Munabiya and Shahidka
by Kazat Akmatov
Kazat Akmatov’s latest publication in English was presented by Laura Hamilton, editor of its translation from Russian. The book contains two novellas: Munabiya and Shahidka, originally published in Bishkek in 1987 and 2010 respectively. Following the Thirteen Steps towards the Fate of Erika Klaus, it offers English speakers another and much welcomed opportunity to access the literature of one of Kyrgyzstan’s greatest living writers.
Here are two highly emotive and beautifully woven stories, in which the landscape, culture and political climate of Kyrgyzstan play an integral role. Far from romanticising life in this far -off land, the author exposes us to communities constantly dealing with hardship, brutality and corruption, delivered by both the harsh physical environment and the inhabitants themselves. Violence, abuse and murder are commonplace as people from different cultures, Kyrgyz, Russian and Chechen, and from different generations, struggle to maintain family values, traditions and political supremacy.
Fundamental to both stories however, and sensitively explored by the author, is something which affects people worldwide: the feelings of despair, sadness and confusion which arise when we can no longer predict or accept the actions or responses of people we thought we knew well.
Munabiya is the tale of a long term love affair between a jeweller and his mistress, set within a small, rural community where everyone is involved in each other’s lives. It describes the angst and frustration experienced by the sister of the jeweller’s late wife, and his son, as they are forced to come to terms with the situation. This is a harrowing story, narrated by the son who, having neglected his duties to his ageing and widowed father, has been summoned to take care of the old man.
In characteristic style, Akmatov, provides a colourful, almost anthropological, insight into the life and customs of a typical Kyrgyz village but nevertheless, the core of the family conflicts so skilfully described, remain universally recognisable and pertinent to all sectors of society.
Shahidka is a tragic and politically charged love story, set in a small Kyrgyz town inhabited by Kyrgyz, Russians and Chechens. Here, Akmatov’s craftsmanship in multi-layering descriptions of various incidents which contribute to the ultimate fates of the main characters can be compared to the construction of a shyrdak rug in which tradition dictates a rhythmic and interdependent arrangement of multiple patterns and colours to determine the final outcome.
The tale is told by a miller who is tormented by his unrequited love for a beautiful Russian employee. Betrothed from childhood to one brother, she marries another but disappears with her true love, a Chechen outsider, when a violent fight breaks out at her wedding .Subsequent events and flashbacks to past conversations and incidents gradually reveal that no-one, and especially the narrator, knew the true Svetlana; an intelligent, headstrong , romantic and ultimately, suicidal young woman Through a presentation of hypothetical circumstances and conflicting accounts of the relationship between the Russian and the Chechen, Akmatov, cleverly pulls the reader into the web of propaganda which surrounds the extreme and fatal action undertaken by the shahidka ; a practice which remains integral to the political instability in this region.
Despite its modest size, this is a rich and multi-dimensional publication which will demand to be read again and again.
Born in 1941 in the Kyrgyz Republic under the Soviet Union, Akmatov was active in the establishment of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan and determined to fight for basic human rights in oppressed countries, he uses his writing to continue highlighting problems faced by other central Asian countries.