Myth in the Works of Chingiz Aitmatov

Canadian Slavonic Papers,  Dec 2000  by Barry Scherr

Nina Kolesnikoff. Myth in the Works of Chingiz Aitmatov. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999. 133 pp. $34.00, cloth.

Since the 1970s myth and legend have played a predominant role in Aitmatov's writings. And, as Nina Kolesnikoff points out, myth's role might have been too predominant. While Aitmatov's oeuvre has reflected his Kirghiz heritage from the very start, he employed elements of Central Asian epic and song traditions only sporadically early in his career. However, his pre-1970 writings are treated only briefly here. Professor Kolesnikoff goes on to devote separate chapters to The White Steamship (Belyi parokhod, 1970) and to Spotted Dog Running Along the Seashore (Pegii pes, begushchii kraem moria, 1977), works she extols as Aitmatov's most successful in the use of mythology. Her point, and it is well taken, is that in these works a single dominant myth, recounted relatively briefly in each case, mirrors the realistic action of the narrative and, what is more, serves to mediate between the past and the present. The ancient tale permeates every aspect of the work: the plot and the characters; the moral (a central concern in Aitmatov's exploitation of myth); and the elemental struggle that is at the core-between good and evil in the first story, between people and the forces of nature in the second. While in The White Steamship both the legend of the "Deer-Mother" and the chief characters are Kirghiz, in the later story the myth and the heroes belong to the Nivkhi, a small nationality from Eastern Siberia.

This reaching out beyond his Kirghiz origins becomes more and more typical for Aitmatov's later writing. Consider, for example, the use of Kazakh legends in The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (I dol'she veka dlitsia den, 1980), the significance of the Gospels for The Place of the Skull (Plakha, 1986) and the importance of Greek myth, along with Biblical allusions, in The Mark of Cassandra (Tavro Kassandry, 1994). While some of Aitmatov's sources are clear (e.g., the New Testament, the Cassandra story), in other instances he draws upon less familiar regional legends and literary works. Kolesnikoff s study provides a notable service in suggesting sources for specific motifs in these longer works as well as in tracing the manifestations of myth throughout Aitmatov's later writings. Throughout, the volume contains valuable remarks on the ways in which Aitmatov modifies and interprets his sources, on the moral and ethical issues raised by the use of myth, and on the manner in which folkloric and mythic elements open up his works temporally, spatially, and thematically.

The book offers an important perspective from which to view many of Aitmatov's major writings. But its approach at times sees more limited than need be. Chapter 1, "Myth and Literary Criticism," offers a thoughtful if perhaps too brief introduction to the problem of defining myth as well as to the use of myth in modem literature. However, few of the topics discussed here seem to inform the later chapters, where the more theoretical sections of the analyses frequently fall back on elucidating binary oppositions in the text as reflecting the influence of myth. With all the contemporary scholarship on this topic, there would seem to be occasion for further probing into the complex relationships between myth and literature. At the other end of the volume, the conclusion highlights several topics that might have been explored in greater detail within the body of the study. For instance, only in the conclusion does the question arise regarding the success with which myth is integrated into the narratives, and then the issue is addressed in just a couple of paragraphs toward the very end. If the two novellas from the 1970s are the most satisfying in their use of myth, then both The Place of the Skull and The Mark of Cassandra, as Kolesnikoff notes, seem to suffer from an overuse of myth and a failure to bring together the various mythic elements, to say nothing of the narratives as a whole. More could have been done to discuss how myth affects literary quality in these instances, and this is particularly true of The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, which not even the conclusion addresses from this standpoint. On the one hand, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years includes some of the most striking mythic passages in all of Aitmatov's writing. For example, the mankurts-prisoners who have been transformed through brutal torture, into totally subservient slaves deprived of any past or independent will-serve as a powerful metaphor for efforts on the part of the modern state to ensure absolute obedience by destroying memory and by shielding its subjects from knowledge. Through such comparisons Aitmatov provides links among the disparate elements in this large novel. And yet critical opinion about the work remains divided: some have felt that even with the mythic elements this novel does not match Aitmatov's writings of the previous decade in terms of coherence and artistry. Since this is the work about which critical judgment seems most undecided, it would have been useful to enter into the debate.

More minor omissions occur as well. The massive Kirghiz epic Manas, a work that is clearly in large part responsible for Aitmatov's interest in mythology, is mentioned only in passing; a study concentrating on this topic might have been expected to give more attention to the greatest monument in the Kirghiz folk tradition. The chapter on The White Steamship includes a note on, but no further discussion of, Aitmatov's original title for this work, Posle skazki (After the Fairy Tale), which, had it been retained, would have pointed readers more to the story's use of folk elements. While Kolesnikoff discusses several early stories with mythic motifs, she does not mention the major early work Farewell, Gul'sary. Toward the end of that novella a prominent role is played by the story of Karagul, a legendary hunter lured to a cliff by a goat whose mate he has slain.


Thus, in certain regards, a fuller and more complex treatment of the topic would have been welcome. Nonetheless, Kolesnikoff s analyses devoted to individual works in general, and her discussions of how myth interacts with other elements of Aitmatov's writing in particular, will prove informative to those with an interest in this highly original and talented figure.

Barry Scherr, Dartmouth College

Copyright Canadian Assosciation of Slavists Dec 2000
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved



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