the same after 1991. Perhaps he is doomed before the very first word is written: Kyrgyz, the agreed language of poetry and tradition, could scarcely unify Sartov’s nation since many citizens, even amongst the ethnic Kyrgyz, struggled to speak it fluently. The republic’s lingua franca was Russian and is destined to remain so in such an ethnically-diverse country. If Sartov’s novel was translated into Russian (and it seems to have been), this concedes that the forces he wishes to reconcile – the practical and the aesthetic, the modern and the traditional – may be already reading his book in different languages.
When the Edelweiss… daydreams about humanity finding a means of curing cancer within traditional Kyrgyz herbalism. There may be a note of wistfulness to such a prospect, but Sartov may be equally in earnest. As a child, he had broken his arm and a village elder had purportedly cured it with mountain grasses; indicating that the similarly improbable scenes within his novel were actually witnessed first hand. Sartov appears to fault the Soviet Union for its neglect of traditional wisdom, but his position ultimately dispenses with the historical materialism which had provided the bedrock for Soviet society. As the extra-terrestrial Silem puts it, “there are plenty of secrets to be uncovered in the future. The past, as well, is full of secrets.” Karl Marx, of course, had never been in favour of the past, growling that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
The fact that Silem’s own name is a reversal of that of the supposedly inferior Earthling Melis warns that Enlightenment may be a process of going backwards. Sartov’s apathy towards progress is encapsulated beautifully in his picture of Melis being too busy rounding up his sheep to take any interest in Silem’s departing flying saucer.
If Sartov’s characters must recover the wisdom of the past, we are required to submit to a similar undertaking. The longest, richest and most enjoyable chapter in this novel is Uzagaaly’s story; perhaps the closest correspondence within our own literature to its folkloric wanderings and hazy supernaturalism is Arthur Machen’s “The White People.” Uzagaaly is introduced as a minor, prospectively comic character and he will not reveal his own name until deep into his tale. This is itself contained within a story which is narrated by his son Melis and within the story which further frames Melis’ narration. The modern world has marginalised Uzagaaly and he will only re-emerge as a hero – or at least as Melis’ equal – once we have retreated from the modern world.
Uzagaaly’s people drink fermented horse milk and they burn cow pats for fuel. They have the rugged glamour of cowboys and Sartov’s account of their lives is always lively and succinct. In the aftermath of an avalanche, Uzagaaly is trapped in a crevice, “wandering about at the bottom like a little ant.” He has formed a spiritual alliance with a horse whose ears glow like candles. We learn about the “dancing grass” which causes dying lambs to bounce about like balls, and the Kyrgyz custom of rewarding money to those with good news.
Yet the Soviet system remains a fact of life. Robert Lowe has recounted how the introduction of state-owned collective farms “had disastrous results: livestock was destroyed and thousands of people died of famine or fled to Xinjiang.” Uzagaaly is more circumspect: the collectivisation period was “a busy time” and “the Government invested in the area” with “new hay cutting machines,” a “new bridge,” and “combine harvesters.” He states that, “I had a really good rapport with Danilchenko, the boss. With his encouragement, and also aware that the Government was making inspections, I decided to take my own exams as well.” When Uzagaaly is lost in the snow, the state brings a radar; when his young colleague Seyit is injured, they collect him in a helicopter.
One is unlikely to encounter much condemnation of the Soviet Union in a country still under its thumb. Yet Uzagaaly repeatedly maintains, more with a chuckle than a snarl, that Soviet-educated citizens lack the innate common sense of traditional shepherds. “Oh, God bless them, this Government: they are so strange, aren’t they?” he wonders, “what a carry on!” He is less forgiving of the have-a-go shepherd Buudaibek: “If only he knew how to chase away an animal. He does not know the poisons of the Earth… Shame on him for thinking he was a real horseman…”
Sartov has various strategies for sugaring Uzagaaly’s dissent. He sculpts a clunky socialist-realist relief in which keen young intellectuals are inspired by a shepherd: “If we had never met you, we would not have any pride in ourselves… Thanks to your hard push, look around us. Alybai became a teacher… Tyko became a journalist… all because of your good example.” Uzagaaly and Melis also have each other’s backs. The grumbling Uzagaaly can be dismissed as hokey and impractical when compared to his modern son; whilst Melis’ dismay at how “many stupid, selfish and very slow people… seemed to get into positions of power” will outrage his father when it is translated into “fighting with guests and showing them the door.” We are thus assured that revolution goes against the grain of shepherd hospitality. Melis is equally allowed to be “critical” of local corruption at an “open Communist party meeting.”
Sartov’s discontent grows more pronounced when it comes to family life and medicine. Melis continues to venerate his father even after rejecting his Christianity, illustrating that the family can and should dwarf such apparently vast ideological chasms. “Like every Kyrgyz grown man,” Melis reflects, “I knew that elderly people should be respected and that parents are always right even when they don’t believe you…” This diverges from the Soviet assumption that “elderly people” generally exert a disruptive influence.
Significantly, the heroine Rena’s parents had “separated and had left her in an orphanage, where she had spent most of her childhood.” Although she is not an orphan, the state has adopted her. This dystopian upbringing is described without comment, whilst Sartov elsewhere conveys the intolerance of rural communities. We are shown the fate of the runaway bride Ak Zyinat, whose son will be called “bad piss” because her marriage was unblessed. Melis is moved to tears by the picture of his mother making noodles: if he was a bit less traditional, he would weep over her monotonous life on the farm.
The Soviets still have a lot to learn on the question of medicine. Seyit, a plucky young shepherd with a broken leg, assumes that he will be “back before bed time” after visiting the shaman Turusbek. Unfortunately, he falls into the hands of Communist doctors and his leg is amputated. In contrast, the infant Melis finds his way to Turusbek and his own broken leg is mended.
Yet even this dissent is qualified. The “Aksakal” Turusbek vows that, “This gift should not die with me…” but he squanders the opportunity to pass it on to his children. If we accept the premise that Turusbek’s shamanism is superior to Soviet medicine (and it may be a question of which is the least ineffectual), then he is surely obliged to disseminate it for the wider good. Likewise, the Soviets confiscate Uzagaaly’s horses to understand how he cares for them so well, but Uzagaaly refuses to cooperate with them. Both he and Turusbek lack the ambition or imagination to advance their wisdom beyond the farmstead, or else divulging these secrets will diminish their patriarchal authority.
Sartov invites us to look to the stars for a happy synthesis of Soviet modernity and Kyrgyz tradition. Silem will rebuke humanity for being warlike (if failing to distinguish between its superpowers and ideologies) but he insinuates that Earth is merely going through its adolescent upsets. When Silem claims that “if I violate ethical law my humanity diminishes,” this may not be a mistake. The extra-terrestrials are humans who have developed in alternative conditions.
Silem may appeal to Soviet readers with his ambitious space-aged research; and to Kyrgyz readers with his anxiety to learn from less developed cultures. Yet he equally confounds any distinction between the modern and the traditional. For centuries the extra-terrestrials have been exploring Earth in the guise of shamans and beggars. With their Asa Muras and learned herbalism, the only practical difference between Silem and Turusbek is their planet of origin. “Turusbek” “has a very white beard,” whilst the alien elders are described as “white beards.” Silem later describes his elders as the “Council Aksakals.” Far from remaining “traditional,” it could be that the Kyrgyz are alone amongst nations in having been exposed to the knowledge of the future.
It could even be that the extra-terrestrials are held back by residual Soviet-style elements within their own culture. They conduct themselves as scrupulous ethicists, but their morality is actually legalistic and structured around punishment. When Silem is purged, the Earth becomes his gulag. Like Melis’ busy modern friends, he is obliged to learn from older “ethical” laws which he has disregarded in his hot-headedness. Yet the extra-terrestrials equally evince a little of Turusbek’s impracticality. Rather goofily, they export their “pharmacological method” to Earth by implanting it in a single student.
In sending Kyrgyz Aksakals into outer space, Sartov is colonising one of the Soviet Union’s most progressive literary genres. Science fiction’s utopian credentials were already evident in the work of such nineteenth century practitioners as Alexander Veltman and Nikolai Chernyshevsky; whilst novels by HG Wells, one of the West’s leading sci-fi writers, were distributed widely throughout revolutionary Russia in the 1920s. Portraying future worlds and undiscovered planets was a means of claiming the future for Communism (and Soviet citizens were more likely to find utopia in the future), but sci-fi also kept aflame a humanism which had been extinguished within the Soviet state. No doubt herein lay its appeal for Sartov.
There were greater freedoms available within sci-fi; its readers came mostly from the educated, aspirational class which had existed in the Soviet Union in the place of a bourgeoisie. The critic Patrick Major has noted that,”SF was one of the less regulated communist literary fields…” because officials “tended to dismiss the genre, associating it with Western pulp fiction…” Sci-fi apparently survived as it did in this classless society only due to snobbery. Even one of its most celebrated writers, Stanislaw Lem, would sniff in 1972 that the genre was “occupied exclusively by trash, because in kitsch, the culturally and historically highest, most difficult, and most important objects are produced on the assembly line, in the most primitive forms, to be sold to the public at bargain prices.” Sartov reflects something of this angst when hinting at the sterile, flavourless lives of the young professionals who have left Melis behind.
Sartov’s raid on modernity may simply recoup a bit of cowboy glamour and the vain hope that herbalism might be useful (in light of the latter, it is altogether unfortunate that he died of liver disease in his early thirties). The prospect that Melis may be a fantasist is never explicitly refuted, although it would require us to disregard half of the novel as a hallucination. Melis’ refusal to abandon his imaginary world may denote merely a stubborn adherence to pleasant but now obsolete ways of living.
Melis’ failure to satisfy Rena by obtaining a flower for her has obvious connotations of impotence, but the final transformation of his beloved into a sixteen year old boy is both hilarious and unexpectedly harrowing. This ghastly debacle is anticipated by Sartov’s Sakiesque short story “A Paradox” (1970) in which a sixty year old biologist tries to recover her youth by taking an age-reduction drug, only to transform herself into a baby. Rena’s own metamorphosis is both more dignified and more sinister than that of the fatuous scientist. She is saved from destruction and she will be re-educated to perfection, but the identity which Melis had loved is annihilated. This could symbolise the fate of the Kyrgyz people under Communism: rescued from history but transformed beyond recognition.
If Kyrgyzstan was a product of Soviet social planning, Rena attains virtue only through a horrific act of neurological reprogramming. She is enlightened but without the most basic of human freedoms, just as Kyrgyzstan would later achieve sovereignty without self-determination. Perhaps Rena has to man up in order to be reacquainted with traditional Kyrgyz wisdom. S/he now represents a version of Melis which has escaped both the Soviet education system and the frustratingly parochial prejudices of Melis’ father. Paradoxically, Rena’s deepest instincts have been engineered by traditional “white beards” with a characteristically Soviet contempt for free will, but s/he is freed from the past and promised great things in the future. It is a mark of Sartov’s power as a writer that we may feel only unutterable grief. Kyrgyzstan has been reconciled through heartbreak.
[There are some beautiful photographs of Kyrgyzstan here. Ed.]