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Mukhtar Auezov: Абай жолы (Abai)

For Kazakhs, Abai is Abai Qunanbaiuli, their great national poet. Auezov’s novel is a fictionalised telling of Abai’s life, in which the poetry certainly appears but, as critics have pointed out, it is as much about Kazakh culture and heritage as about Abai’s poetry. Note that there are various ways of spelling his name and other Kazakh names, as the Wikipedia link above shows but I shall follow the old-fashioned way used in the English-language version of this book (see link to text below). In the book he is known as Abai Kunanbaev and his father as Kunanbai.

The novel starts with Abai returning as a boy from a madrasa (Islamic school) to the family aul (a nomadic community). The tribe to which he and his family belong was, as were all the others in the region, nomadic, moving their animals between winter and summer quarters. Auezov already sets the scene with an indication of the boy’s character. He rides on ahead, even though warned by his fellow travellers of the dangers of bandits. He even tricks one of his fellow travellers by pretending to be a bandit. But things change when he gets back to the aul. His father, Kunanbai, is leader of a group of tribes and respected by many. But he is also tough and ruthless. He is harsh with Abai, wanting him to grow up to be as strong and fearless as he is but we soon learn that Abai has far more sensitivity than his father. Kodar, a tribesman from a tribe related to Kunanbai’s, has lost his son, Kutzhan. He is in deep mourning for Kutzhan and lives a solitary life with his daughter-in-law, Kamka. However, there are now rumours, six months after Kutzhan’s death, that Kodar is having a sexual relationship with Kamka. This, of course, is completely unacceptable under sharia law. Kodar and Kamka are arrested and dragged before Kunanbai, who immediately condemns them, giving them scarcely a chance to defend themselves and sentences them to be hanged. The sentence is carried out almost immediately. We know that the rumours are untrue. Abai is horrified at his father’s ruthlessness. Indeed, the whole business makes him very ill. He is even more horrified when he learns that this is really just a plan to gain some winter grazing land and start up a fight with a neighbouring and related tribe.

There has been a fluid agreement who has which winter grazing lands in the past but Kunanbai now decides to seize the best ones from a weaker neighbouring tribe, which he does. Indeed, he deliberately provokes a fight with the tribe and its allies, which he is able to win because of his far stronger forces. This dispute will continue for much of the first book and into the second, with complicated ramifications, alliances made and broken, the intervention of the Russians and a lot of violence. Abai, meanwhile, is growing up. His father has long since arranged a marriage for him with Dilda, daughter of man with whom he wants to make an alliance. Abai is not very enthusiastic about this proposed marriage, particularly when he meets and falls for Togzhan. However, he will have no choice and eventually marries Dilda. They get on but there is no closeness between the two. Abai feels no great warmth towards his first two children, though he is closer to his third. When he meets Aigerim, a woman who reminds him of Togzhan, he takes her as a wife. As well as his love life, we have also been following his growing maturity. He gradually gets involved in his father’s affairs and acts as a compromiser, trying to keep his father’s ruthlessness under control and suggesting alliances rather than enmity. Indeed, we see this on several occasions and he gains the respect of both friend and foe.

However, Abai is known a a poet and we get glimpses of this fairly early one, as he writes poems and songs. When he has a chance to gain some political power, he declines it and prefers study. Indeed, after his marriage, he takes up formal study, learning first Uzbek and then Russian, a language he struggles with. His knowledge of Russian proves useful in dealing with the Russians. Initially, his studies deal with Islamic matters but when he starts adding Pushkin he realises that there is a lot of worthwhile non-Islamic material and, to the disgust of his Islamic teachers, starts to read other Russian authors. However, he is still a leading man in his tribe and defends his people, even briefly ending up in a Russian prison for stopping what he sees as Russian brutality. As he grows older, he will continue writing, continuing improving relations between the Kazakhs and the Russians and continue making wise judgements as regards his people.

As I said in the first paragraph, this book is, to a great extent, about Kazakh culture and heritage, and how the customs of the people are changing, with more contact with Russians. Abai is happy to adapt to new ways and we see an example of this, regarding his decision on the proposed marriage of a young woman. Indeed, as a primer of late nineteenth century/early twentieth century Kazakh customs, this is an excellent place to start. But it also shows the development of Abai, from a young, somewhat brash young man to a wise elder statesman, at heart a poet but a man always there to help his people with their problems and tells this story very well.

Publishing history

First published 1945-47 by Qazaqtïng Birikken Memleket Baspasï
First published in English by Foreign Languages Publishing House in 1950
Translated by Lev Navrozov