Essential writing from Central Asia: part two


Claridge’s, a winter evening. Within, I am directed down a bright, pristine corridor. There are liveried staff everywhere: smiling helpfully, welcoming reverently, enquiring politely what my business is in this establishment. I tell them, and receive a court bow, indicating a room of wood panels and autumnal decor; high-ceiling, low lighting.

Little heaps of little black hardback books on tables; I take one; it brings to mind a gleaming ebony cigarette case from the Jazz Age. I Don’t Want To Lose Hope, by the late Nemat Kelimbetov, was first published in 1981. It is a short novel by the acclaimed translator, philologist, and Turkic specialist, in what I presume to be its first publication in English.

Trays of champagne glasses glide by; canapes glisten. A hush descends. The son of the award-winning writer will say a few words.

Kairat Kelimbetov was better known at the time as Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister. He says tonight is not so much a launch as an opportunity to introduce us to his father’s novel, and to ask for our thoughts and opinions. He has an immensely genteel delivery and manner; afterwards, I am introduced to him, and cannot remember a word of what was said other than that it was serenely courteous.

The novel opens with an orchard, a garden, and a family. It is the gallery, perfume, wardrobe, and lexicon of memory, magnified to sweeping technicolour, from a narrator confined to his bed due to illness; it is immensely autobiographical.

A marriage in detail: grains of sand become worlds. There is forgiveness, patience, wisdom, love and virtue, written with the profundity of those living their final hours – though it would be decades before his death in 2010. It is a story that finds an absolute clarity of humanity, with every word weighed and balanced, and expertly translated.

In three days I finished it, due less to any brevity than my refusal to do much else at home, on the train, or in a chilly square outside the office.

I Don’t Want To Lose Hope is essential reading, but is sadly unavailable. In another life, it would be proclaimed a masterpiece by America’s most celebrated television presenter, with sales in the millions, and a film in production.

A few weeks later we arrive at Almaty International Airport, in Kazakhstan, after an all-night flight. It is November, and snow will remain underfoot until well into next year. A meeting at the Kazakh Academy of Sport and Tourism; chattering student crowds criss-cross the campus to classes under a sky of greying white.

Professor Kairat Zakiryanov, the academy’s rector, and my employer are engaged in discussion in Russian too swift for me to follow. His office is wide and spacious in burnt ochre, with books, awards and certificates on shelves, walls and tables. An accomplished mathematician and educational scientist, the professor has written a study of language which we are to publish.

Under The Wolf’s Nest: A Turkic Rhapsody makes you ask questions of words. I must declare an interest at this point: several years ago a friend returned from Mongolia and showed me a photo of an eagle used for hunting, named Sargoz because of its yellow-looking eyes. I found this fascinating, because five thousand miles west, in Turkey, sarı and göz mean yellow and eye. How, and why? Nomads of the steppe.

Professor Zakiryanov has discovered that corridor of language, from the edge of Europe through Central Asia and into China, has extended throughout much of the world, drawing on sources from Herodotus through to modern Russian and Kazakh research. He returns to when Russia and Alaska were joined, and great migrations of nomads scattered their words throughout North, Central and South America, as well as Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and in the origins of Islam and Christianity.

My task was to proofread the text, which had been translated excellently by Robin Thomson. I had little to do other than enjoy it; forevermore, I cannot help but hear connections everywhere: reklam is the root word for advertisement in both Slavic and Turkic; many languages say sweet water when the English mean fresh water…

The only publishing house dedicated to bringing the contemporary writing of Central Asia and Eurasia to the West is Hertfordshire Press. The Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum takes place in venues around the UK, in November 2016.



About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher
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