Guest post by Jeffrey B. Lilley, author of Have the Mountains Fallen?.
In September 2007, I met Chingiz Aitmatov, a man whose life and work I would spend the next 10 years studying and writing about. I couldn’t have expected then how much of my life he would become, so much that I resigned my job and worked 18 months without income to finish Have the Mountains Fallen?, a joint biography of Aitmatov and Kyrgyz journalist and exile Azamat Altay that was eventually published in early 2018 by Indiana University Press.
Aitmatov is one of the most famous writers Americans don’t know about—except perhaps those Americans who were reading IU Press’s publications in the 1980s, when they may have encountered a translation of Aitmatov’s most famous book, The Day Lasts Longer than a Century. In that book, Aitmatov, whose works were translated into 160 languages, popularized the term mankurt for a person who forgets where he is from, is ignorant of history and therefore becomes a tool in the hands of others—basically a slave.
Part Kyrgyz and part Tatar, born and raised in Soviet Kyrgyzia, a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, Aitmatov was keenly aware of where he was from. His life was a constant struggle to not become a tool of anyone or anything.
When I met the 79-year old Aitmatov in independent Kyrgyzstan in 2007, he was staying in a cottage at the government dacha compound on Lake Issyk Kul, a collection of Soviet-era rest houses connected by cement pathways and shaded by pine and birch trees. Though a bit worse for wear after years of use by Kyrgyzstan’s officialdom, the Soviet-era compound on the north shore of the lake was still a quiet hideaway.
Across the way stood the cottage where Aitmatov had written The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years. Down a pathway, the gentle roll of waves lapped against the shore, and the Tian Shan Mountains rose in the background. In his younger days, Aitmatov used to take nightly swims in the lake. His strokes would take him offshore into the black of night, out of sight of nervous family members who waited in silence on the shore. The swims afforded him time alone in his hectic life—a separate peace of sorts—and he would return full of energy and refreshed. But in the new millennium, those swims had become a thing of the past for the 78-year old Aitmatov.
On the phone earlier that week, Aitmatov had been welcoming, inviting me to spend time with him at the dacha compound, and he was solicitous in person, asking about my visit to his home village. “You are the first American journalist to visit Sheker, he remarked shortly after we shook hands. “Did they receive you well?” Then he settled into a chair. Despite this warm welcome, he seemed exhausted, and his heavily lidded eyes opened and shut during our hour-long talk. Suitcases were open around the cottage, indicating a temporary stay. A bottle of Lipitor nearby was a reminder of the writer’s health concerns, and during our conversation, he nodded off several times. The interview became more of a lopsided exchange between generations: the aging writer sharing his thoughts with a curious American shaped by the Cold War.
Aitmatov spoke of writing being his spiritual life, and of religious extremism gripping the world. Three years on, he was still troubled by the tragedy at Beslan in southern Russia in 2004 when Chechen terrorists seized an elementary school and took hundreds of young children hostage. Many inside the red-brick school building died during the ensuing shootout between the Chechens and Russian law enforcement. Pictures of bloody, half-clothed children being rescued from their smoldering school shocked the world in a way that has become too familiar of late.
In a deep, slow voice, Aitmatov spoke of his role in pushing forward perestroika in the Soviet Union as a top advisor to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. “I consider that fate put me in this position,” he said, by way of explanation. “I did as I could to answer to the contemporary challenges. I understood that the issue was how to get out of totalitarianism to democracy. And that’s a long process. We need another hundred years to travel this path, to comprehend. In this is the essence of human life and all history: there’s nothing simple to understand.”
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About the Author
After witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union as a journalist in the 1990s, Jeffrey B. Lilley moved to Central Asia in 2004. During a three-year posting in Kyrgyzstan, he read the works of Chinghiz Aitmatov, slept in yurts, drank fermented mare’s milk, and hiked in the country’s beautiful mountains. Over the next ten years, he worked in the field of democracy and governance support in Washington, DC, and the Middle East, returning to Kyrgyzstan in 2016 to lead a British-funded parliamentary support program. Lilley is an author (with James R. Lilley) of China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage and Diplomacy and Have the Mountains Fallen? Two Journeys of Loss and Redemption in the Cold War.
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