The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) never visited Central Asia, but given how he revelled in the American Wild West, with all its raw edges, I suspect he would similarly have loved the “new frontier” atmosphere of the steppes of Kazakhstan. However, that was not why I was invited to Almaty and Taras, to talk about Oscar Wilde, but because of parallels I had drawn between his work and that of the Kyrgyz writer, Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928-2008). That might surprise some people, but let me explain.
Both Wilde and Aitmatov were “outsider-insiders” – creative men who came from the periphery (Ireland and Kyrgyzstan, respectively) but who conquered the metropolis (London and Moscow) with the power and originality of their literary voice. This was despite the fact that some of the subject matter of their writing was subversive, even transgressive, in the historical context. In Wilde’s case, he provided in his social comedies a distorting mirror which parodied the pretentions and hypocrisy of English high society, much to their delight, until he was brought down and imprisoned for over-stepping the mark in his own private life. Chinghiz Aitmatov, the son of a man crushed and obliterated by the Stalinist Soviet system, nonetheless succeeded in challenging the literary orthodoxy of the time by championing the regional (now we would say “national”) characteristics of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh people and their culture and by focussing on individuals who absolutely did not fit into the pattern of the Stakhanovite worker or the heroic fighter in the patriotic war against the Nazis.
Many of Wilde’s and Aitmatov’s characters have glaring flaws, which is why we can empathize so readily with their human frailty. They behave not as they are expected to by the sometimes oppressive norms of the societies in which they live, but rather according to the dictates of their instincts and their hearts. Moreover, in contexts where patriarchy was dominant, the two writers’ women characters – from Wilde’s Mrs Cheveley to Aitmatov’s Jamila – act with a positively revolutionary awareness of their own inner strength and determination.
It was inspiring to be able to discuss such themes when I accompanied Rahima Abduvalieva, Director of the Aitmatov Academy, to Kazakhstan to give lectures and master classes at the Al Farabi University in Almaty and Taras University in Taras. It was by no means my initial encounter with Kazakhstan – which I first visited in 1994, when conditions were difficult for many people in the early years of post-Soviet independence –and each time I return I see marked improvements and vaulting ambitions. There was an energy and enthusiasm among the students (both Kazakh and Russian speaking) too – a thirst to penetrate the unknown and to reconcile the excitement of discovering aspects of world culture while treasuring their own local literary richness. Given that until recently so much of Central Asian culture was based on the oral tradition there is an awareness of the need to preserve and protect so much of the legacy of the past. Aitmatov himself understood that very well, and to a degree many of his short stories are a sort of bridge between traditional story-telling and printed books to be read. The two experiences are, of course, different: the first collective, the second individual. But there is no reason for them to be mutually exclusive.
It was notable that the Russian-speaking students had a much greater background knowledge of Oscar Wilde than their Kazakh-speaking counterparts, but this is maybe not surprising. Wilde’s first, largely unsuccessful, play, pre-dating his four famous comedies, was Vera or, The Nihilists, a melodramatic tragedy loosely based on the life of Vera Zasulich, who shot and wounded the Governor of St. Petersburg, General Fyodor Trepov, but was acquitted in a sensational trial in 1878. However, even more important than that historic link was the fact that the Russians, following the lead of the Germans, in the early 20th century resuscitated interest in the later dramatic output of Oscar Wilde at a time when his posthumous reputation in Britain was still obscured under a cloud of disapproval following his trials and imprisonment. Much of Wilde’s work is available in Russian translation, but I am not aware of that being the case in Kazakh or other Central Asian languages.
Rahima and I returned to London from Almaty just in time to take part in an hour-long BBC Kyrgyz Service TV programme celebrating the 90th anniversary of Aitmatov’s birth. I was able to talk about the main points of my thesis about the Wilde-Aitmatov similarities and I can’t help thinking that even if Wilde would not have understood a word of what was being said in the Kyrgyz language broadcast, he would have been delighted. For as he declared, on more than one occasion, “There is only one thing worse in life than being talked about and that is not being talked about!”
Text by Jonathan Fryer
The British writer and broadcaster Jonathan Fryer is a regular TV pundit on the Islamic world for half a dozen Arab satellite channels, as well as teaching a Humanities course at SOAS (London University).