Kazakh Künstlerroman: Talasbek Asemkulov’s “A Life at Noon,” translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

By Katherine E. Young

Talasbek Asemkulov’s A Life at Noon, translated into English by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, is an artistically risky enterprise. Billed as the first post-Soviet novel from Kazakhstan to appear in English, A Life at Noon is a lightly fictionalized autobiography of one of Kazakhstan’s leading artists. Author Talasbek Asemkulov (1955-2014) was known as an accomplished author, screenwriter, and literary critic, but he was revered as a scholar, performer, and master craftsman of the stringed dombyra, Kazakhstan’s national instrument. In addition to its main dramatic arc, Asemkulov’s novel offers considerable insight into Kazakh musical traditions, the heartbeat and de facto repository of Kazakh history and culture. Using the medium of the novel to explore aspects of Kazakh musical history—a tradition that was conveyed orally from performer to performer until the Soviet-era repression of Kazakh artists—Asemkulov tests the conventions of both art forms to preserve and extend a cultural legacy that was nearly annihilated by the Soviets.

Set in the 1960s, A Life at Noon falls into three main thematic sections: a domestic drama that involves a family secret; an interlude of storytelling and song that explores the musical traditions of Kazakh culture; and the coming-of-age tale of a musical master-in-training. Any one of these themes would be more than enough for a first novel, but Asemkulov is concerned with much more than the merely personal. A Life at Noon also explores the bitter legacy of Russian and Soviet empire for traditionally nomadic, equestrian, Muslim Kazakh culture. In the introduction to the Russian translation of A Life at Noon (included by Fairweather-Vega in her English translation), Asemkulov’s widow, the writer Zira Naurzbayeva, notes in passing that two man-made famines between 1919 and 1932, both the result of Soviet policy, ended in the death of between one-third and one-half of all Kazakh people. The collective trauma caused by Soviet indifference to the history, traditions, and culture of the Kazakh people, let alone their lives, undergirds Asemkulov’s story.

The first lines of the novel, told from a little boy’s perspective, set the tone: “He had no way of knowing what a happy childhood was. He could no longer remember whether he had even had a childhood. His life had been lived, and that was it. There had been more bitter than sweet in it, more regrets and sorrow than joys” (3). Immediately thereafter, the sensitive young protagonist and budding musician Azhigerei, himself traumatized by physical abuse and mental cruelty, witnesses a shocking act of domestic violence. Violence between spouses, between parents and children, among children, and across all layers of society echoes throughout the novel. The males of the extended family regularly disappear into the Red Army, where they experience the nearly unimaginable brutality of the Second World War, and also into Soviet prison camps, where only the lucky survive long enough to return home. Towards the end of the novel, Azhigerei’s father figure, the master musician Sabyt, describes returning to Kazakhstan after several decades spent in the Soviet penal system:

I wanted to see my musician friends I hadn’t seen for over thirty years. I couldn’t find any of them. Some had been executed. Some had died in prison, most had died from hunger. It turned out those bowls of prison swill had saved my life. Before, every second person you met in Karkaraly had been a singer, and every third man played the dombyra. Everyone played Tattimbet’s kuys. Now, it was as if none of that had ever happened.  Karkaraly held nothing for me, and I left that evening. I put my horse in full gallop and I tore open the shirt on my chest. I screamed and I sobbed. And suddenly, the souls of departed kuyishis [music masters] surrounded me. They consoled me and led my horse by the halter.

I don’t remember reaching Aykyz. When I woke up, I was in the aul. I realized that I would die that way, with nobody to teach, that everything would disappear with me. (194)

Disturbing though many events of the novel are, Naurzbayeva notes that “the material for the book was carefully curated. The most tragic moments in the lives of the prototypical protagonists have been played down or discarded…to avoid distracting the reader’s attention from the main topic: the music” (ix).

While A Life at Noon ably tells the story of Azhigerei, its main topic is indeed the music, a much more difficult subject for a novel. Asemkulov works to both commemorate and resurrect Kazakh musical tradition, a tradition imperiled by Soviet persecution of artists and by directives to create scripted musical ensembles from what had been an individual, oral tradition. In one particularly moving sequence, Asemkulov describes Sabyt’s use of a single musical motif, just a few sounds, to reconstruct a lost kuy (musical composition) for the dombyra:

Sabyt spent entire days playing on the shortened dombyra. As he listened, Azhigerei realized that he was playing randomly, just guessing. His father had suddenly taken up the habit of plucking the strings any which way as if he were purposefully mocking the dombyra. Once in a while, some sort of tune burst out of this senseless jumble. His father would pursue it, and then lose it again, and go back to his senseless meandering. Sometimes, he put the dombyra away and began to hum. He would play a kuy with his mouth, sometimes frowning in effort. Those were his impressions of the first few days. Gradually, Azhigerei began to make out the pattern of a kuy that was uniquely beautiful, and sweet and playful as a young girl. (160)

In her introduction to A Life at Noon, Naurzbayeva notes that Asemkulov is credited with restoring some fifty-seven forgotten kuys to the Kazakh people, at least one dating back to the thirteenth century; surely, this passage is as revealing a description as we are likely to get of his methods. Indeed, A Life at Noon is filled with a master’s observations on music making, including discussions of fingering and strumming techniques, the relative merits of gut versus factory-produced strings, and the proper degree of improvisation in playing a kuy, to name just a few. When combined with the need to propel the novel’s narrative, Asemkulov’s obvious desire to teach can sometimes make for choppy prose, as in the final sentences of the passage quoted above. However, the overall effect is often lyrical, as in this description of one of Sabyt’s performances:

Sabyt began a new kuy, touching the strings with his fingertips, strumming them in the other direction, bottom to top. The two strings seemed to be speaking passionately to each other in turn. Then, the kuy moved down into the lower part of the neck and sang with inconsolable sorrow. That grief moved deeper, then dissipated, then pressed on the heart again, and moved you to exhaustion. Then, the two voices returned to the Orphan Fret. The smooth melody moved from the lower string to the upper string and back again, as if the man and the woman were gently consoling one another. For the first time, Azhigerei saw how a sad kuy, pushed to the limit, could turn into something demonic, escape the dombyra, and live its own life. (132)

Naurzbayeva remarks in her introduction that she had proposed to her husband that they work together to translate his novel into Russian: “But he objected that the novel was ‘too Kazakh’ and it would have to be written all over again in order to appear in Russian” (ix). As the book’s author believed his work to be “too Kazakh” to translate easily into Russian, a language and culture with which there are many shared points of historical reference, what are we to make of Shelley Fairweather-Vega’s task in bringing the book into English? It bears repeating that A Life at Noon is Asemkulov’s first novel and that his writing sometimes betrays inexperience. For example, the dialog among Asemkulov’s characters often includes exposition that might be better handled in other ways; it can also be somewhat disjointed and hard to follow. Character development, particularly among female characters, can be haphazard; many of the women with whom Azhigerei interacts behave in utterly baffling ways, more baffling than one might expect even when filtered through the viewpoint of an inexperienced young man. On the other hand, Asemkulov’s descriptions of the natural world of Kazakhstan, including his reverence for horses (almost all the horses in the book are named characters), are profoundly moving and make up some of the most beautiful passages in the novel.

In a translator’s note that follows the novel, Fairweather-Vega writes that she used both Naurzbayeva’s Russian-language translation of the novel and the Kazakh original to produce her English version. Among many other translation decisions, Fairweather-Vega chooses to highlight the Kazakh cultural roots of Asemkulov’s text by transcribing rather than translating many terms specific to Kazakh culture; a glossary would come in handy for readers not patient enough to wait for the meanings of these terms to become clear in context. Similarly, a list of dramatis personae would help readers not attuned to the nuances of Kazakh nicknames and honorifics. But these are quibbles. A Life at Noon offers an extraordinary window into a time, place, and art form utterly remote from the world of most English speakers. It bears witness to the resilience of art and the human spirit in the face of almost unspeakable horror.

Asemkulov, Talasbek. A Life at Noon. Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. Three String Books, 2019.

Katherine E. Young is the author of two full-length poetry collectionsWoman Drinking AbsintheDay of the Border Guards (2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist), and two chapbooks. She is the editor of Written in Arlington and curator of Spoken in Arlington. She is the translator of Look at Him by Anna Starobinets, Farewell, Aylis by Azerbaijani political prisoner Akram Aylisli, and two poetry collections by Inna Kabysh. Young’s translations of contemporary Russophone poetry and prose have won international awards and appear in Asymptote, LA Review of Books, Subtropics, and many others; several translations have been made into short films. Young was named a 2020 Arlington County (Virginia) Individual Artist Grant recipient, a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow, and a 2015 Hawthornden Fellow (Scotland). From 2016-2018, she served as the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, Virginia.

One comment

  1. Excellent review that made me want to read the book! Thank you Katherine E. Young!

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