Kazakhstan: an epic struggle

December 20, 2012

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This was a recommendation from Kazakh nationals studying at Durham and Exeter universities. The institutions kindly put out calls to their international students after hearing that I was struggling to fill in a few of the gaps on the list earlier this year.

Kazakhstan was one of these. Although I had been in touch with novelist Ilya Odegov, whose short story ‘Old Fazyl’s Advice’ is on Words Without Borders, none of his books are available in English yet – he is working with a translator so should hopefully have a novel coming out soon.

The Kazakh students at opposite ends of the country, however, were unanimous in their recommendation of The Nomads, a trilogy by Ilyas Yesenberlin (1915-1983). In fact, Aigerim in Exeter went further, not only pointing me to a site where I could download an Exxon-sponsored translation of the first book for a small registration fee, but also sending me a link to a subtitled trailer for Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe, a Kazakh film on a similar theme that came out this year (see below). She called it the ‘greatest movie of Kazakhstan’ and hoped very much that I would be able to find a full-length subtitled version to watch (I hope so too – it looks gripping).

But back to The Nomads. Focusing mainly on the 18th century, book one in the trilogy, The Charmed Sword, tells the story of some of the great battles that swept the territory that is now Kazakhstan. Depicting the cruelty and calculation of many of the tyrants that tussled for it during the second millennium – among them Genghis Khan and Timur – the narrative reveals the harshness and beauty of life on the plains and the source of the desire for an independent Kazakh state.

As the opening address from Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev suggests, national pride and identity are central themes in the book. The idea that ‘only the creation of a united and powerful Kazakh state could save the people’ runs through the novel, clashing with the cynical ‘divide and rule’ strategy of rulers such as wily Khan Abulkhair, who fuels infighting among the steppe tribes and his own family to keep control of them.

In this world of betrayal and suspicion, only the ruthless survive. Indeed, the narrative is awash with accounts of extreme violence and cruelty – from the 13-year-old boy indoctrinated to order the execution of his own mother, to the lover who is tied behind his horse and sent to what should be a brutal death with the flick of a whip.

Yet moments of beauty and some wonderful insights into steppe customs shine through too. We discover how to train hunting eagles, for example, and witness the politically pivotal storytelling competitions in which zhyrau-songsters vie to sway the crowd with their conflicting versions of events.

The sheer volume of characters, events and information in the narrative can make it tricky for someone ignorant of Kazakh history, like me, to follow. Now and then, caught up in a welter of names and incidents, it is difficult to work out exactly who is fighting and what they are doing it for.

This isn’t helped by the language problems that riddle this anonymous translation. Although certain metaphors and statements strike home, there are numerous grammatical errors and odd word choices that cloud the meaning of the more involved passages. At times, readers will find themselves lost in the maze of a sentence, searching for a subject that does not appear. There are also one or two moments where the narrative seems to jump like a scratched record, as though something is missing.

The text, such as it is, however, reveals a work of great passion and importance. This epic story opens a rare window on the history of a region that, even in this age of global communication, remains closed off to most English-language speakers. Perhaps now, 15 years after this translation came out, it’s time for another edition.

The Nomads by Ilyas Yesenberlin, translated by ? (Ilyas Yesenberlin Foundation, 1998)

Brunei was looking tricky. Try what combination of search terms I would, there seemed to be no literature in translation from this small, oil-rich nation on Borneo in the South China Sea. The only suggestion I heard of came in the shape of a collection of Dusun folk tales compiled and translated by UK academic Eva Maria Kershaw. It was recommended by Canadian blogger Paul, who said it was the only Bruneian work he had been able to find for his own global literary quest.

I was on the point of buying the book, but something held me back. Nagging away at me was the thought that there must be someone out there who could help me find a written work by a Bruneian author that I could read in English. It was just a question of tracking them down. What I needed was a group of enthusiastic, English-speaking Bruneians who were passionate about promoting their culture and would have the time to circulate my query and, if I was lucky, do a bit of research on my behalf.

The solution came in a flash: students. A quick bit of googling revealed a surprisingly large number of Bruneian students’ associations dotted around the world’s Anglophone countries. I fired off emails to several of them, hunted down a couple of others through Facebook, and sat back to wait.

It didn’t take long. The very next day I got a message from Zuliza, media communications officer at the Bruneian Students’ Association, New Zealand. She wanted to help and asked for more details about the sort of book I was looking for. I answered as best I could.

The weeks went by. I found myself keying ‘Dusun folk tale collection’ into Google in idle moments. Then, at the beginning of August, Zuliza got back to me. She had some good news: she had found a story in the Brunei Times about a Bruneian author who had taken the step of publishing a novel in English in an effort to attract a wider readership for his work. It was available to buy on Amazon. Would it do?

One air punch and a vigorous Highland jig of delight later, I downloaded the novel on to my Kindle and began to read.

Set in France, Four Kings by Christopher Sun (aka Sun Tze Yun) follows American archaeology professor James Hale as he sets out to solve the murder of his best friend. Accompanied by his friend’s distraught and yet disturbingly attractive daughter, the academic plunges into the dizzying world of fine-art investment in an effort to track down a killer with a penchant for priceless artefacts and a habit of leaving playing cards next to each of his victims. But as riots grip the country and the president is forced to consider extreme measures to prevent anarchy, it becomes clear that the deaths may be part of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

This is a book with a clear idea of what it wants to be. From the sensationalist, blood-smattered cover picture, right through to the vital clue that drops out of a copy of The Da Vinci Code halfway through the novel, Sun makes no secret of the fact that he is out to take on the global blockbusters with this, the first in a pentalogy following the adventures of James Hale. There is even a wry dig at the bestselling US author when, picking up the novel with a laugh, detective Darley remarks: ‘It’s nice to know that even sociopathic killers don’t mind reading trash now and then.’

Sadly, though, I don’t think Dan Brown has much to worry about. Although Sun may have big ambitions, his execution is lacking. The plotting is loose, improbable and heavily derivative, with unlikely religious relics such as ‘Jesus’s denarius’ and ‘the Spear of Longinus’ passed around between shadowy figures who materialise and disappear almost randomly. At times, even the characters themselves seem to feel that there is a ludicrous air to events, as when Hale grumbles to himself: ‘This is crazy [...]. Why the hell am I the one finding all the damned bodies around here?’

As in QuixotiQ, my Bahraini pick, the Western setting is problematic. Although Sun has made an effort to ground the novel in France, unlike the mid-Atlantic no-man’s-land of QuixotiQ, the context lacks authenticity. Characters with names like Bruno Culruthers, Hugh Jetter and the unfortunately spelled Rouseeau strut around a faceless world that feels more like an airport terminal than a French city.

As with QuixotiQ, however, there is a serious point here. For the second time this year, I have found that the only work I am able to read from a nation with a written tradition is one by a writer who feels he has no option but to try and write a Western novel in English if he is to reach an audience outside his country. According to his Brunei Times interview, Sun has written and published books, cerpen (short stories) and sajak (poems) in his first language, Bahasa Melayu. Now those I really would like to read.

Four Kings by Christopher Sun and Jimmy Chan (CreateSpace, 2011)

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