Hearing Kazakhstan: Talasbek Asemkulov’s A Life at Noon and the words between the music5 min read

 In Central Asia, Review, Reviews
At one point in Talasbek Asemkuov’s semi-autobiographical novel A Life at Noon, Russian ethnographers visit the young protagonist Azhigerei and his father figure Sabyt to record the traditional Kazakh dombyra music. During the encounter, Azhigerei notices that the Russians were “recording only the actual kuys [songs], skipping over the stories Sabyt told about them. The woman kept turning off the recording when his father was talking”.

The encounter is remarkable for showing the Russians’ transition from persecution to preservation of Kazakh traditional culture. But, as Azhigerei notices, the Russians still miss the point: the music is about much more than the notes, it is about the feelings, stories, and histories conveyed within them. In A Life at Noon, Asemkulov seeks to address this oversight and fill in the gaps between the kuys.

The novel is a coming-of-age story of Azhigerai as he learns the art of the dombyra – a central Asian musical instrument western audiences may relate to the guitar – against the backdrop of a nation in transition. The 1960s brought a period of relative liberalisation and a raft of changes. Through the novel, we learn of changing Kazakh culinary habits (eating fish, that Sabyt previously considered a ‘barbarian’ Russian habit); the switch from kerosene-lighting to electricity; and new technology such as trucks and music recorders to name but a few. But perhaps the best description of change comes from Sabyt, who notes dryly, ‘when I was young, the aul [village] council took away out livestock, arrested women and children, and shot the rest of us. Today, the council just sends people to Siberia’.

The frequently-violent events in 20th-century Soviet history – the Civil War, famines, purges and the Second World War – all cast a long shadow over the events in the novel. Leaving aside the wars, collectivisation is of most significance to A Life at Noon: The forced settling of the previously nomadic Kazakh people led to the dislocation of the oral tradition through which Kazakh dombyra music and culture passed. It is in this context that Azhigerei learns the dombyra; he is not only a student of the instrument but a conduit for an endangered part of Kazakh culture.

Collectivisation also had more macabre impacts. It led to the Asharshylyk  – the famine of 1932 now commemorated annually on May 31 – which led to the highest percentage of deaths in any Soviet Republic and the exodus of around one million people to China. The famine and its ghosts are particularly relevant to the relationship between Sabyt and Azhigerei (as we find out in the dénouement) and lead both characters to question their beliefs in God. The question goes unanswered, but, reflecting on his time in a Siberian camp, Sabyt offers an explanation as to how the nation preserved itself, “it was singing the kuys that kept me sane during those twenty-five years in prison.”

This backdrop of a nation at once in transition and reckoning with its past renders A Life at Noon is hugely interesting to readers unfamiliar with Kazakh history and culture. Nonetheless, the literary rendition suffers at times from a lack of consistency. The novel begins with Azhegierei claiming “he had no way of knowing what a happy childhood was” due to his mother’s sternness. The opening and ending sections briefly explore Azhigerei’s relationships with women: his mother figure Kulbagila then his love-interest and fellow dombyra player, Gulshat. These represent hugely interesting subplots in themselves, which could have been picked up to disclose the role of women in Kazakh society. Nonetheless, they are absent from the main thrust of the novel. Similarly, the question of how belief can be maintained in the context of such injustice is dealt with only sporadically, meaning that the internal journey to Sabyt’s final words – where he expresses his restored belief – is not clear. 

Instead, the novel’s focus on the father figure Sabyt means Asemkulov portrays Kazakh society through a distinctly male gaze. It is through Sabyt, his music and his stories that Azhigerei learns the dombyra and Kazakh culture. Asemkulov’s writing reveals a passion and respect for culture umbilically linked to the father figure. So that, in the light of its semi-autobiographical nature and the introduction by Asemkulov’s wife Zira Naurzbayeva, the novel reads like a love letter to the author’s father. Nonetheless, it is problematic that culture in Asemkulov’s work is solely represented by the authoritative male jigit [horserider]. That this representation leads to the exclusion of women as a focal point is unfortunate; that the novel’s opening portrays the father nearly beating the mother to death for telling Azhigerei off as a warranted act of justice is less palatable.

In any case, A Life at Noon is particularly successful in conveying Asemkulov’s passion for Kazakh culture. The translated text, while not the most flowing, shows great dedication in its rendering of everything from Kazakh cuisine and music to smithery, further underscoring the richness of the text for readers knew to Kazakh culture (I found the manner of address between characters as ‘my light’ particularly charming). In spite of its weaknesses, the author’s passion for music and culture is enough for the novel to deliver a fascinating portrait of Kazak culture and a definitive record of the words between the music. 

Book details: Asemkulov, Talasbek. A Life at Noon, Three String Books, 2019. It is available to buy here.

Featured image: Talasbek Asemkulov / Amazon
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