Kazakhstan: an epic struggle


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)

11 responses

  1. First of all I would suggest you to read “Абай жолы” (written by Mukhtar Auezov, the translation called “Abai”). It is the most must-read book in Kazakhstan that tells not only about kazakhs and their traditions, but about life and its sence. Abai Kunanbayev is a wice of kazakh nation who left many songs and wice words behind him. So if you want to cognize this country, you better read this one. Thank you🙂

  2. Hi – I recently visited Kazakhstan and tried to find an english copy of the Mukhtar Auezov book Abai – with no luck. All my Kazakh friends knew the book – but no book shop had it. The only copy on Amazon was published in 1940 – does anyone know if there is any other source or more recent publication.

    Thanks – oh and great website btw.


    • Hi again. Commenters on the Facebook page have made a few suggestions. Mardi found this: Abai Abridged https://www.amazon.com/…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_awd_F3QAwbPXVDR00 and this http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults… and Gavin said this: ‘amazon.co.uk seems to have two different translations available, published by the same publisher with similar covers. The author’s family name is written as ‘Auesow’. Interestingly, there appear to be kindle versions of both translations available (which, as a regular reader of translated fiction, I would add is not overly common).’

      Hope that’s helpful! Good luck.

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