Category: Kazakhstan

Rollan Seisenbayev: Мертвые бродят в песках (The Dead Wander in the Desert)

The latest addition to my website is Rollan Seisenbayev‘s Мертвые бродят в песках (The Dead Wander in the Desert). The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake in the world. As a result of Soviet activities, it virtually disappeared. This novel tells the story from the perspective of the Kazakhs who lived on its shores, which have long since disappeared. In particular, we follow Nasyr, a fisherman who became local mullah and his son, Kakharman, a scientist. Both try in their own way try to oppose the various activities, involving using the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea to irrigate the desert, in order to grow cotton, as well as the construction of a dam, for irrigation and electricity. Their fight is in vain as the Soviets are determined to grow cotton and even consider diverting rivers from Siberia to assist. We also see the horrors the Soviets have inflicted on Kazakhstan, including a famine in the 1930s, oppression and forced migration, as well as various environmental disasters. It is a well-told but very sad tale, ending with the death of Nasyr and the fall of the Soviet Union, though things have not improved too much with the successor states.

Talasbek Asemkulov: Талтус (Полдень) (A Life at Noon)

The latest addition to my website is Talasbek Asemkulov‘s Талтус (Полдень) (A Life at Noon). Talasbek Asemkulov is a Kazakh dombra player and has helped to revive the tradition, which had almost died, in Kazakhstan. This is an autobiographical novel. We follow the childhood and youth of Azhigerei, our hero, but we also learn of the horrors of the past under Soviet rule, including the Kazakh famine of 1932–33. Azhigerei’s father had fought against the Soviets and had spent twenty-two years in a prison camp. Azhigerei starts learning the dombra and we follow his increasing joy in the musical culture of his country as well as the other vicissitudes of his life. It is a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into the culture of a country most of us will not be aware of.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

The oldest Koran in the world

The oldest Koran in the world

I have just returned from two weeks in Central Asia, which was highly enjoyable and a lifelong dream but, from the literary point of view relatively disappointing. I found only three bookshops, the last two on the last day. The first was, somewhat surprisingly, in the middle of Khiva. (Khiva is essentially a preserved small and very old town). It was small and mainly had textbooks. The books that it had in English were exclusively for Uzbeks wanting to learn English. However, it did have a couple of Uzbek novels translated into German, one of which I bought and plan to review shortly. I have since checked them out and they do not seem to be readily available in Europe or North America. The other two bookshops were in Turkmenistan, close to one another, on the edge of the Russian market. Both sold mainly textbooks in Russian and few books in Turkmen or Western languages. One thing we did notice was that, apart from tourists, we did not see a single person reading – books, magazine or newspapers. When I asked about this, I was told that people do not read all that much, despite (officially) a high rate of literacy, and when they do, they do so at home. In the museums, virtually the only book displayed was, not surprisingly the Koran, including the oldest Koran in the world, though there now appears to be an older one.

President's Niyazov's book

President’s Niyazov’s book

Turkmenistan was described by our Uzbek guide as a cross between North Korea and Dubai (or, perhaps, North Korea and Las Vegas). It single-handedly keeps the Italian marble industry in business as the president has directed that all buildings must be covered in white marble and all cars must be white. They are not there yet but are certainly making good progress. What makes it even more peculiar is that, though you do see cars, you see very few pedestrians, so it looks like a gigantic mausoleum. The previous president, Niyazov, was even more (much more, in fact) megalomaniacal than the current one (Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a former dentist). A few years before his death, he built a massive mosque (it can hold around 25,000 people) as a tribute to himself, covered in gold and white marble, with a mausoleum for himself and his family next door. Both together cost several hundred million dollars. Most mosques have quotations from the Koran on them but this one has quotations from Turkmenistan’s greatest writer (in his view), i.e. Saparmurat Niyazov. In particular, the quotations come from his book, Ruhnama, which means Book of Soul. In Independence Square, there is a statue of it at least 30 feet (10 metres) high (see photo above right). And, yes, you can read it in English. I do not recommend it.

Silk Road_197

The Turkmens do recognise their other writers and there was a section in the museum devoted to a few poets. (Incidentally, the museum is very large. When we visited (with a local guide – you cannot go anywhere without a guide), we (a group of eight) were the only ones in the museum apart from the dozen or so staff members we saw.) Magtymguly is their great poet. He did not write his poetry down, coming from an oral tradition but it was so well-known that others did and it has been preserved. His poems are available in English. The statue of him (photo above) is in Independence Square along with the statues of other Turkmen poets, including Kemine, Mollanepes and Mätäji. Sadly, for me there is not much much of a novel-writing tradition in these countries.

Kazakhstan and Madagascar


Continuing my reading of novels from countries that I have not yet read a novel from, the latest addition to my website is Mukhtar Auezov‘s Абай жолы (Abai). This is a novel by one of Kazakhstan’s foremost novelists, telling the story of one of Kazakhstan’s foremost poets. It is an excellent novel, recounting not only the story of Abai the poet but also giving an excellent introduction to Kazakh customs and culture in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Abai is the son of the head of a group of nomadic tribes and his story is about how he becomes a great poet and a great leader but also how his tribe and other Kazakh tribes change with the arrival of the Russians.


From Madagascar, I have added Michèle Rakotoson‘s Le Bain des reliques [The Bath of Relics]. Sadly, this novel is not available in English translation and is even difficult to obtain in French. It really is an excellent novel, though at times somewhat harrowing, depicting the filming of a ceremony involving royal relics but also aiming to show how bad the situation is in Madagascar under the Marxist government, with famine, poverty, disease, death and decay rife throughout the country.

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