Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kazat Akmatov - 'Munabiya' & 'Shahidka'.

Kazat Akmatov is the National Writer of Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyz author writing in his own language. Although his work is still largely unknown in the West, and must be translated from Kyrgyz to Russian and then from Russian to English, Hertfordshire Press must be applauded for its mission to promote this author’s poetic brilliance, uniquely Kyrgyz literary style and exposure of Central Asian culture to a broader public. I myself am lucky to be married to a Kyrgyz girl. I don’t pretend to understand everything Akmatov writes but I do understand a little bit of this strange culture and that’s a good start! I was initially quite shocked by how familiar Akmatov’s written words seemed to me but I soon realized that his phraseology was exactly akin to that spoken by my wife. It made me appreciate that they belong to a hidden world steeped in ancient traditions , more than a thousand years old. What Akmatov describes lives on in the hearts of the Kyrgyz people, even though the majority now live in cities, leading ‘modern’ lives. I don’t think that the content of the stories is necessarily the most important feature here, but just like Manas, there’s this general feeling and emotion behind the stories, which are universal for the Kyrgyz people and express their true national identity. It is hard to imagine a society that still lives on the brink of the Middle Ages and still clings to such old values even if all of this is quickly being dispelled by contemporary means of communication! Take the short story ‘Munabiya’ for example. It’s a story about a remorseful son visiting his old widower father. The old man lives on his own in an aul or village in rural Kyrgyzstan. This is a tale about the ‘moral values’ of this small, closely knitted society. The story circles around concepts of ‘spite’, ‘remorse’, ‘complex family ties’, ‘family feuds’, ‘pride’ and most of all ‘respect for the dead’. Admittedly, the father is not totally innocent. He is not completely alone either. He is in fact surrounded by women who look after him. There’s the spirit of his dead wife hovering around. Then it seems that the father also had some sort of relationship with the woman Munabiya, who was considered a witch in her village. An affair that started some twenty years ago and went on till the old man died. There’s the jene , or auntie, the wife of his middle brother, who strongly defends the ‘family honour’, by keeping the feared Munabiya far away from the home of the old man. Her plans don’t work out because in the end his last wish is exactly that Munabiya would ‘sit by his body at his head’ at his funeral, which causes a terrible shock and angers the fierce and jealous jene. A family feud arises at the funeral whereby the jene blocks the entrance so that Munabiya cannot enter the yurt where the dead man lies. The aksakals or village elders, play an important role in solving this family feud. They intervene and decide that the last wish of the old man should indeed be honoured. Munabiya enters and finally earns the respect of the village by singing a beautiful siren song at the old man’s deathbed. I will not explain the whole story here. Suffice to say, it takes more than one reading to fully enter this world. It’s up to the reader to read and reread and discover the rest of the carefully woven threads of this family tragedy where not everything is said out loud. This is a beautiful story which moved me profoundly. If you want to get to the heart of the Kyrgyz people, I recommend that you look to the novels of Kazat Akmatov. You will be well rewarded!

‘Munabiya' and 'Shahidka', two short stories by Kazat Akmatov were published by Hertfordshire Press.

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