I received Jamila, Chingiz Aitmatov’s celebrated love story, in the mail the day I heard he died. He had entered a hospital in Germany in serious condition in mid-May before I left Bishkek. I worked with his daughter, Shirin, and the reports of his hospitalization swept through American University. Many people seeking inspiration for a Kyrgyz national identity, especially after independence, looked to Aitmatov. “His novels often interwove popular myths and folktales to create allegorical themes populated with down-to-earth characters,” reported Reuters.
I had read The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, The Place of the Skull and The White Ship, all available in English and the last of which is geared toward older children. What I am most struck by in reading Aitmatov is the degree to which he makes animals central characters. The wolf families in Place of the Skull and the nasty dispositioned camel in The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years are as fully developed and as memorable as any of the human characters and no doubt reflect the day-to-day interaction among humans and animals, domesticated and wild, in the traditionally nomadic cultures of Kyrgyz and other Central Asian peoples.
In developing my summer reading list, I reviewed the Art and Literature of Central Asia syllabus developed by Shirin and Valeri Hardin, a hiking partner who also teaches U.S. literature and theater. The syllabus included Soul by Andrey Platonov and The Railway by Hamid Ismailov, which are situated in what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, respectively. For films, they showed their students The Story of the Weeping Camel from Mongolia, Luna Papa from Uzbekistan, the recent adaptation of the Afghan novel The Kite Runner, and some of the works of Kyrgyz-born director Aktan Abdykalykov (e.g., The Chimp, The Adopted Son, Bus Stop and Where’s Your Home, Snail?).