The Writer's Path
In the autumn of 1937, when he was eight years old, Chingiz Aitmatov boarded a train at Moscow's Kazan Station with his mother, younger brother and two younger sisters. His father came to see them off.
“Why are we leaving?” Chingiz wondered. He couldn’t figure out why his father was suddenly sending them all back home to Kyrgyzstan. His father, a respected figure in his community, was a leader in the newly formed Kyrgyz Communist Party. He had come to Moscow with his family to study.
But the Stalinist purges, which are said to have claimed the lives of tens of millions, had begun. Sensing danger, his father was determined to ensure the family’s safety.
Young Aitmatov’s father walked alongside the train with his palm pressed against the window as it began to pull out. As it gathered speed, he started running and continued in stride with the train, right to the end of the platform, as if to prolong his farewell to the last possible moment. His children innocently waved good-bye to him, unaware of the significance of the moment. Aitmatov remembers that the day was September 1. He recalls it every time he passes Kazan Station. “Father, you knew that was our final farewell . . .”
Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful land, with vast grasslands and the Tien Shan Mountains ranging high into the clear blue skies. It is blessed with crystal streams, azure lakes shimmering with silver waves; its green hills are blanketed with poplars, and the night skies glow with countless stars.
In the midst of all this natural beauty, in the remote village that was their home, the Aitmatov family had to live as virtual outcasts.
When Chingiz’s mother asked the Party what had become of her husband, she was told he was sentenced to ten years in prison without permission to write or receive letters. That, of course, was a lie. He had already been executed, just two months after their farewell at the station. He was only 35.
When the family returned to Kyrgyzstan, the youngest child was only six months old. Though their mother was in poor health, she had to shoulder the full weight of caring for her family. She raised her children while working as an accountant for one of the local collective farms. Chingiz Aitmatov worked in the fields from the time he was a child.
The neighbors cast a cold eye on the family, who didn’t even dare speak their father’s name out loud. Many villagers assumed that since their father was being punished he must have done something bad. There were times when the young Aitmatov didn’t even want to tell people his last name.
But there were some in the village who did not allow their vision to be clouded by the swirl of events. One was an elementary school teacher who said to Chingiz: “Never look down when you say your father’s name. Do you understand?” These words became a lifelong treasure to him.
“That teacher gave me courage,” Aitmatov says.
I first met Mr. Aitmatov in Tokyo in 1988, when he was traveling the world as a spokesperson for the perestroika reforms of President Mikhail Gorbachev. Later he became a member of the Soviet Presidential Council, where he was a supporter of the humanistic political philosophy known as “new thinking.” The moment I shook hands with him, I intuitively felt that he was a man of lion-like courage. His countenance revealed a dauntless spirit. He exuded an air of great strength, passion and sensitivity.
Chingiz Aitmatov was born in December 1928, the same year as myself. “Our generation,” he says, “experienced war when we were young. We have seen what terrible suffering war causes and the starvation and grief war brings. We have also seen how people rise from the ashes of destruction in search of the light of a new age.”
When World War II began, all the able-bodied men in Aitmatov’s village went off to fight. Only the elderly, women and children remained. The Aitmatovs’ life grew even more difficult. They lived in a dilapidated mud-brick shack that had been abandoned.
Struggling against poor health, Mrs. Aitmatov was unable to send all four children to school, so Chingiz had to quit school at 14. But because he excelled in reading and writing, he was chosen to be secretary of the village council. In this capacity, he had to collect taxes from the villagers. This was a truly onerous task for a 14-year-old, as many of the families had lost their main breadwinners and didn’t have enough to eat.
But the job he hated most was delivering the official death notices to the families of soldiers killed in action. When he appeared at the homes of those who had loved ones at the front, they would peer at him with frightened, anxious faces. He would take out of his bag a small piece of paper roughly the size of the palm of his hand bearing the seal of the Soviet army. He had to read out the brief message and then translate it into Kyrgyz.
The mothers would give a heavy sigh that he said sounded like “a mountain of stone collapsing.” A sigh that was filled with a rush of unbearable sorrow as if to say: “Ah, my son will never return! I will never embrace him again . . . That my son should be reduced to this piece of paper!” The young Aitmatov dared not look up but he could not leave. He had no words of comfort to offer them. All he could do was stand there in front of the grieving mother, while an unquenchable anger rose in his heart. Why, he needed to know, were people killing each other? For whom? Are nations nothing more than furnaces that consume people as fuel? And what force had consumed and robbed him of his father?
Since that first encounter, we have met many times. Over the course of wide-ranging discussions, we have found we agree on many issues: The enemy of the people is totalitarianism, whether of the left or right. It is blind and narrow-minded nationalism. It is bureaucracy and authoritarianism. It is the unscrupulous commercialism that will do anything to turn a profit. It is every variety of fanaticism.
Suffering gave strength, depth and breadth to the boy’s spirit. “When I was very young, I saw life from a bright, poetic perspective,” says Aitmatov. “But then it revealed its harsh, raw, painful and heroic aspects to me.”
Now, no matter what grand surroundings he finds himself in, Aitmatov never forgets where he came from. He never forgets the profound debt he owes to the working people who made him who he is.
He believes that in some respects we should all remain “country folk” at heart. We should never lose the smell of the earth, he says, for it is in that very earth that the delicate blossoms of the spirit bloom.
From childhood, his paternal grandmother told him the ancient tales and legends of the people of the steppes and sang to him the old folk songs. When he grew older, he looked for answers to his questions about life in the works of great writers. At the age of 27, he entered the Institute of Literature, attached to the Soviet Writers Federation in Moscow.
Published when he was 29, his novella Jamilya came to the attention of the French author Louis Aragon, who praised it as “the most beautiful love story in the world.”
“The responsibility of a writer,” Chingiz Aitmatov states, “is to bring forth words that capture, through painful personal experience, people’s suffering, pain, faith and hope. This is because a writer is charged with the mission of speaking on behalf of his fellow human beings. Everything that happens in the world happens to me personally.”
Aitmatov knew nothing of his father’s fate for decades. When his mother died, some 30 years after they had said farewell to his father at the station, Aitmatov had her tombstone engraved to say that they both rested there.
Then, twenty years later, his father’s remains were discovered.
A mass grave containing 138 bodies, identified as victims executed by Stalin in 1937, was uncovered on the site of a former brick factory in Kyrgyzstan. Because of the passage of time, the victim’s clothes and shoes had completely disintegrated. But among the remains a piece of paper pierced with a bullet hole was found. It was a written indictment on which the name Trekul Aitmatov was clearly legible. After 54 years, Chingiz Aitmatov was finally reunited with his father.
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