A Life at Noon

  • an excerpt from novel

A Life at Noon by Talasbek Asemkulov (Slavica, 2019) is the first Kazakh novel outside the social realist tradition ever published in English translation. It is a partially autobiographical coming-of-age novel, set in Soviet Kazakhstan in the 1960s, based on Asemkulov’s own childhood and apprenticeship with his adoptive father, a master dombra player, known in this novel as Sabyt. In this scene, Sabyt, his friend Sherim, and Azhigerei (Asemkulov as a young boy) have gathered to mourn the death of their friend, a skilled blacksmith. Sabyt plays them a kuy – a musical composition for the dombra – that tells a story that reminds them all of their friend’s life and death. -Shelley Fairweather-Vega, translator




Sherim took the dombra […] and handed it to Sabyt. “Saba, will you play Jumagul? You haven’t played that one for years.”

Sabyt stared at the rain pouring down ceaselessly outside, as if he were waiting for someone to appear in the doorway. He carefully twisted the dombra’s pegs so it was reverse tuned.

“A long time ago, there was a master craftsman by the name of Jumagul. He could tie knots in wood, and he kneaded iron like dough. One day, Jumagul carved a horse out of wood. This wooden horse grazed on grass and drank water just like an ordinary horse. He could store enough energy at once for forty days. But the most amazing thing was that this horse could fly like a bird. Jumagul used to ride his horse at night, and return home at daybreak. But naturally, such a miracle could never be kept hidden from human eyes. News of the wonderful horse reached the ears of the white czar. The czar decided that such a horse ought to belong to him, and he sent out a battalion with orders to bring him that horse and the man who made it. This is the song of the horse’s flight through the heavens.”

Azhigerei had never heard this kuy before. His father’s bold strumming reminded him of Kokbalak, but this melody was completely different. There was the dome of the sky stretching down over the wide steppe. And at its very peak, a single point: Jumagul flying on his wooden horse. The fingers of Sabyt’s right hand flicked at each string in turn, drawing out two and sometimes three sounds in one sweeping movement. Every sound, drawn out and howling like it was born under a kobyz bow, gave rise to a new motif which was constantly changing. His father had never played like this. The kuy burned out and faded, then ended with four brisk strokes.

“That’s the way,” said Sherim, struggling to catch his breath.

“Now the soldiers come.” Sabyt adjusted the frets on the instrument’s neck—they had given way under the force of his playing—and tightened the pegs a little. A triumphant-sounding kuy rang out. The huge battalion, weapons flashing in the sun, marches in a way that makes the earth tremble and bend beneath their feet. The pounding of their boots, striking the ground in time, beats against the temples, not the heart. Sabyt’s voice seems to come from far away, through a veil.

“The battalion marched into the aul. They captured Jumagul’s parents. They asked his father, ‘Where is your son?’ ‘My son is flying on his wooden horse,’ he answered. The huge battalion kept watch for many days over every hillock and every reed. Finally, Jumagul’s supplies ran low, and he descended to earth. The infidels seized him at once to bring him to the white czar. But Jumagul said to the commander, ‘If you are a true warrior and a noble man, allow me to say farewell to my family.’ The commander gave his permission.

“This is Jumagul’s farewell. First he said goodbye to his wife Jumabik.”

Sabyt began a new kuy, touching the strings with his fingertips, strumming them in the other direction, bottom to top. The two strings seemed to be speaking passionately to each other in turn. Then, the kuy moved down into the lower part of the neck and sang with inconsolable sorrow. That grief moved deeper, then dissipated, then pressed on the heart again, and moved you to exhaustion. Then, the two voices returned to the Orphan Fret. The smooth melody moved from the lower string to the upper string and back again, as if the man and the woman were gently consoling one another. For the first time, Azhigerei saw how a sad kuy, pushed to the limit, could turn into something demonic, escape the dombra, and live its own life. The dombra went quiet, but when the seven gates of the soul opened at once, the kuy rose up of its own accord and burst from its hidden corners.

Sabyt’s voice came through the veil again.

“Then Jumagul’s mother rose from her bed, weeping. This is the sound she made.”

The mother’s lament played on the dombra sounded like the ancient kobyz tune, Airauk’s Bitter Kuy. The transitions from part to part, performed in a way that was purposefully careless, sounded like flaming speech, capable of binding your soul tight in a fibrous rope.

Soon the kuy changed into fiery lava pouring from the dombra’s body. Every sound scorched Azhigerei’s mind painfully as it soared past. When the dombra’s voice died out, he sighed with relief, as if a band around his skull had released its grip. Sherim-ata’s proud head hung almost to the ground. Sabyt sighed and leaned the dombra against the wall. Shaken, Sherim looked at his friend.

“There was also the soldiers’ march, Saba, when they led Jumagul away.”

When Sabyt answered, his voice faltered. “Not right now. I haven’t played that kuy often. Something long buried has awoken inside me. I can’t do it right now.”

After that, nobody picked up the dombra. They talked about unimportant things the rest of the evening. Both Sabyt and Sherim chose their words carefully to avoid unhappy topics. […]

A few days later, Azhigerei’s father called him over and spent some time listening to his son playing the dombra.

After he listened to several kuys, Sabyt spoke tiredly. “Remember that Bayjigit is a kuyishi from long ago. In his songs you need to hit the strings firmly, and the beats are measured and heavy as lead. But in Tattimbet, you play with more fire. Sometimes one sound or one word melts into another, like someone getting up on a horse behind another rider. Like the hurried speech of a worried man panting for breath.”

Azhigerei fidgeted uneasily.

“I’m not saying your skills are weak. You are as good as you should be at your age, no better, no worse.”

Sabyt took the dombra, tuned it to the reverse key, and strummed the strings. “The kuy your Sherim-ata asked for last time…”

“The march of the soldiers taking Jumagul away,” said Azhigerei. “You didn’t feel like playing it.”

“I’ll play it now.” Sabyt moved the frets. “It isn’t good to leave a speech unfinished. Some people say that this kuy is about Jumagul, chained and shackled, and some say it’s about the triumph of the Russians who seized their foe and were returning boastfully to their czar.”

Sabyt’s fingers skipped along the strings. The battalion of troops marched to the beat of a drum and the blaring of trumpets. The infantry thundered along, just like in the kuy he had performed before. The rhythm was the same, but the melody was different. Azhigerei was surprised to hear the tale of an enemy’s victory told so genuinely.

“All right,” said Sabyt. “There’s one more kuy. Jumagul had a hunting dog, light on his feet. The hound kept up with his master for a long time, howling all the way. Later on, people started playing this kuy separately, and they called it the Silver Hound. Remember that this is the last part of Jumagul.”

What a miracle! The howling of that dog, who didn’t want to be parted from its master, who raced after him, was just as good as all the kuys that came before it. Shaken by his new knowledge, Azhigerei sank into sorrow.

“And so he said.” With those words, Sabyt hit the strings one more time, and stopped to catch his breath.

“Then what happened?” Azhigerei asked.

“What could happen? Jumgaul was brought to the throne of the white czar. The czar said to him, ‘Give me your horse. I’ll pay you well for it, and you may serve me.’ Jumagul responded, ‘I will not serve you. If you want to kill me, then kill me now.’ He proved to be a courageous man, and he took his death standing up. The white czar had an iron palace. They carried Jumagul’s body into that palace. The wooden horse searched for its owner and finally found him there. Every day, it flew into the palace through a window. The horse grieved for its master and laid its head on Jumagul’s breast. The guards noticed this and told the czar. The czar ordered them to pour glue on the floor to trap the wooden horse. They did as he said. The next time the wooden horse flew in and stood near its master, breathing in his scent, the guards jumped out of their hiding place and tried to seize it. But the wooden horse bit the servants of the czar who grabbed its halter and killed them. It tried to fly away, but its hooves were stuck to the floor. It flapped its wings with all its might and finally lifted off, breaking the iron palace into pieces. The wooden horse sailed off into the sky. They say it is still flying somewhere up there, waiting for Jumagul to wake up.”



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