Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Chingiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan's greatest writer, and an epic twenty times longer than Homer

So yesterday I made a list of the most famous 19th century books that I have not read. I did not list any Asian books, because to my knowledge the 19th was not such a hot century for Asian literature. I mean that relatively - but I have a pretty good idea that my Asian Humiliations reside elsewhere:

Japanese: Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
Chinese: Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone
Sanskrit: Kalidasa, The Messenger of Sakantala
Persian: Attar, The Conference of the Birds

And much, much else. I'm still learning the lay of the land here. For example, to leap across the centuries, I came across this upcoming seminar / adult ed class at the Newberry Library in Chicago (scroll down a bit at the link, past the Musil and Proust):

"Chingiz Aitmatov: Lion of Central Asia

In June 2008 Kyrgyzstan lost arguably its greatest writer. We will discuss the novel of Chingiz Aitmatov, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, considering both its literary merit and its cultural context. The Kyrgyz epic, Manas, will also be sampled as part of the ancient background of modern Kyrgyz literature. We will discuss themes from the novel and the epic, fragments from Aitmatov's other works, as well as current Kyrgyz culture.

D. Stanley Moore, a former teacher at Rich Township High School and Prairie State College, has taught in Russia, China, the Czech Republic, and as a Fulbright scholar in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan."

Six classes, $155. This has to be money well-spent - I predict an extremely high return on investment. Chingiz Aitmatov? The Kyrgyz epic? I poked around a bit and found this extremely useful piece, with sample translations, by a University of Washington Ph.D. student. Manas, we are told, dates from no-one-knows-when, and in its longest version extends to half a million lines, making it two and a half times longer than the Mahabharata, which, you may remember, is being published in a thirty-plus volume edition by the Clay Sanskrit Library. It's also twenty times longer than Homer's two books combined. I don't understand how this is even physically possible.

I've outgrown, I hope, the completeness neurosis, the idea that once I've read a certain list of books, I'm done. There is no completeness, there is no list. It's all wonderfully endless. Or sufficiently endless. There is a "done", I'm afraid. "Done" is a whole 'nother thing.


  1. Wow - I'm impressed you went so far as to poke around and see what all the fuss is about. I think my eyes would have glazed over at 'Kyrgyz epic'. But hey, perhaps in 200 years, it will be required reading.

  2. I've even ordered a book from the library - by the novelist, not the epic. I'm just kind of amazed that it even exists.

  3. I visited the Kyrgyz mountains last summer and while there read Chinz Aitmatov's Farewell Gulsary, which had been languishing on my shelves for ages. It is a normal-length, very accessible novel of the Soviet era that traces the parallel lives of a stern herder and the horse that he was allowed to race for a while. It beautifully and poignantly dramatizes the transition from idealism and zeal to middle aged disillusionment and disenchantment.

    Maybe it was because I was surrounded by horses and herds while I read it, but I absolutely loved this book - to my own surprise.

    And by the way, the Kyrgyz mountains are gorgeous.

  4. This is surprisingly interesting. I'm constantly reminded of the fact that I've read very little, especially of wider world literature. I'd never have thought to look up Kyrgyz literature. Thanks for the tip.

  5. Almost no one ever thought to look up Kyrgyz literature! But I now have an Aitmatov novel in my possession, so we shall see.

    Anna, thanks for the recommendation. Even - especially -if I don't like The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, I'll know to try another one.

    Several years ago I did a little reading about the Central Asian countries. So I have taken a look at photos of the Kyrgyz mountains - unbelievable. They must have some of the best hiking on earth.