Celebrating Aitmatov and his examination of collective memory

When I was finishing school in the late 1980s, in the anarchic and utopian times of perestroika, I remember discussing in literature class the parable from Chingiz Aitmatov’s novel “The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years,”and what an impression it made on me.

The parable was about an Asian tribe’s ancient tradition of making their captives into perfect slaves called mankurts. The captives would be left for a few days in the desert without food or water, their heads shaved and wrapped in freshly cut camel skin. As the camel skin dried out, it pressed on the skull, making their hair grow inwards and creating unbearable pain. Most of those subjected to this torture died, but those who survived would lose all memory of their past and all human emotion. They would become the most valuable slaves: perfect, obedient and disposed to perform hard and tedious tasks. As long as they were fed, they never contemplated rebellion.
Reading this during perestroika, many of us compared this legend to the manipulation of public memory in the Soviet Union. Names erased from history, group photographs tampered with to get rid of characters who became undesirable, family members never mentioned because they were unlucky enough to perish in the GULAG. Many of us felt an attempt had been made to make us into mankurts.
Attempts at controlling and manipulating public memory are universal, as is the desire of those in power to control those who are not. I think this is why books by Chingiz Aitmatov are timeless. The writer, who wrote both in Russian and Kyrgyz, has several themes running through his work: the importance of the individual versus the system; the importance of memory, ritual and connection to one’s land and one’s people; the triumph of the spirit in humble people in difficult circumstances, and love for life in all its manifestations.
Aitmatov would have been 85 on December 12. He died in 2008 in Nuremberg, Germany. Coming from rural Kyrgyzstan, he brought to Russian literature the immensity of the steppes where a human being is only a small part of nature. Here domination of the animal kingdom is only possible in cooperation with it, and the human spirit has to be strong not to dissipate into the vast nothingness: “The steppe is enormous, and a human being is small.”


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