Ardakh Nurgaz. Extinguishing the Empire’s Light

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Compared to darkness, our eyes have become accustomed to light, and if we are exposed to an excessive amount of light, we may even start perceiving darkness itself as 'light.' Throughout history, there have been significant events that shaped our journey. In 1932, some were shot as 'nationalists,' and in 1937, others were killed as 'enemies of the people.' The 1950s witnessed nuclear explosions being carried out in the open air on our land, and in 1986, the youth who gathered at the square were persecuted for 'mass disorder.' Despite these challenges, we are striving for a brighter future - one of communism. We wholeheartedly believed that we were representatives of a progressive and radiant society. Had we lacked this genuine belief, independence would have revealed the harsh reality of our past. Unfortunately, we were unable to recognize it. Even if we were to regain our senses now, we would still struggle to clearly distinguish the color of the imperial light shining from above.

The German writer Günter Grass, a laureate of the 1999 Nobel Prize, composed a poem titled "Poetry." In this poem, there are lines that go, "If you want to see the light clearly, try putting out the candle." Grass, as an intellectual from a nation that endured challenging times, including leading the First and Second World Wars and being misguided by supporting Hitler's policies, devoted more attention to exploring the other side of the problem than many others might.

In the absence of a mind inclined to consider the other side of a problem, blind one-sidedness prevails. Society becomes unfair, merciless, and shrouded in falsehoods. Throughout history, there were instances when the torch of empire was extinguished by the passage of time itself, and there were times when writers played a role in its demise. The candle of the former Soviet empire was extinguished on December 16, 1986. When the youth took to the streets, demanding the dissolution of the Soviet Union that had once spanned half the globe, time seemed indifferent. Time itself possesses certain characteristics that are not self-explanatory; yet, we always seek to understand it. In that critical moment, writers emerged from their surroundings and symbolically extinguished the lamp of the empire in the minds of the people.

Within the literature related to the Soviet Union, we find two groups of works that extinguished the light of the empire. The first group includes A. Solzhenitsyn's story "One Day of Ivan Denisovich," published in 1958, and the latter comprises Nurzhan Kuantayuly's novelistic work "Karaozek" (published by Kalamger publishing house in 2001), which we will discuss today. We can distinguish these two works by the timing of their publication. The earlier work was released during the existence of the empire, presenting unique advantages and limitations from a literary historical perspective. In contrast, the structure of the latter works differs significantly. They came into being after the fall of the empire but faced an even more challenging task compared to the earlier works, which contributed to the empire's downfall. The publication of "One Day of Ivan Denisovich" in 1958 indicated that a society based on injustice, malice, and falsehood was destined for destruction. The fall of the empire became inevitable. However, recognizing that society had the right to live was of immense significance. In 1993, during a speech at a university in the USA, the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, discussed "The Last Horrible Specter of Communism." The Russian poet I. Brodsky, residing in the USA, wrote an open letter to the Czech President in response, stating: "Communism is a manifestation of malice aimed at causing irreparable suffering to humanity. But we must not forget that Communism was not imposed on us by someone else; we adopted it ourselves. Therefore, to rid ourselves of this tyranny, we must first cleanse our minds, which have succumbed to vulgarity." At the time these words were spoken, the Soviet empire was disintegrating, and a new society was emerging in its place. It was at this point that the works of the second group, extinguishing the empire's torch, came to life. These works were unique in their fight not against the visual horrors like the earlier ones but against the disease that lies in the darkness of the human mind. As such, they were much more complex than their predecessors, a distinction that becomes apparent when comparing "One Day of Ivan Denisovich" with the novel "Karaozek." In "One Day of Ivan Denisovich," the writer focused on depicting the environment surrounding the protagonist, revealing the nature of the empire by exposing the existence of its hero. The concentration camp, where the day-to-day life of a political prisoner is observed with meticulous scrutiny akin to an insect under a microscope, unveiled the deceitful facade of the empire. On the other hand, the novel "Karaozek" delves into a far more intricate background - the point where the empire collapsed, yet the illusion of civilization began to take root again in a different form, refusing to dissipate.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first part narrates the six-year life of the main character, Khaqnazar, who was sentenced for his involvement in the "December Uprising." The second part details Khaqnazar's return to Almaty after being released, as he resumes his interrupted student life. In the third part, the novel delves into the storm of social and economic changes that swept through the country in the 1990s, portraying the life of a person ensnared in these changes, ultimately leading to the death of Khaqnazar. As we delve into the story, we find that the novel employs a unique writing style. The author believes in conveying specific thoughts that have been internalized, leaving no room for excessive or inadequate expression. Despite this, the three parts of the novel remain intricately interconnected, bound together by a single word chosen by the writer. Khaqnazar is depicted as a citizen who was present at the "December Uprising," but the author does not assert that he was an "active participant" in the uprising. Instead, Khaqnazar coincidentally found himself on the square where the uprising took place, leading to his conviction as a "criminal." Like countless others exiled for political reasons, and in resemblance to millions of ordinary people ensnared by the empire's punitive policies, Khaqnazar experiences fear, sadness, and suffering, but he refuses to lose himself. He holds on to a simple characteristic - his candidness, which fosters hope for a better tomorrow. The first part of the novel introduces two essential concepts: Khaknazar is not a heroic figure of the uprising, and he has no aspirations of becoming one. Throughout the novel, the question of what kind of person Khaqnazar truly is lingers in the reader's mind, even after finishing the first, second, and third parts. Only upon completing the entire work will one find the answer to this question. According to the writer, Khaqnazar symbolizes a Kazakh who lived before and after the Soviet empire, a time referred to as "the dark age" by the writer. In this image, the historical truth lies concealed. There are no lofty ideals or fervent political consciousness that some might expect to see in the Kazakhs of that era. Instead, Khaqnazar embodies the struggle to survive, living day by day with the bare necessities of life.

The novel "Karaozek" brims with sharp sarcasm and humor from beginning to end, although this sarcasm is not immediately noticeable. The writer skillfully veiled their inner feelings with this writing style, concealing any trace of emotion. The main character in the novel is named Khaqnazar, a name associated with the great khan - Khaqnazarkhan, who, in Kazakh history, died on the battlefield along with his twelve sons while defending the country. However, the Khaqnazar of our time, despite his participation in the December Uprising and connection to a historical event, does not embody the nobility of the Great Khaqnazar, who mourned for "my country." This highlights a significant contrast between spiritual greatness and the poverty-stricken reality that defines the nation's existence in this historical period. T. Eliot once said, "The loudest cry is not heard." In these lines, we seemingly hear the writer's soulful cry. Khaqnazar, having spent his dearest years behind bars, finds himself confronted by none other than his former student-friend, who once betrayed him with eyes wide open, and now becomes his close partner in the new society. The novel's fate remains uncertain, but according to known sources, there has been no change in Khaqnazar's life. Regardless of how much time has passed, those who have clung to their dominant positions in life have prevailed and continued to exert power over people like Khaqnazar. As the novel nears its end, the events of yesterday are destined to repeat from a different perspective, and this time, the same people's inflamed anger will lead to the untimely demise of the main character...

Even though the empire has fallen, the forces that once supported it have not disappeared; they continue to exist in their ordinary lives. These forces belong to the writers within our minds.

I would not categorize "Karaozek" as a novel written about the "December Uprising." Interestingly, the aforementioned G. Grass is also connected to the "December Uprising." It is known that some European politicians and intellectuals once wrote to Gorbachev, appealing not to sentence Kairat Ryskulbekov to death. If I am not mistaken, among the 45 people who signed that letter, the name of the German writer G. Grass is present. This connection between G. Grass and Nurzhan Kuantayuly regarding the "December Uprising" appears mysterious to me. I would interpret it as "the desire to attempt to extinguish the light of the empire.

In the 1990s, a new direction started to emerge in Kazakh prose, revitalizing traditional realism. Nurzhan Kuantayuly stands as a representative of this generation - a writer who inherited the profound traditions of Kazakh prose and decisively forged his own path from the very beginning. 

 (Qazaq Adebieti, 11.05.2009)

Translated by Ardakh Bayan

Ардақ Нұрғазыұлы: Империяның шырағын сөндіру 

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