The Image of Abai in Kazakh Novels: The Case of Auezov

Gabriel McGuire | 12 Jun 2020

Abai, Auezov, and Kazakh Oral Literature: Popular accounts of Abai’s life and work often stress his love of Pushkin and his readings of philosophers like Socrates and Spinoza. Yet Mukhtar Auezov, in his classic novel Abai Zholy, suggested Kazakh oral poetry played just as important a role in Abai’s maturation as an artist.1

Near the middle of the Kazakh children’s novel Mening Atym Qozha, the book’s protagonist tries to write a poem expressing his love for his classmate Zhanar, only to be struck by an uncomfortable suspicion that his words are somehow not his own. He searches his memory, and suddenly realizes he has been quoting one of Abai’s poems. Qozha is horrified by this discovery, and begins to cross out the words he had ‘stolen’ from Abai. Suddenly, however, he pauses, and thinks again:

Wasn’t Abai our national poet? If a young poet like myself uses his words for a single stanza, how can that make the measureless span of writings smaller? It wasn’t as though I were thinking of printing my poem. And finally, who was Abai, and who am I? We are both Kazakhs, and we are both _aqyn_s. It isn’t written anywhere that one poet can’t help another.

In this moment, we encounter an image of Abai as a genius so profound that no writer of Kazakh poetry, no matter how childlike and innocent, can ever really escape his shadow. For Qozha, Abai seems at once awesome and intimate, a revered and inimitable patriarch of poetry and a kindly father figure sharing his genius with a confused and lonely schoolboy.

This scene occurs in Berdibek Soqpaqbaev’s 1957 Mening Atym Qozha (My Name is Qozha), a work often listed as the foremost example of Kazakh children’s literature. The scene, short though it is, hints at the central place Abai held in the Kazakh literary canon in the 1950s. We are by now so accustomed to the idea of Abai’s place in Kazakh culture—one memorialized in statues and in the names of streets and schools—that we can easily forget how improbable a choice Abai was as a literary hero in the Soviet Union. He was, after all, a 19th century Kazakh poet with multiple wives, the wealthy son of a wealthy tribal leader, and a religious thinker deeply concerned with Islamic reform. That he nonetheless held such a secure place in the Soviet pantheon was above all thanks to Mukhtar Auezov’s monumental historical novel Abai Zholy (The Path of Abai), a work which Auezov published in sections beginning in the 1940s and completing only in the mid 1950s. The novel begins with a teenage Abai returning from his studies at a medressa in the city, and then follows him through the rest of his life, telling of his repeated clashes with his father, of his love affairs, his struggles to improve the lot of his people, and of his studies of the Russian language and his transformative encounter with the works of Pushkin. Above all, the novel tells the story of how Abai awoke to an understanding of the moral responsibilities of being a poet.

Auezov’s novel had so profound an influence on people’s understanding of who Abai was and what he had thought that even today many people are unsure where the novel’s plot ends and Abai’s biography begins. Yet how did Auezov manage the task of making this 19th century poet somehow pass as Soviet? The scene with Qozha hints at the answer. Qozha’s desire to be a poet and his childlike concern with literary origins parallel the many scenes in Auezov’s novel in which the young Abai rejects his own father and instead turns to older _aqyn_s (poets) as a source of wisdom. Auezov used these to tell a story in which Abai’s embrace of his identity as a poet involves a rejection of the wealthy position into which he was born.

Abai and his Father: Family Conflict as Social Critique Abai Zholy’s plot unwinds from a moment of brutal trickery on the part of Abai’s father Qunanbai, the head of the Yrgyzbai lineage of the Tobyqty clan and the Agha Sultan of the region. Qunanbai spreads rumors that a poor man from another lineage is sleeping with his widowed daughter-in-law, conspires to have the man executed, then uses these events as pretexts to seize the pasture lands of the man’s relatives. By accident, Abai witnesses the execution, and is so horrified he falls ill. This conflict culminates in a scene at the end of the novel’s first volume, in which Abai, resolved to travel to the city for further study, visits Qunanbai’s yurta to say his farewell. As the two sit on a small hill outside the encampment, Qunanbai reproaches Abai for his lack of deference, and then advises his son he has three faults: he does not understand the value of his own possessions and scatters them carelessly, for he is “shallow! And shallow waters are lapped by dogs and birds alike.” Second, he lacks the subtlety and secrecy required of a leader. Last of all, Abai has become an ‘orysshyl,’ a Kazakh who has turned towards the Russians and who disregards the tenets of Islam.

Abai understands that his father’s words spring from a broader abhorrence of the changes that have come to the steppe in the 19th century, and he challenges his father with a long reply that exemplifies the rhetorical themes of socialist realist literature:

You have compared me to a shallow pond. Yet a deep well can help only those who hold tools in their hands, and I count it better to be a shallow pond that profits the young, the old, the wealthy, and the poor alike. Second, you have described the qualities of a leader. From what I know, the people at one time were like sheep. A single shepherd told a flock of sheep ‘ait’ and they all stood, ‘shait’ and they all lay down. Later, the people were like a camel. Throw a stone before it and shout ‘shöp,’ the camel will bellow and turn. But now the people are no longer like children, the poor aren’t peaceful, their eyes have begun to open. Now the people have become like horses. Whatever weather the herd sees, frost, blizzard, or rain-storm, the shepherd mustn’t spare himself, he must lay in the frost and ice, take the skirts of his coat for a bed and the sleeves for a pillow, and only then may he lead them . . . The man who leads must be close to the people. Third, you have said I am like a Russian. But for the people and for myself, the greatest treasure is the art of knowledge. And this art the Russians have.2

Auezov has written an Abai who has the energy of youth, is sympathetic to the poor, eager to learn, and who prophecies the dawn of a new era, while his antagonist is old, selfish, haunted by religious superstitions, and fearful of change. This conflict reflects the influence of socialist realist literary models, which similarly staged generational conflicts as allegories of political change. Paradoxically, it is the loyal (but old) servant of the Tsars who fears the Russians, but his rebellious (and young) son who welcomes them as saviors.

Abai and the aqyn
Abai’s bitter confrontation with his father stands in sharp contrast to his encounter with a Kazakh aqyn with whom he similarly debated the state of Kazakh society. Earlier that spring, Abai saw the terrible aftermath of the jut as he travelled across the steppe.3 Abai eventually arrives at the village of the aqyn ‘Qadyrbai,’a lightly fictionalized version of the real 19th century aqyn Sabyrbai Aqtailaquly. In Auezov’s novel, Abai and Qadyrbai first meet at the funeral feast of a distant relative. When Qadyrbai teasingly asks Abai why he loves poetry when his father Qunanbai notoriously dislikes it, Abai courteously replies that perhaps Qunanbai only disliked Qadyrbai’s poems, and then recites some lines of a poem in which Qadyrbai had obliquely critized Abai’s father. Qadyrbai bursts into laughter, delighted by the sly wit of Abai’s reply and by the young man’s evident familiarity with his works.

In their second meeting, Abai and Qadyrbai discuss the scale of the spring jut, but Abai then turns the conversation towards the natural disaster’s meaning,

Abai now began to knot the hardships of this year’s jut together with those of years past. Since ancient times, jut had been the implacable enemy and unceasing sorrow of the Kazakhs in their felt tents. All knew this. In the aftermath of jut, they seemed no longer a proud people but rather wandered like sheep struck by disease. But was this to be the only pattern of life handed down from father to son, from son to grandson? Was there no escape from this misfortune? Had no one ever thought what measures might change them from a tumbleweed chased by the wind and make them into a nation . . . Had their people never had a leader whose heart felt their pain, who could have shown them a better path? Did Qadyrbai know of anyone like this?

Though Qadyrbai is surprised by these words, after a brief pause he replies by reciting a proverb that turns on the meaning of human mortality: both gardens and human life are things of this world, born to decay, for “the fragrant wildflower withers in fall . . . as the apple cheeks of youth wither in old age.” Auezov writes that Abai understands the old poet believes these tragedies speak not to the Kazakhs way of life but are rather the common lot of humans in a mortal world.

Abai is unsatisfied with this answer, and gradually develops a counter-analysis which is intuitively one of historical materialism. Other nations, he emphasizes, learn from one another and thus progress, but the Kazakhs had never sought to develop in this manner, and “the consequences of this backwardness is that from ancient times until now we have been content with the eternal felt house, the wandering flock, and the implacable jut.” This argument lasts for some days, until finally Qadyrbai asks what Abai proposes in place of the old ways and Abai replies: “the nation needs knowledge and industry. It needs education. The coming time is not one in which we will gain strength by sleeping, trusting in our great steppe and our fertile pastures. It is a time in which we must learn from the example of other and more progressive nations.” This answer, Auezov writes, is not something Abai says in the spur of the moment, but rather “one he had long meditated on in solitude. ‘This is what my people need, this too is the path I must follow,’ he had thought.”

Qadbyrbai’s response foregrounds the gulf between the values of an aqyn and those of a wealthy flock-owner and tribal leader. Where Qunanbai would respond with anger, Qadyrbai ponders telling Abai that “education” meant knowledge of one’s ancestral heritage, but instead pauses, reflects, and finally says: “if I answer truthfully, your words have been just, my child. Your dreams have also entered my mind. If the coming times are thus, then let them be so! You have spoken the words of your own generation and of generations to come. But, to whom will you go? Unwilling to learn, suspicious of strangers, this has indeed been our people’s way.” The old aqyn, Auezov writes, had argued strongly against Abai, but he had also understood him and in the end accepts Abai’s words as true. Abai himself reflects that Qadyrbai had become like a father to him, but “not a father who was always ordering him to ‘Guard the flocks! Gain wealth! Give me grandsons! Remember you are a ruler!’ Rather, he was a father in art, in learning, and in the path of justice.” Qadyrbai himself suggests that Abai’s concerns for the plight of his people parallel the laments of other _aqyn_s’ songs: “Abai, my child, you spoke truly a few days back . . . You tell of your dreams, and of the jut which struck our people this May. In these days there are many _aqyn_s who sing of ‘zar’ (sorrows) . . . all who look see few who are joyful. They tell of shanyraqs broken and fallen. And not just of this. Just as you speak, they sing of the helpless and the homeless.”4

Oral Poetry as Anti-Colonial Critique: Abai and the Zar Zaman poets Qadyrbai’s words allude to a series of 19th century poets known as the Zar Zaman (time of sorrow) poets. These aqyn_s all wrote poems that lamented the encroachment of Russian colonial authority on the steppe and the changes this brought to Kazakh society. In one of the earliest scenes in the novel, Auezov imagined an encounter between Abai and one of the most famous of these _aqyn_s, Dulat Babataiuly. Abai had fallen ill after witnessing his father’s cruel execution of an innocent man, and had retreated to the summer herding camp of his mother and grandmother. One day, two _aqyn_s arrive at the camp, and the days that follow tell the story of Abai’s ever increasing friendship with the great bard. As their dinner cooks on the night of their arrival, Dulat sings the epic of Qoblandy Batyr, and Abai realizes that “the greatest and most beautiful epic the world had ever heard come from out of the mouths of the Kazakhs or off the pages of a book was this.” When Abai asks whose work the epic was, Dulat explains how it had come down from _aqyn to aqyn from a singer in the _ Kishi zhuz_ (little horde). Auezov presents these exchanges as a revelation for Abai, the moment when he understood that his own people’s oral literature could be as great a source of inspiration as works of written literature. As Auezov writes, “before this Abai had thought of philosophy as coming from books, of knowledge and poetry as things known from the medrese.”

Yet even as Dulat teaches the young Abai to appreciate the Kazakhs oral epics, Auezov shows Dulat as himself experimenting with the expressive possibilities of poetic language. Auezov writes that in the evenings Dulat would sing the songs he himself wished to hear:

To Abai, the Dulat of the evening appeared completely from the Dulat of the day. He was no longer Dulat the joker, the one who always set out to make people laugh. In the evenings, he was a man of wisdom, and sometimes also an old man broken with sorrow.

It was at times like this that Dulat would reveal a little of himself: Ask me my essence,
It is the cloud’s quiet rain.
If sorrows choke my heart,
they wash away with song . . .
Listen then to Dulat’s song,
Pounding like a hail of rain!

He would say, as if his own soul had turned into a poem.

In this moment, Auezov binds a direct quotation from Babataiuly’s poem ‘Qaighylyny uattym’ (consoler of sorrows) into his novel in a manner that is both homage and literary analysis. In this telling, while Dulat’s earlier performance of Qoblandy Batyr had offered the excitement of epic, the Zar Zaman poem provided the interiority of lyrical poetry; while one was performed publicly to entertain, the other, if still oral, had as its first audience the poet himself. The great oddity of this reading is the extent to which it contradicts its own content: even as Auezov shows Babataiuly engage in private and sorrowful recitation, Babataiuly within that poem shows himself as engaged in dramatically public performances.

Yet the turn away from public performance did not mean a turn away from public politics, for in the very next lines Auezov has ‘Dulat’ recite lines in which the Aga Sultan and other elites are compared to vultures feasting on carrion.

‘When Dulat said ‘the Bek and the judges,’ of whom did he speak? He didn’t explain. But Abai himself still grasped the meaning. He always looked for examples close to hand. But the boy too never revealed these secrets.

He takes the Major’s orders,
With his tail between his legs,
The nation’s leaders prowl like wolves5 . . .
Themselves put fear into the people,
Of the people themselves in fear . . .

‘This is the starshina Maibasar,’ thought Abai. Auezov goes on to quote sections of Babataiuly’s poem in which the aqyn criticized a Tsarist tax regime that expected equal tribute from poor and wealthy households. Abai had never before heard such laments, Auezov wrote, though “the songs of Asan Kaigy, Shortanbai, and here Dulat all flowed into a single stream.”

The crux of the section comes later: as Dulat and Baigokshe prepare to leave, they are given horses as gifts. Dulat suddenly recites a short poem in which he speaks of a boy becoming a young man and setting off for far places in quest of the truth. At the end, he presses a dombra into Abai’s hands and tells him, “Look, my child, let this be my blessing. Use it tell the truth with mercy!” An embarrassed Abai is left awkwardly holding the instrument. In this moment Abai has become the literary if not the literal heir of Babataiuly: Auezov suggests that Abai’s critical essays and poems, however different in form from Babataiuly’s supposedly oral poetry, are a continuation of the spirit of critique found in the works of the Zar Zaman poets. Abai’s central position in Kazakh literary genealogies in turn implies that this spirit of critique is, or should be, the common spirit of all Kazakh literature.

These scenes occurred in the first publication of volume one of Abai Zholy. In later editions, Auezov rewrote the scene so that the real aqyn Dulat was replaced with a fully fictional figure, a concession to the ways in which the Zar Zaman poets’ blunt denunciations of Tsarist rule contradicted the increasingly whitewashed accounts 19th century colonialism in Soviet historiography. Though Dulat was gone, Auezov’s vision of Abai as the heir of the great heritage of Kazakh oral literature continued. This is the history behind the scene in which, in still another novel, a young boy named Qozha would sit and dream of being an aqyn, fully convinced that Abai would be there to help him as other poets had been there to help Abai.

  1. This essay is adapted from McGuire, Gabriel. “Aqyn agha? Abai Zholy as socialist realism and as literary history.” Journal of Eurasian studies 9, no. 1 (2018): 2-11. 

  2. All translations are original. 

  3. Jut is a seasonal disaster in which rain falls on snow, freezing and making it impossible for flocks to break through the snow to find winter forage. 

  4. The circular wooden frame at the top of a yurt through which smoke escapes. To say that a shanyraq is ‘qara’ (black) is to say that it has been darkened by years of soot, an indication of the family’s endurance; to toast newlyweds with the words ‘shanyraq biyq bolsyn’ (may your shanyraq be high) is to wish them wealth; to speak of it fallen is, conversely, to predict calamity. 

  5. The poem does not explicitly compare the nation’s leaders to wolves; rather, Babataiuly uses the verb ‘zhortu,’ which usually refers to a wild animal searching for prey. 


Gabriel McGuire

Gabriel McGuire is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Linguistics, and Literatures at Nazarbayev University. He holds a Ph.D. from the department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, Bloomington. He teaches classes on world literature, folk tales, and the oral literature of Central Asia. His research interests include Soviet era Kazakh literature, oral epics and folk tales, and the interaction between oral and written genres of literature. His scholarship has been published in Ethnos, Central Asian Survey, and other journals.

Return to Homepage