Truth Through Fiction and Artistry

The 80th anniversary of great Kazakh author Oralkhan Bokei (Оралхан Бөкей, 1943-1993) will be commemorated on September 28, 2023. Although he has been quite popular in the former Soviet Union, the outstanding Kazakh writer remains virtually unknown to the Western audience. This post is a humble attempt of mine to bring the man of letters closer to foreign readers. It has been illustrated with amazing drawings of Mr. Bokei’s works by the first professional Tatar artist Baki Urmanche, whose poweful simplicity resemble classical illustrations of Romain Rolland’s epic novel Jean-Christophe by a Flemish artist Frans Masereel. I express my gratitude to the staff of the Oralkhan Bokei Library for generously supplied research materials. Mr. Bokei’s excerpts herewith translated by myself, unless indicated otherwise.

A man has fallen into a mountainous river with his horse. A drawing by Baki Urmanche to Oralkhan Bokei's story "The Devil's Bridge".

William Faulkner famously said on Ernest Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Well, Kazakh author Sabit Mukanov (1900-1973) was also notable for his rather casual vocabulary. Nevertheless, he managed to breathtakingly depict Kazakhstan during the Russian Revolution, for instance. Mr. Bokei, on the other hand, was known for his rich vocabulary, whose complexities sometimes are difficult to grasp even by native Kazakh speakers. He was capable to picture subtleties of a human soul and magnificent landscapes of Mother Nature alike. Kazakh writer Ilyas Esenberlin (1915-1983) in his epic novel “Көшпенділер” (The Nomads) gave a fascinating tour of several centuries of our history throughout the steppes and mountains of Kazakhstan. In his turn, Mr. Bokei mainly dealt with modern-day events in his birthplace — the Altai Mountains in East Kazakhstan. But, he did it with such an utmost artistic gift that seemingly routine happenings often were portrayed on almost cosmic scale! Take a look at a quaintly superb comparison in his first novel “Өз отыңды өшірме” (Keep the Home Fires Burning), 1981: “Дала төсіне шірей тартылған қос рельс — қазақы домбыраның қос ішегі сынды: тарта бер заман күйін, шерте бер айызың қанғанша аңыратып — ғұмырың жетсе” (“The railways, stretched across the steppe, resemble two strings of a Kazakh dombyra: play an epoch’s tune with it to your satisfaction, should your lifetime be enough”).

Kazakh poet and thinker Abai (1845-1904) created a philosophical treatise, deeply influencing our mindset and mentality. Well, Mr. Bokei didn’t write philosophical works, but wise thoughts are scattered throughout his books. Definitely, he is not a systematic thinker. However, quite pantheistic Mr. Bokei adores Mother Nature, respects Kazakh traditions, and praises an ordinary man, whose day-to-day existence is ultimately one of the pillars of this world. The following lines from his tale “Сайтан көпір” (The Devil’s Bridge), 1980, glorify Mother Nature in the most sublime way: “Адам баласы жаратылыстан бәр-бәрін алып, тауысуға айналды, ал өзіміз не бердік сол табиғатқа. Түк те берген жоқпыз” (“Having taken everything from environment, mankind is on the verge of collapse. But, what we have given in return to Nature? Nothing”). Definitely, Agent Smith’s famous quotation: “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet” in a sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix, 1999, echoes with the opinion of the Kazakh writer.

Kazakh girl in national dress plays music. A drawing by Baki Urmanche to Oralkhan Bokei's story "An Orphaned Colt".

Oralkhan Bokei distinguishes himself among fellow Kazakh authors by his almost ideology-free attitude. As a matter of fact, the writer’s works have practically no Communist or Islamist topics. Yes, he unmistakably pushes predominantly Kazakh agenda, eager to preserve our heritage and mother tongue. Of course, it means certain degree of ethno-centric bias. But, Mr. Bokei luckily had no particular affiliations with governmental or supranational bodies. Moreover, he sometimes raised unorthodox questions in his books. Say, it was customary to praise war heroes in the Soviet Union. However, home front achievements usually were underestimated in comparison with a glorious image of bellicose bravery. Well, Mr. Bokei in his story “Бәрі де майдан” (Battlefield is Everywhere), 1982, paid his due respect to humble heroism of agricultural and industrial workers, who made their sizable contribution to victory in WWII. He didn’t simply praise hard-working men and women of home front, but, doing so, he dramatically depicted their complicated existence.

German girl riding a horse. A drawing by Baki Urmanche for Oralkhan Bokei's story "In the Whole Wide World..."

Kazakh myths and fairy tales play an important role in the creative world of Mr. Bokei. His homeland — the Altai Mountains — is a cradle of Turkic peoples. That is why, mythical motives of the culturally and historically important region have extended far into the vast expanses of Eurasia. Picturesque scenery of the Altai Mountains, along with their legends of hoary antiquity, greatly influenced his worldly outlook and writing style. First of all, Mr. Bokei is a great artist, whose books colourfully depict casual heroism of ordinary people of his homeland, its amazing landscape, and its animals born to be free. Secondly, his seemingly simple storylines from time to time evolve into quite adventurous events. For instance, Mr. Bokei’s short story “Қасқыр ұлыған түнде” (The Night of Howling) tells about an ill-fated trip of a young woman to her village. She had taken a bus, which brought her from a city to the village. But, the young woman had to walk some distance under the harsh conditions of a winter night. Her accidental fellow traveller, a journalist heading for another destination, was eager to accompany her. However, the young woman politely declined his offer despite their mutual sympathy. Later, the journalist learned that during the ill-fated night she had been attacked by wolves, who ripped the young woman to death. This real-life tragedy is by any means more blood-curdling narration than a sensational horror novel The Howling, 1977, by Gary Brandner, which deals with fictional werewolves.

Sitting Kazakh woman. A drawing by Baki Urmanche for Oralkhan Bokei's story "The Mother Aipara".

Unlike many Soviet authors, Mr. Bokei emphatically promoted Blood and Soil, stressing the importance of genetic roots as compared with social background. As a rule, he opposed mixed marriages, especially with Slavs. For example, a bad guy in his story “Атау-кере” (The Last Supper) is a greedy businessman of the Kazakh-Russian descent. But, the writer usually endorsed romantic feelings between Kazakh men and German or Baltic ladies. By the way, The Last Supper vividly shows the danger of hybrid bees, artificially bred to make more profit. This theme chimes in with an international best-seller Jurassic Park, 1990, by Michael Crichton. Besides, the two novels were composed presumably at the same time. So, Mr. Bokei sometimes followed global trends or vice versa. Hardly, the Kazakh author knew about the sci-fi bestseller. Also, there was a ghost of the chance that Mr. Crichton might have read Mr. Bokei’s works. Thus, it is safe to suppose that the two writers independently drew similar philosophical conclusions.

The Kazakh writer is also notable for deep thoughts on other subjects. For instance, his tale “Жетім бота” (The Orphaned Baby Camel), 1981, contains the following opinion on architecture: “Салған үйдің неғұрлым биік болса, сен де солғұрлым табиғаттан алыстайсың” (“The higher edifice you build, the more you distance yourself from Nature”). Mr. Bokei drew an interesting conclusion on the Universe as a whole in his tale “Қайдасың, қасқа құлыным” (Where are you, my foal with a stripe on the forehead?), 1973. A peasant Qarshyga argues with his associate: ” — Осы аспан деген түпсіз дейді, түпсіз дүние бола ма? Егер мына мен тура осы жерден тіке ұша берсем қайда барар едім, а? — Білмеймін. — Әй, сені де оқыған азамат дейді-ау. Осы жерге қайта оралар едім…” (” — They say that the heaven is unfathomable. Is there such a thing as the infinite world? If I lift off right from this place, then where I would land? — I don’t know. — Are you really an educated person? I would return to the same place again…”). Oddly enough, this way of thinking chimes in with outstanding US physicist George Gamow (1904-1968), whose amazing popular science book The NEW World of Mr Tompkins (fully revised and updated by Russell Stannard), 1999, has the similar idea postulated by a fictional scientist before a layman: ” ‘… a positive curvature would imply that three-dimensional space is finite and closed’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘What does that mean?’ mused the professor. ‘It would mean that if you took off vertically in a space rocket from the North Pole, and you continued in the same direction — in a straight line — eventually you would arrive back at the Earth, approaching it from the opposite direction, and landing at the South Pole.’

An old bearded man smokes a pipe. A drawing by Baki Urmanche for Oralkhan Bokei's story "The Snow Girl".

Mr. Bokei’s rich vocabulary, his rare gift to portray complex feelings of a human soul were especially praiseworthy during the Soviet epoch, when the Kazakhs became a minority in their own republic. Therefore, full-bloodied existence of the Kazakh language was endangered. The Kazakh author was one of the best champions to preserve his mother tongue by his superbly written stories and novels. Alas, great books of Mr. Bokei have not been translated yet into foreign languages by professional bilingual translators. For example, an enterprising Russian Korean writer Anatoly Kim, who doesn’t speak Kazakh, has got profitable orders to translate the Kazakh author’s masterpieces into Russian. The Korean literary hustler has simply edited word-to-word translations of Mr. Bokei’s works, made by less cunning linguists of Kazakhstan. Can you imagine the UK Government or British businessmen funding a foreign translator, who doesn’t speak English, to render William Shakespeare’s poetry or Rudyard Kipling’s novels into another language?! Yes, Mr. Kim is a gifted Russian-language author, who speaks Korean as well. But, due to his pathetic knowledge of the Kazakh language, the Korean writer can’t carry out sufficiently adequate Russian renditions of Mr. Bokei’s works. For example, the Kazakh genius’ story The Snow Girl, 1978, contains a relatively simple sentence about the inclemency of a snowy winter: “Кейбір салақ кісілердің бел ағашы борсыған мал қамайтын қоралары сыр беріп алды — топ етіп төбесі ойылып түсіп жатыр” (“Rotten wooden axes of some slack folks’ enclosures gave way — their roofs crashed down with a thud”). Well, Mr. Kim translated this sentence too loosely: “У нерадивых хозяев, вовремя не перебравших старую кровлю на сараях, скотина оказалась на улице — под тяжестью снега проседала и ломалась сопревшая обрешётка из жердей” (“Livestock of slack hosts, who had not repaired the roofing of sheds in due time, were thrown out on the street — under the weight of snow rotten lattice gave way to break down”).

The situation with the Kazakh author’s books translated into languages, other than Russian, has been even worse.  For instance, a British national Simon Hollingsworth, who is basically a Russian/English commercial and legal translator/interpreter, was honoured with a complex, challenging task to translate several Mr. Bokei’s stories into English. Well, Mr. Hollingsworth with his down-to-earth, business-like attitude didn’t bother to study the original Kazakh texts. The Briton had a quickie indeed: he just translated already defective Russian versions of Mr. Bokei’s masterpieces into casual, no-frills English.

For example, a short story “Қамшыгер” (The Whip Master, 1970) was diligently translated by Mr. Hollingsworth as The Rustler from its commonplace Russian rendition “Камчигер” by a Kazakh writer Rollan Seisenbayev. In a nutshell, both the Kazakh translator and his British follower have failed to make adequate renditions of the excellently written short story about a rural criminal. Both of them wrongfully named the whip master Sadaqbai as Doskei. The Briton dutifully repeats some mistakes of Mr. Seisenbayev, say, ascribing to the whip master the following question, addressed to his wife: “It is blood, but whose blood, Kamka? Tell me, do you know? Kamka, tell me, tell me!” Well, in the Kazakh original text Sadaqbai doesn’t ask such question to his wife Qamqa. Unable to properly identify its taste, the whip master’s simply wondering, whether it is human or animal blood: “Не де болса дәмін татып көрейін деп аузын ашып еді, қып-қышқыл қан дәмі таңдайына таң ете қалды. Адамның қаны ма, малдың қаны ма, айыра алған жоқ“. Both translators often failed to adequately convey the elaborate style of Mr. Bokei. At the very beginning of the short story, he superbly depicts the tragedy of existence: “Ай астында: Қан жылап жетімсіреген қараша үй қалды; қара жамылған жесір әйелдің мұңдықты басы қалды” (“Under the moon: the lonely dark yurt, bitterly weeping, has remained; the sorrowful widow in black has remained”). Following in the footsteps of the Russian rendition, Mr. Hollingsworth presents his deviated version: “Beneath the moon — the lonely yurt shines white beneath the moon and the woman in black, the widow, bows low to the threshold“.

True, it is quite challenging to find a translator, who would render a Kazakh story, poem, or novel directly into a foreign language. But, still, it is possible. A German scholar Uta Schilling speaks Kazakh fluently. A Kazakh-Tatar opera singer Maira Mukhamedqyzy is also a native Mandarin Chinese speaker. Moreover, there are thousands of Kazakh students, researchers, and artists throughout the world, who speak foreign languages. So, there are more suitable candidates to translate Kazakh classics than the old dog-eater or the irrelevant John Bull.

A hunter stays with his eyes closed. A drawing by Baki Urmanche for Oralkhan Bokei's story "The Man-Deer".

Like his great predecessors Maxim Gorky and Jack London, the Kazakh author had direct knowledge of different sides of human nature. Initially, he was a tractor driver. Then, Mr. Bokei gained much real-life experience as a rural journalist. Becoming a successful writer, he actively interacted with prominent artists, politicians, athletes, industrialists. He was a patriot, acutely aware of his homeland’s major problems. In 1987, the man of letters bitterly wrote in his diary: “Айталық, Сібір өзендерін кебірсіп, құрап жатқан Қазақстан мен Орта Азияға бұрғызбау эгоизмге жатпай ма екен? Сібірден бір ағаш кесу қылмыс дей отырып, бір миллион ағашты өртке шалдырып алғанымыз секілді, қызғаныштың түбі қып-қызыл қылмысқа айналып жүрмей ме? Қазақтың шалқар даласын бүкіл одақ болып ортақтасып игергеніміз секілді, арнасынан асып босқа ағып жатқан Обь, Енисейлерді де бір елдің емес, барлығымыздың игілігіміз үшін игерудің оптималды жолын іздесек болмас па?!” (“So, not diverting Siberian rivers to arid Kazakhstan and Cental Asia constitutes an act of egoism? Saying that to fell a tree in Siberia is a crime, in the end would envy turn into a flagrant delinquency like setting fire to one million trees? Finding an optimal way to exploit the rapid flow of Ob, Yenisey rivers, wasting themselves, for the common cause wouldn’t be similar to development of the vast territory of Kazakhstan by the entire Soviet Union?!”). Thus, Mr. Bokei was a strong supporter of the river diversion plan to replenish the now desiccated Aral Sea.

The Kazakh writer was blessed with two children — the son Aikhan and the daughter Aizhan — well into his 40s. His first wife, Aiman, committed suicide mainly because of her inability to give birth. His second wife Ardaq — a nurse considerably younger than himself — has failed to duly preserve his creative heritage. Having sold their flat and reportedly marrying another man, she apparently wasted some archive materials of Mr. Bokei. Incidentally, the second wife recollects in her interview with a writer Talaptan Akhmetzhan that the Kazakh author met the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Sergei Tereshchenko (1951-2023) at the beginning of the 1990s, kindly asking a five-rooms apartment for the family. Well, Mr. Tereshchenko showered his friends with multi-million loans. Later on, the former politician became a successful entrepreneur — one of the biggest landowners in Kazakhstan and minority shareholder of Russian Transaero Airlines. But, he refused to satisfy the modest demand of the great man of letters .

Oralkhan Bokei with his wife Ardaq and their children.

Being slightly overweight, Mr. Bokei had a lung disease. Perhaps, these health problems precipitated his death during a business trip to India. Apart from a personal tragedy of his relatives and friends, his premature demise dealt a blow to arts and humanities in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. True, he was one of the leading writers of modern times. However, Oralkhan Bokei could have created works of epic proportions, surpassing his earlier short stories and novels to further refine his style and deepen his study of human soul, our history, and Nature. Of these unaccomplished deeds only drafts and preliminary sketches have survived… In 2018, his sister Galiya Bokeiqyzy mentioned in her interview a trilogy “Алданған ұрпақ” (The Deceived Generation), which would have covered tribulations of the Kazakh community in China. Ms. Bokeiqyzy also said that her illustrious brother planned to write a novel about a retirement home. Having met some elders there, the Kazakh author was astonished that they had no hard feelings as for their ungrateful children.

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