Sunday, September 17, 2006

Circling KZ in Books and Film

Greetings! After a summer-long hiatus, spent in a state a whole lot greener and only slightly less land-locked than anywhere in Central Asia, I resume. Over the past few months, I’ve vicariously circled around Kazakhstan, having watched a couple of documentary-type films and read a few books, all of which touch on Soviet Central Asian history and/or culture, but not a one of which is about Kazakhstan directly. It’s been fascinating.

First, a film and a book --

The National Geographic feature film Story of the Weeping Camel, isn’t exactly a documentary and isn't exactly fiction, but a little of both. It’s filmed in the Mongolian desert, and tells the story of a rare baby white camel that is rejected from birth by its mother. The family of herders try one strategy after another to encourage, teach, trick and cajole the mother camel into caring for the starving and sad baby until at last, traditional Mongolian music and song break through to her stony heart. The daily life and customs of these nomads seems very similar to that of the ethnic Kazakhs, who also live in Mongolia and China in addition to Kazakhstan. The portrayal of the family of nomads -- a cluster of three gers (the Mongolian yurta) houses young parents with two sons, and two sets of grandparents -- makes clear details that are hard to figure out from just words and pictures. How exactly do those flaps on the yurta work? Seeing the father prepare for an impending sandstorm explains all.

10/2/2006 -- National Geographic has a great website for this film, with lots of additional information on the land, people, traditions and animals of the Gobi Desert.

Then north and west to Russia: After a third person said to me "surely you've read The Master and Margarita," (and I hadn't), I began this satiric novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. What happens when Satan in disguise pays a visit to fervently athiestic Soviet Moscow, and what has Pontius Pilate got to do with it all? Bulgakov began the novel in 1928, burned it (just as the Master burns his manuscript after intense negative criticism), picked it up again in the 1930s, and worked on it off and on 'til his death. His wife finished and polished the novel, which is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian novels of the 20th century. In a bitingly funny and fantastical way, Bulgakov’s story shreds the pretenses of the Communist literary scene and the immobility of Soviet society, assails the quality of party poetry, and rewards courage and steadfast devotion in his main characters. And it's quite a good read, too.

Next stop, to Uzbekistan, the country that shares the Aral Sea with Kazakhstan, with Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Central Asia, by former Peace Corps volunteer Tom Bissell. More about this fascinating book next time . . .

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