Sunday, October 12, 2014

"The white ship" by Tchinguiz Aïtmatov

Issyk Kul lake

I have been so enthralled by Tchinguiz Aïtmatov’s novel “The white ship” ( 1970 ), that I gobbled it  up in one single nocturnal reading. Incredible that it looks like I am the only one in the Librarything world who seems to own a book by this master story teller.

Born to a Kyrgyz father and Tatar mother, Aïtmatov was one of the most prominent writers during the last years of the USSR. Celebrated all through the Russian – speaking world and a national icon in his own Kyrgyzstan, the novelist assumed in the last years of his life the responsibilities of a high – level diplomat where he was both advisor and friend of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Unlike the 20th century Russian writers who did become famous in the West, Aîtmatov never wrote openly against the system and he was branded by the West as a “communist” writer. Aîtmatov, who was orphaned at the age of 10 when he lost his father ( a civil servant ) in ’38 during the Stalinist purges, preferred to stick to “safer” themes when writing : the defense of local Asian populations against the encroaching Soviet mass – culture, an early advocate of wildlife protection and a defender of the weak against the new party- bullies running the Kolkhozes.

These three themes are intertwined in “The white ship”. It is a beautiful but very sad book and Aîtmatov’s descriptions shows he is a kind, sensitive and responsible writer.

The story brings us to the remote fringe of the Soviet state in the years just after the second world war. We are introduced to a small community of 8 people, all kin, from the Bagu tribe. They live high up in the Kyrgyz’ mountains and are the keepers of the surrounding protected forest.

The main character is a unnamed young boy, seven or eight years old. The kid, the only child in the tiny village, fills up his loneliness with stories and innocent fantasies. He has been abandoned by his parents, who fled to the city for a better life and is raised by a gentle grandfather, his second wife and two other childless families. Their lives are primitive and the small community is very poor. The only extra income that can be gained is when the violent Uncle Orozkoul illegally sells cut –down trees from the forests.

Soon enough we realize that the fantasy world in which the boy flees, not only fills his loneliness but also protects him from a terrible scary world of domestic abuse and violence. Two fantasies in particular order the child’s chaotic world and soften the emotional blows : one where the boy imagines himself a fish swimming down the raging mountain river not far from his house all the way down the mountain towards the giant lake Issyk Kul, on which a white boat sails and his father ( he imagines ) is a sailor. The other story, is the legend of the Mother Maral deer, the legendary ancestor of the Bagu people. The young boy has never seen one of those magnificent ruminants. They have all been slaughtered and exterminated by Soviet hunters.

His grandfather often tells him that these Marals are the true ancestors of the Bagu people, and hence the imaginary parents of the child.

Then comes a day, that a tree-selling scheme gone awry coincides with a spotting of three Maral – deer close to the village.

A beautiful book but the most heart-breaking rendering of a child’s vulnerability I ever read.