Chingiz Aitmatov (12.12.1928-10.06.2008)
The Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, who has died aged 79, was the most celebrated representative of Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked, mountainous nation of 5 million people in the heart of central Asia, which was a Soviet republic until 1991. A bilingual and bicultural writer, Aitmatov wrote his prose and plays in both his native Kyrgyz and in Russian, and was translated into more than 150 languages. Described as a “magical socialist-realist” in the Russian press, he was able to combine elements of Kyrgyz folk-tales and epics with formally traditional Russian realism.
Aitmatov’s life was itself full of paradoxes of epic proportions: the son of a victim of the Stalinist purges, he became the most decorated of all Soviet writers, gaining three state prizes and a Lenin prize. A beneficiary of the thaw, the cultural liberalisation which took place under Nikita Khrushchev, he became a world-famous author in the 1950s while still writing in Kyrgyz, gradually switching to Russian in the mid-1960s to became one of the most eloquent practitioners of the language. Aitmatov was deeply in love with his native land and lore, but he was also a Soviet patriot and a true internationalist.
He was born in the village of Sheker, in the Talas region of Kyrgyzstan at the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, near the Chinese border. His father was a Kyrgyz and his mother a Tartar. In childhood, Aitmatov was familiar with ancient tribal customs and the nomadic life of his people, but it is to his mother he owed the exposure to Russian literature and culture which led to his harmonious assimilation of two cultures, the poetic synthesis of which became the secret of his art.
When Aitmatov was just nine years old, his childhood was marred by a deep tragedy that affected the rest of his life: his father Torekul, one of the first Kyrgyz communists and a regional party secretary, was arrested in 1937 and executed on a charge of “bourgeois nationalism”.
Before embarking on his writing career, Aitmatov studied animal husbandry and agriculture at the agricultural institute in the Kyrgyz capital, Frunze (now calledBishkek). In 1952 he started publishing his first Kyrgyz-language short stories in periodicals and four years later he entered the higher literary course at Moscow’s Gorky Institute. His first short story translated into Russian appeared in 1958, the year he graduated. In the same year, he published Jamila, the tale that brought him international acclaim.
A communist true-believer, he never shied away from exploring and exposing in his prose the darkest aspects of Soviet reality, just as he tackled the issue of drug abuse and drug-related crime in his bestselling novel of the perestroika period, The Scaffold (1988).
He was not a political dissenter but possessed an honest heart and melancholy philosophical mind, and tended to attribute the shortcomings of Soviet reality not to the evils of the political system, but to the inherent flaws of human nature, which the system was expected to correct. But until that happy day arrived he tended to show the world as he saw it: full of bigotry, prejudice, cruelty, sexism, patriarchal brutality, and general lack of harmony in the way people treat each other. All this is punctuated by beautiful scenes of human kindness, wisdom, love and devotion, set against the background of the stunning central Asian landscape which he poetically evoked.
These themes are also present in his other novels and plays, including The First Teacher (1962), Farewell Gulsary (1966), The White Ship (1970), The Dreams of a She-Wolf (1990) and The Mark of Cassandra (1995).
Several of his stories were turned into popular movies. Aitmatov was working on the set of a film based on his science-fiction-infused philosophical parable The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years when he was stricken by his illness.
In addition to his literary work Aitmatov was the Kyrgyzstan ambassador to the European Union, Nato, Unesco, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and spent many years in Brussels.
Turkey nominated him – as a writer in a Turkic language – for the 2008 Nobel prize for literature.
He is survived by his wife, Maria; a brother, Ilgez; a sister, Roza; a daughter; and three sons, one of whom, Askar, was foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan from 2002 to 2005.
· Chingiz Aitmatov, writer, born December 12 1928; died June 10 2008