Aitmatov Deserved a Nobel


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My father and I spent the long Russia Day holiday weekend at our dacha, where we reminisced about Chingiz Aitmatov, the great writer who died last week and was buried on Saturday in Bishkek.

My father became friends with Aitmatov back in the early 1960s, and he recalled many dramatic, touching and curious moments from that friendship.

In 1970, my father -- who was then the editor-in-chief of Komsomolskaya Pravda -- wrote a review of "The White Steamship," possibly Aitmatov's best work. My father had wanted to run the review on the same day the work was published, but since Aitmatov's novel did not fit in at all with the canon of Soviet socialist realism, the review was rejected by the first secretary of the Komsomol's Central Committee.

Not long after "The White Steamship" was published, Aitmatov and my father found themselves in the Komsomol first secretary's office. Aitmatov began the conversation by saying, "Oh, I see you have passages from the Koran!" and pointing to the Arabic words woven into the secretary's decorative carpet, probably a gift from a Communist youth organization in a Middle East country. After the first secretary realized that he could have been pinned with "ideological sedition" for the religious passages in the carpet, he became very concerned and quickly gave permission for my father's review to be published. The review's publication in one of the country's leading papers meant that "The White Steamship" acquired official state recognition and approval. This, in turn, opened up new possibilities for other writers like Aitmatov.

My father and I discussed how illogical and absurd life was back then. We also discussed how arbitrary the distinction was between a person who was given official recognition and the person who was stigmatized as a political dissident. And we were surprised to note how many first-rate writers, poets, playwrights, film directors and artists could be found in the former Soviet republics at that time, despite the absurd political system.

The period from the 1960s to the 1980s were years marked by political stagnation, but it also turned out to be the golden age for those republics. It was a period that defined their national cultures. Strangely enough, the subsequent 17 years of freedom since the collapse of the Soviet Union have not produced anything even remotely comparable in quality to the works of Kyrgyzstan's Aitmatov, Russia's Vasily Shukshin and Fyodor Abramov, Lithuania's Juozas Baltusis, Georgia's Chabua Amirejibi, Kazakhstan's Abdizhamil Nurpeisov and Abish Kekilbayev, or Belarus' Vasily Bykov, to name only a few.

My father and I discussed how sad it was that Aitmatov had not been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. And we regretted this not so much for Aitmatov's sake, but for the Islamic world into which he was born and which shaped his cultural heritage. One of the possible reasons for Islam's radicalization has been the need to define itself and to reconcile its great past with the fact that it lags behind Western civilization. Any recognition the West gives to the Islamic society's contribution to world culture increases its sense of self-respect and dignity.

For the people in the secularized Islamic former Soviet republics of Central Asia who are searching for their identity while feeling pressure from radical Islam, international recognition such as the Nobel Prize would be extremely important. And if Aitmatov received such a prestigious award, it would have been justly earned in its own right and by no means be construed as a patronizing or politically correct gesture by Western institutions.

But it is not too late to take positive action. In Kazakhstan, for example, Nurpeisov continues to create fine works of literature. If Western countries give him, and others like him, due recognition, they would do the world a great service.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.