Talasbek Asemkulov: Талтус (Полдень) (A Life at Noon)
This is an autobiographical novel by a man who is best known in Kazakhstan for his music. He has helped to revive and sustain the traditional of playing küy on the dombra. You can hear samples of the author’s playing here and here.
The book tells of his life. We first meet him as a young boy when his mother, Kulbagila, is quite cruel to him. When his father, Sabyt, hears of this, he beats up his wife and throws her out. This is not the last time we will see his father’s violent behaviour. Azhigerei, our hero/narrator, and Sabyt initially struggle to cope with domestic chores but do manage.
Kulbagila will return with her father and is accepted back. She is far nicer to both her husband and son. Sabyt has other children and one day, his daughter, Kalima, comes to visit from Tansyq, where she lives and where Asemkulov was born. She and her husband are struggling and want advice from Sabyt. He tells her a house is soon going to be available in the village and invites them back.
Baymukhan, Kalima’s husband, and Sabyt work on the house but Baymukhan loses his temper and beats up Kalima. In return, Sabyt badly beats him up and he has to go to hospital. The local headman comes around and threatens Sabyt with exile to Siberia. Sabyt had previously spent a long time in prison so he is not scared.
We learn Sabyt’s back story, which involves opposition to the Soviets, who could be brutally cruel to the Kazakhs. He has a series of adventures, before he is caught and sent to prison for twenty-two years. When he returns many of his friends are dead, often in prison.
Violence seems to be common as Azhigerei and his friends beat up some other local children. We learn of Sabyt’s past and the past of others, particularly during the war, where he and his comrades see various horrors, and not only by the Germans. Indeed, Sabyt tells how he killed a Russian who had tried to kill him, and gives us a detailed description of the fight.
While the Ukrainian famine is generally well known, the Kazakh famine is not but the people suffered terribly and there are people who remember it and describe it.
We also learn of the cruelty of the NKVD who were particularly active in Kazakhstan, trying to repress anything they saw as anti-Soviet. Sabyt suffered twenty-two years in a camp and has some gruesome tales to tell of that experience, including his killing of a cruel boss.
However, it is not all violence. Family and friendship are very important and much of the story revolves around their aul. Azhigerei is very attached to the family and says, when his cousin leaves, You act just like a big sister. And then one day you turn into somebody’s wife and you leave!
However, music is particularly important and we learn about Azhigerei’s tentative steps to learn a musical instrument and also the experience of others, both in playing (and singing) and making musical instruments. He [Azhigerei] had already learned that the secret of words was not in their meanings, but in their sounds, their melodies. We follow his musical story, which, perhaps not surprisingly, is linked to his romantic life. We see how he first learns to play, how he sees instruments being made, his early success and his increasing love for the musical culture of his people.
This is a wonderfully well-told tale about a culture that most of us will know little or nothing about. However, it is also a Bildungsroman, telling the tale of how a boy finds his path in life, while at the same time learning of the horrors that his parents’ generation suffered under the Soviets, all against the background of a culture under threat. Asemkulov is clearly not only a talented musician but also a talented writer. We should be most grateful to Slavica and translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega for giving us this fine work.
First published 2003 by Soros-Kazakhstan Foundation
First published in English in 2019 by Slavica
Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega