standing on a green mountaintop
with snowcaps to my back
ahead, angular arid lands
crinkled, as marked by wrack
beyond, a lake still and turquoise
waters frigid as clear
not a sound but for bird or breeze
at habitat frontier
where do desert, beach, and meadow
mingle as in this place?
a thousand square miles condensed
into a hundred acre space
This book is set in Kyrgyzstan shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union in a border region that has become the fiefdom of the head of the border patrol force, Colonel Bronza. This condition exists because Bronza had always reported to Moscow, which is no longer concerned with borders beyond those of Russia, and because the Kyrgyz government has been so busy getting its feet under it that it neglected its far reaches.
Into this fiefdom, comes a Norwegian volunteer, Erika Klaus, to teach English. Klaus’s naivete keeps her from grasping the dire nature of the situation and so her fate becomes worse and worse. She fails to realize that she isn’t in democratic and progressive Scandinavia anymore, but rather is in a place that is governed in part by the old Soviet KGB playbooks and in part by a man who is essentially a warlord. Even the reason she is in Kyrgyzstan shows her lack of sophistication. A childhood ailment resulting from lack of sun exposure (a not uncommon factor in Scandinavia) had a profound effect on her psyche and she chooses this location because she read that the locals were “sun-worshipers.” What she didn’t realize is that the reason they have so much affinity for the sun is that they live in a valley where they, at most, get two hours of non-shadow existence per day. But, worse, her naive ways keep her from playing the game that the locals are playing to get along. The story is supposedly based on a true story. However, I don’t know how much dramatic license Akmatov took with the narrative.
I picked up this book in Bishkek as part of my continuing effort to read a work indigenous literature from each country to which I travel – particularly a work that sheds some insight into the culture of that particular country. As I couldn’t find any translated books by Chingiz Aitmatov, I ended up with this book because – for some reason – a few books by this author, Kazat Akmatov, were all that were available in English translation. (This is a little surprising as Chingiz Aitmatov is a much more globally recognized Kyrgyz author.) All that being said, I think this was a good book for my purposes. The fact that it features a Westerner trying to get by in a rural region puts culture and history front and center. The reader learns both about life in Kyrgyz village household as well as how the locals got through this sad time as the protagonist is exposed to these lessons.
I should point out that this isn’t a happy tale. The story has a grim feel throughout, and gets progressively more so. It does have some happy moments in which we see how kind and hospitable the Kyrgyz people are, but they are sparse contrast to the tale of woe playing out. The story is particularly dark when one considers that some version of these events actually happened. That said, it’s a very readable book. The story is engaging and it’s hard to put down.
The book is factually confusing at times. In places it suggests this is the border with Afghanistan (which is relevant to the story because of the past history – i.e. the Soviet-Afghan War), but Tajikistan lies between Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan and the two post-Soviet countries gained independence within a few days of each other. In other places it reads like the border is with China (which Kyrgyzstan does border.)
The book has a few plates of black-and-white artwork to accentuate certain scenes.
If you’re looking for a book to offer you some insight into Kyrgyzstan, I’d recommend this book. It’s also an interesting, if sad, story for more general readership.