Chingiz Aitmatov’s New Novel

Dmitry Babich recently reviewed legendary Central Asian author Chingiz Aitmatov’s new novel for Russia Profile:

Chingiz Aitmatov is back. Not only is he back in the public spotlight, but he has also returned to his epic, journalistic narrative style. In his books, the existential quest for the meaning of life is intermingled with the burning issues of today’s world. After his dizzying success in the 1980s, when Gorbachev organized global forums for peace in his native Kyrgyzstan, using the writer as a sort of a spiritual prop for his policy of “new thinking,” Aitmatov took a break for most of the 1990s. In his new book, When Mountains Crumble, Aitmatov returns to his roots, setting the action in contemporary Kyrgyzstan. The story revolves around a pair of Arab princes who arrive to hunt snow leopards in the region.

In the Soviet period, it was common to divide writers between those who accepted the “new society” and those who didn’t. Aitmatov clearly and unequivocally does not accept the post-Soviet society. Nor does he embrace the global technocratic civilization, of which post-Soviet society has become a part.

Aitmatov’s critique is scathing and it does not leave any of this society’s “pillars” untouched. The cruel and senseless pop culture that steals the sweetheart of the main character, the formerly pro-Gorbachev journalist Arsen Samanchin, is emblematic of the plight of a writer in a society hostile to fiction; the poverty and degradation of the local villagers, all of whom lost their jobs after the collective farms were disbanded, and who try to improve their condition by taking the Arab hunters hostage; and the hypocrisy of the newly resurgent “religious leaders,” who complain to the authorities about Samanchin’s somewhat deistic views because they don’t correspond to the dogmas of Islam and Christianity.

Some critics might find Aitmatov’s style old-fashioned, writing off his views as the useless carping of a disgruntled Soviet idealist. However, it is important to remember that Soviet literary criticism used the same rhetoric against the old writers who did not accept the new society. History proved the Soviet critics wrong.

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