Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov, Gogol, and Aitmatov Again

Hello! I hope you’re well, and if there’s a blizzard raging around outside, I hope you’re also warm. I’ve reviewed three more books. If you’re warm enough to read at least one of them, I would highly encourage reading the last book.

On Craftsmanship, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Man should think about everything, even about the end of the world…What is the power of the human spirit, how does man overcome the cruel obstacles which confront him, what gives man the right to be human and say, in reviewing his life: ‘I lived and knew life’? These questions are unavoidable for an artistic understanding of reality, no matter what the subject.”

On Craftsmanship is a collection of essays written by the greatest underrated writer ever, Chingiz Aitmatov. The essays express his views on various topics from writing to space-travel to world peace. Aitmatov also gives a brief autobiography which was one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Aside from his autobiography, other rewarding parts of the book were about how he approached his works and his ideas about art’s role in society. Other parts read more like propaganda (apparently Aitmatov wrote the book while Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR).

He also had a whole essay about the unprecedented technological advances of the 1970s, and another essay about how humanity was slowly but surely starting to threaten nature. Given the technological advances of the 2000s and the unprecedented level of global warming we’ve been experiencing, these essays felt a bit outdated.

In the end, On Craftsmanship gave me a better sense of how Aitmatov thought, but it didn’t change my life.

Dead Souls, Part 2, by Nikolai Gogol

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“‘You will do well to harken unto Him who is merciful,’ he said, ‘but remember also that in the eyes of the All Merciful, honest toil is of equal merit with a prayer. Therefore take unto yourself whatsoever task you may and do it as though you were doing it not unto man but unto God. Even though to your lot there should fall but the cleaning of a floor, clean that floor as though it were being cleaned for Him alone.’”

Dead Souls originally had two parts to it, but Gogol tried to burn away the second part. In my review of the first part, I foolishly thought that since the second part still existed, Gogol had utterly failed. Actually reading the infinitely-disappointing second part made me realize how wrong I was.

The second part begins with Gogol giving the life-story of a new character. The character meets Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls Part 1. Things seem to be going along swimmingly. Then there’s what my version termed “a long hiatus in the original” (also known as a missing part) and we never hear from that character again. Chichikov gets into all kinds of trouble, and we encounter more long hiatuses in the original, after which we find Chichikov magically wanting to change his ways. Irrelevant characters come and go, convenient coincidences and deus ex machinas abound, and whole reams of previously-undisclosed backstory unfurl themselves before the reader’s bewildered gaze. We wonder: Will Chichikov change his ways? Won’t he? The suspense nearly kills us.

I’m not giving anything away: the original ends with an infinite hiatus.

So my suggestion to you is to read the first part and then take a hiatus from the book before you reach the second part. Better yet, make that hiatus an infinite one.

Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Alex Miller

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“‘Drink,’ said Organ. Kirisk hesitated. Although dying of thirst and eager to empty those few swallows of water down his own throat, he knew he must not. ‘No,’ he said, struggling with the consuming desire inside him. ‘No, Grandad, drink it yourself.’ And he felt giddy. Organ’s hand trembled at these words and he sighed heavily. His gaze softened and he looked affectionately at the boy. ‘I’ve drunk, oh, so much water in my time. But you have a long time to live yet before…’ He did not finish. ‘You understand me, Kirisk? Drink, it’s necessary, you must drink up, but don’t worry about me. Here!’ And again, as he swallowed the water, only for a moment did the boy feel the fire within him dampened and subdued, and again, after the relief, he promptly wanted another drink.”

Guess what? This story isn’t about a dog. It’s about a kid named Kirisk who’s going seal-hunting for the first time in his life with his grandfather, his father, and his uncle. Kirisk is very excited about this rite of passage, but little does he know how life-changing the expedition is going to be…

This story reminded me a lot of Jack London in the way Aitmatov depicted the harsh wilderness. However this story was richer than most of Jack London’s stories because Aitmatov also got across so much about his characters’ inner lives.

What makes the story work seems to be that Aitmatov alternates between showing characters’ thoughts and flashbacks and having them act. The thoughts increase the stakes of their situation which gives their actions more meaning. Then the actions produce unforeseen consequences which go on to reverberate through the next series of thoughts, which further heighten the stakes and so on. Basically, Aitmatov uses both internal and external events to build up suspense, tension, and investment, and since it all culminates in one epic final moment, the whole story is filled with a sense of direction and momentum. Who knew that reading about people drifting around in a canoe could be so engrossing? I didn’t.

You can read it for free here.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Walker, Aitmatov, and Gogol

Hello. I hope you are well. I’ve read three more books, and I hope you find them as enjoyable as I did.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

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“Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. __________’s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.”

The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a child wife in the South who writes letters to God and gradually comes into her own, while her sister Nettie writes letters to Celie about being a missionary in Africa.

There were several exciting things about the book. First off, it was written in 1982 (way before Swordspoint) and had a terrifically-written African American LGBTQ protagonist. That alone was exciting.

Also, it introduced a second protagonist and viewpoint halfway through in the form of Nettie. Somehow Walker was able to do this without making the book less engaging. Yes, sometimes there were parts that felt less interesting than others, or that felt like they were included just to provide suspense. Most of the time though, the dual narrators made the book more compelling, since there were all sorts of parallels and contrasts to draw between Nettie’s story and Celie’s story.

There were other parts of the book that were confusing at first but turned out to make sense. Sometimes it felt like Celie was just doing what other characters had inspired her to do, or that she wasn’t doing much at all. Then I realized that during the times when Celie wasn’t doing a lot, she was still reflecting and growing, and that the ending of the story (where she actually made decisions without being inspired by others) worked as well as it did because of those reflections.

Needless to say, I would definitely recommend reading The Color Purple.

To Have and To Lose, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Olga Shartse

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“[…] suddenly an idea struck me: ‘I’ve time enough to go and tell her and then come back here. What does it matter if I start out a few hours later? I’ll explain it to the chief afterwards, maybe he’ll understand, if he doesn’t he’ll give me hell… But I can’t help it, I’ve got to go.’ […] ‘Hey, Ilyas, get under the crane,’ the operator called out to me. The crane poised above me, now it was too late. There was no going anywhere with a load of export goods [….] I looked out of the rear window: the container was being lowered into my lorry. It was coming down and down. ‘Look out,’ I yelled, and shot forward, slipping from under the descending jib. (My engine was running.) Behind me I heard shouts, whistles and curses.”

This book mostly consists of a lorry driver named Ilyas telling his life-story to an unnamed viewpoint character.

The majority of this life-story was about how he fell in love with two women, which basically meant that Ilyas was a walking mess. I don’t mean it in the way he was written, but in the choices he made (like in the above excerpt). Considering the fact that Aitmatov was still able to make him sympathetic in spite of these choices, I would say that he was well-written.

The story didn’t feel as fleshed-out as some of Aitmatov’s other stories. It wasn’t the lack of backstory—there were hints that Ilyas had once fought in a war, and I doubt that having had a whole section about his war-time experience would have added to the story. Maybe it was because all of the characters in this book fell in love so readily that it felt unbelievable.

Then there’s the mystery of the unnamed viewpoint character. He apparently knew a lot of things about Ilyas’s story that Ilyas himself didn’t know, but Aitmatov never tells us what that means. This made the story both frustrating and fascinating. If you think of Hemingway, he excludes important details from his stories but leaves enough in for the reader to figure it out. Aitmatov just hints that the viewpoint character knows something important about the story’s events and then doesn’t let us know anything else, which can be frustrating. However you could also interpret it as realism. In life, there are many things about others’ stories you will never know and will always wonder about. In his story, Aitmatov manages to convey this experience to the readers. You know there’s more but you won’t ever know what it is, which could make for a fascinating read.

So in spite of the instant-romances, and a little bit because of the unresolved mystery, I would recommend this book.

Dead Souls, Part One, by Nikolai Gogol

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“Yes, readers of this book, none of you really care to see humanity revealed in its nakedness. ‘Why should we do so?’ you say. ‘What would be the use of it? Do we not know for ourselves that human life contains much that is gross and contemptible? […] Far better would it be if you would put before us what is comely and attractive, so that we might forget ourselves a little.’ In the same fashion does a landowner say to his bailiff, ‘Why do you come and tell me that the affairs of my estate are in a bad way? I know that without your help. […] Kindly allow me to forget the fact or else to remain in ignorance of it, and I shall be much obliged to you.’ Whereafter the said landowner probably proceeds to spend on his diversion the money which ought to have gone towards the rehabilitation of his affairs.”

Apparently, Dead Souls was written in two parts. Gogol only wanted Part One published so he tried to burn Part Two to ashes. However, as Mikhail Bulgakov could have told him, manuscripts don’t burn, so there are copies of Dead Souls out there with both parts in them.

Now, Part One of Dead Souls is about a man named Chichikov who wanders around a Russian town trying to buy dead souls (peasants who had died and still had to be paid for by their masters for some reason). The whole book consisted of the people who were selling the souls asking why Chichikov would want to buy them if it would cost him and benefit the sellers. Then the sellers would try to sell the dead souls for exorbitant sums of money, or would try to sell the dead souls and their least favorite horse, and so on.

It was very funny to read. I spent the whole book wondering why Chichikov was buying dead peasants, and since Gogol spends the whole book keeping the reader in suspense about this very question, I had an enjoyable reading experience. The very end came out of nowhere though—Gogol randomly went off on a tangent about how great he thought it would be for Russia to colonize more parts of the world. Did he really believe that? Was it just (hopefully) part of his satire? Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out in Part 2.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kekilbayev, Xun, and Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all well in the aftermath of last week’s tragic events. I have read three books. I’ll review them below, since I believe that reading can spread hope.

Ballad of Forgotten Years, by Abish Kekilbayev

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“Now, he is playing a kiuiy [instrument], singing how sweet life is on earth, how magnificent in its glorious expanses. And why must they fight and kill each other, these brother nations, when it is so good to live out one’s days in joyful labor; days watching the children grow, and seeing them prosper, days which reach wise old age.”

This book is about fighting between two Central Asian nomadic groups–the Adai Kazakhs and the Turkmen. A Turkmen warrior named Zhoneyut wants to avenge his brother’s death and sends his son to do so. Tragic consequences ensue.

The book itself was well-written. It had action but it also had a lot of wisdom about the senselessness of violence and art’s power to heal (sometimes). Sometimes Kekilbayev just described a character’s actions, and I found myself wondering what the character was thinking. I also wondered why he didn’t tell us, but then I realized it could have been because the character in question was emotionally-suppressed, since later on this character got more internal monologues. If that was what Kekilbayev was going for, it was pretty cool to see.

Overall, Ballad of Forgotten Years may be hard to find, but it’s worth reading for its story and ideas.

Silent China, Selected Writings of Lu Xun, by Lu Xun,
Translated by Gladys Yang

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“The most deplorable is my elder brother. He’s a man too, so why isn’t he afraid, why is he plotting with others to eat me? Does force of habit blind a man to what’s wrong? Or is he so heartless that he will knowingly commit a crime? In cursing man-eaters, I shall start with my brother. In dissuading man-eaters, I shall start with him too.”

This was a short but very interesting book. It’s made up of short stories, reminiscences, poems, and essays. The short story quoted above is called “A Madman’s Diary” and is about a man who thinks everyone wants to eat him. The other short stories ranged from comic to serious, and I found them the best part of the book. Some of the reminiscences were good, too. Basically, I enjoyed the pieces in the book that evoked emotion. Meanwhile, the essays were sometimes entertaining, sometimes baffling, and other times propagandistic (Lu Xun apparently contributed to Communism’s rise in China).

Overall, I’d say this was a good book, but that I feel I probably could have skipped the essays and not have lost out on much.


Farewell, Gyulsary!, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Old Torgoi’s prediction came true. The pacer’s star rose quickly that spring. Young and old, everyone knew of him. ‘Gyulsary!’, ‘Tanabai’s pacer’, ‘the glory of the village’ was how they referred to him. Barefoot boys of three and four galloped up and down the dusty street, imitating the pacer’s gait, shouting: ‘I’m Gyulsary!’, ‘No, I’m Gyulsary!’, ‘Mamma, tell him I’m Gyulsary! Come on, boy! I’m Gyulsary!’

This is a book about a man named Tanabai and a horse named Gyulsary. Both of them are old and dying, and Tanabai spends the book reflecting on his life with Gyulsary on the collective farms of Kyrgyzstan.

Farewell, Gyulsary! was the first book by the Kyrgyz writer, Chingiz Aitmatov. It sort of showed. It wasn’t amateurish in any way, but his later works are more emotionally-impactful for some reason. Even so, this book had its moments of fun and sorrow, and given the fact it’s all available online, I’d highly recommend checking it out if you’re an Aitmatov fan. It includes a lot of themes that Aitmatov would come back to in later books, like the meaning of life, nature, and humanity.

If you’re an Aitmatov fan-to-be, maybe check out another of his works first, like Jamila, or The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years, or The Place of the Skull, or…well, you get the idea.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov

Hi everyone. If you’re in the US, I hope you are voting or have already voted (safely, of course).

Now, if you’re looking for something to entertain you that’s marvelous and life-affirming and not election-related, you’ve come to the right place.

Jamila, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“We were crossing the steppe along the soft, beaten road. Daniyar’s voice soared, ever new melodies followed one another with astounding grace. Was he so gifted? What had happened to him? It was as if he had been waiting for this day, for this hour to come! And suddenly I understood his strangeness which made people shrug and smile–his dreaminess, his love of solitude, his silences. I understood why he spent his evenings on the look-out hill and his nights alone on the river bank, why he was constantly listening to sounds inaudible to others, and why his eyes would suddenly sparkle and his usually drawn eyebrows twitch. This was a person who was deeply in love. And I felt that this was not merely love for another person; this was different, it was a tremendous love–of life, of the earth. Yes, he kept this love within himself, in his music–it was his guiding light. An indifferent person could never have sung as he did, no matter how great his voice.”

Here’s another Chingiz Aitmatov story, which some have called the greatest love story ever.

It’s set in Kyrgyzstan and is about a woman (her name’s Jamila) whose husband is away fighting in World War II. She falls in love with a crippled soldier who was sent back from the front to help out in the large USSR-owned farm called the collective.

All of this is told from the perspective of a guy who’s reminiscing about his childhood and what got him interested in painting, so it’s technically two stories in one. That means it’s not really a love story in the traditional sense. It has traditional love, too, but it also has other forms, too (like love of life, family, etc.)

That was refreshing, especially as someone whose main experience with “love stories” was mostly-cheesy YA novels (with some important exceptions) filled with mushy and contrived love-triangles. To me it seems there has to be something aside from two peoples’ attraction to each other for a love story to not seem cheesy. Fortunately, Aitmatov’s story doesn’t seem cheesy. Actually, I was surprised by how real the characters felt. They felt like people I knew, unlike the people in those cheesy YA novels.

Well, I don’t think any of this is really giving you any real sense of what makes this story good. Let me take another crack at it…

I once heard someone say that certain events in real life are less profound than people imagine them to be. Given that reasoning, an understated love story would be more realistic and powerful than an over-stated one with love-hexagons thrown in for good measure. Such a love story would also exist in a world where it’s clear that the love story is just a part of the world, and not the entire world. Such a love story would thus benefit from the fact that realistic and engaging characters don’t have to be flattened out for the sake of contrived and steamy plots. Also, the ultimate meaning of this type of story wouldn’t be limited to just two peoples’ love for each other (like some YA novels where whatever plot that’s introduced gets thrown away for the sake of incessant obsessing about the love-interest). Finally, the ultimate meaning to such a story would resonate with any type of person, regardless of his or her hormonal state. That’s exactly what happens with Aitmatov’s story.

So there you have it. And the best part? You can read the story for free via one of the links on this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamila_(novel)

Happy Tuesday! See you next week.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe, and doing your best to stay that way. I’m in the middle of midterms week at school, but I’ve managed to read a great book. I wanted to share it with you:

The Place of the Skull, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“If only I could write something, something that would get a reaction from thousands and thousands of people, people who would treat it as something of intimate concern to them personally, as a fire in their own house, a misfortune affecting their own children, only then could the Word, caught up by thousands of people, none of them indifferent, overcome the power of profit and triumph over vice!”

Basically, if you have a chance to read Chingiz Aitmatov, get your hands on everything you can by him. He’s criminally-underrated. (I’ve reviewed another one of his masterpieces here).

The Place of the Skull is another modern-ish classic. It’s a bunch of stories woven into one. It’s the story of a family of wolves living on the Kazakh steppe, an absurdly-idealistic Russian who’s expelled from a seminary, Jesus Christ, and a farmer. The wolves just trot along through the story and make you feel a bit like you’re reading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The idealistic Russian wants to infiltrate the drug trade to see what makes people sink to depravity (he also wants to reform some of the depraved people, which is fascinating to see). Jesus Christ gets crucified. The farmer (named Boston for some reason) has to deal with Soviet collectivization (where the USSR forced Kazakhs to work on a big farm instead of working on their own individual farms), and with the wolves that trot their way into his plotline. It’s all very exciting in actuality.

One thing I will mention. It… has… a… lot… of… ellipses. But once you get over that…

…the book’s a joy to read.

It’s fresh with ideas and heart. Its plot is well-done, too. You have a bunch of stories but they work well together, and the overall story wouldn’t have the same impact it does have if it weren’t to have all of those stories within it. Its grand scope also enables it to talk about environmentalism, the meaning of life, wolves, and morality.

Another thing I’ll mention. This book has all this philosophy in it, but for some reason it’s able to make it entertaining to read (unlike some Russian novels I’ve read–my opinion only).

The philosophy in Aitmatov’s novel asks questions that are actually interesting to contemplate: What makes people sink to immorality, how is the environment related to humanity, what gives people the power to be good, can humanity ever redeem itself, etc. So instead of having some boring guy droning on about a philosophical parable, Aitmatov’s book has characters who are actually struggling with topics that are super-relevant to their existence, and for some reason, you feel a sense of urgency when you read it. Maybe it’s because you get the sense that the author cares a lot about what he’s writing about, or he makes it so you understand why the characters care about it, and why you should care about it, too. At some points I thought he could’ve taken his ideas farther than he did, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Basically, read it for yourself.