Sky and Word (Their Paired, Echoing Resonance)

Translated from Kyrgyz by Caroline Tracey

“Sky and Word” is a translation from Kyrgyz of a lecture by Chingiz Aitamtov, the “national author” of Kyrgyzstan, about the epic Manas, which remains a living oral tradition to this day. It tells the story of a unique recitation by Sayakbay Karalayev, the most famous Manaschi (reciter of the Manas) of the twentieth century. Karalayev was invited to recite the epic at a collective farm, and Aitmatov, one of few citizens of Soviet Kyrgyzstan to own a car, drove him there. What ensues gives me goosebumps every time I read it.
“Sky and Word” was published as the introduction to the printed edition of Sayakbay Karalaev’s Manas in 1984.

“Sky” and “Word” may not seem related. But then how does one great melody come into an echo with another?
Sure, maybe it’s true that Word is a thing from the mind of man—a thought-of, marvelous, displayed thing—while Sky is a limitless universe, the many-sided infinity of the atmosphere’s expanse. But given that tired explanation, how is their connection possible? How is it possible to understand their equal and opposite melodies summoned, merging?
Why should they be opposites? In the story I’ll tell today, Sky and Word came together into a single echo. To understand how that could be possible, emerging from normal Word and normal Sky, I, as the event’s witness, will try to tell everything fully, just as I saw it.
On that day, the Manaschi was the assistant to the Sky, making it flow, making our ears reverberate, bringing forth the mysterious enlivening that took place.
I’m not only talking about Sky but also about surprise: because in truth, this event reaffirmed my belief that my own storytelling is not in vain.
Since then much time has passed. That day belongs to the second half of the twentieth century. But let us look back, here at the beginning, to mythological history.
Time’s holiest core is the eternally young secret of folklore, held deep in our heart of hearts, the ancient melodious poetry turned to word. Throughout the chain of history, every nation created oral works, and passed them from ancient generation to ancient generation, developing them all the time.
As the caravans of the past fade farther into the distance, as we follow their footprints and scrutinize every step, as the weight of time bears down, as towers crumble into archaeological ruins, in this very moment as our world empires search ceaselessly to renew their web of influence, as we wait to see when and if humanity finishes believing its lie of social utopia, when and if we finish this unending confusion, and when we will stumble into starting the next world war and come face to face with not knowing what to do, in this very era, as unrest pours out and revolution drums up, the ancient Word’s stories transform again into the people’s shared traditional oral epic, continuing, neither deteriorating nor lessening, having traveled the centuries in songs, in oral histories, in sayings, in ballads, burning like a candle, saving the nation’s unrepeatable history. And in this way they create and hold together the difficult long way of our earthly development, to which at every stage Word and Soul belong.
The unrepeatable marvelous event which I will tell you about is like the root of epic’s belonging to the world.
So. The second half of the twentieth century is passing. As time passes, I always regret that I did not save my thoughts in a diary. Every time we say “next time,” we fall back into our habits. We forget.
At the time this story takes place, the drums of ideology were thundering across the world. I was working for Pravda as the Central Asia and Kyrgyz SSR correspondent. By order of fate, I happened to meet the last classical teller of tales—sometimes the oral works’ tidal wave, a whirling tornado, at other times as quiet as a sheep with a mouth full of grass, who could make just as significant an impression on a person ignorant of Kyrgyz as on our countrymen: the great genius Manaschi Sayakbay Karalayev.
May his name belong to fame in capital letters, for who knows whether the world will ever have another reciter of such great power and talent.
Our oral heritage, the interior wealth that the nation had treasured for a thousand years, was considered unsuited to the era’s proletariat values. The regime declared the oral epic a “work against the people.” But it was in that politically trying era that this great talent, Sayakbay, appeared from the Creator. Thinking scientifically, a result like this would seem to mean that the toxic influences made no impression.
I am reminding you of this because through the strength of his great talent for reciting, and by being much stronger than totalitarianism—by making the Kyrgyz people believe in the limitless truth connected to the mythological world’s strength—Sayakbay Karalayev made the nation want to listen again and again to the national story. Making the Manas into his human duty, into the core of a life, was not in vain for him, because the great Word of the Manas epic does not just tell the hero’s history—it lays out the nation’s worldview, its historical honors, its beliefs. The greatest pleasure of our God-given Manas comes from listening to it from the mouth of one of our own.
And so Sayakbay Karalayev became the reciter of the millennium.
There’s no question about this. This was an ordinary helpless human, no different from any other, but for that his vantage on the world depended on holding the unwritten national poetic works in his heart and summoning them. A pure epic human. So it could be said that we came to independence as a nation waving the Manas epic like a flag, and that still to this day, there are marvelous reciters who, in Sayakbay Karalayev’s image, deliver the Word to us in its complete, vital form.
Sayakbay Karalayev was broad-shouldered and swarthy, with sweet, protruding eyes and expressions that changed rapidly depending on his mood; he was an open, handsome man. The Manaschi‘s soul was deeply devoted to the epic. He could turn one into a king one moment, then a shoemaker; in the next, a woman, then an infant, a ne’er-do-well, a lover, and then, in the blink of an eye, mount a horse and head into battle.
I am belaboring all this to fulfill the promise I gave in the beginning: that I want to tell you about being witness to the fact that it seems that you could say the Manas epic’s great Word is equal in strength to the poetry of the Sky.
If you’ll excuse me—I am trying to describe this word for word.
On top of everything I’ve just said, at that time Sayakbay Karalayev and I lived in the same apartment building, I on the third floor and he on the first. Of course, we got together frequently. Our close relationship meant that when I was meeting with foreign visitors in my role as the correspondent to Frunze for Pravda, sometimes calling up Sayakbay Karalayev was in order.
To this day, it’s impossible to forget the impression that listening to Manas made on Mukhtar Auezov[1] and Dmitriy Shostakovich when Shostakovich came to Frunze in the middle of the 1960s. He didn’t know the language and yet he still listened to Sayakbay with admiration.
One day, I happened to meet Sayakbay as he was standing outside our building. He had been invited to recite the Manas at a kolkhoz (collective farm) in the Chuy region, and he asked me to drive him. At that time, as far as vehicles were concerned, the kolkhoz had nothing but trucks and tractors. The heads of kolkhozes and the partorgs (party organizers) went everywhere by horse. At that time both in the villages and in the city the question of transport was difficult, there wasn’t the abundance of cars that there is now.
In short, the following day we set out in my Pobeda[2]. Which kolkhoz it was I don’t remember, somewhere in the foothills in the vicinity of Tokmok, not far from Issyk-Ata, as I recall.
It was my pleasure to drive the famous Manaschi Sayakbay Karalayev to the village. It turned out that the whole kolkhoz—the young and the old, no one left out—had gathered, awaiting him.
Televisions had only just begun to appear back then, and so many people would still come to see a Manaschi with their own eyes, to hear with their own ears, and moreover Sayakbay Karalayev’s name was as recognizable to the Kyrgyz people as a horse with a white mark on its face, but the excitement this time was like nothing I’d ever seen. No one could sit still. For their heart and souls’ devotion to Manas I want to thank my countrymen a thousand times over, because that relationship is testimony to their deep culture, their history, and their innate patriotism.
Sayakbay’s rapped Manas was going to happen under the open sky—the meeting hall had nowhere near enough space for the number of people gathered. So the kolkhoz residents, from the very youngest to the very oldest, had taken seats anywhere they could find space. The village elders sat on whatever was there, some in armchairs, some on logs; there was a circle of women in white kerchiefs, and many, many children had come.
The most curious boys were perched like little birds on the branches of nearby willows and birches. A bunch of mechanics had opened the backs of trucks and seated many people there. Some people had decided to listen from donkeys. Teenage boys brought their camels to their knees and lay on the fluff of their humps as if lounging on a couch.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
Looking at the people gathered, my heart melted: in this one moment of wholehearted loyalty, the people’s excellence as a nation connected to their devoted ancestors’ epic inheritance. I wished for that kind of unity to reside in my Kyrgyz people’s heart always. In the twentieth century’s restless, bloodless days many things were achieved, many things were made possible, but something like the Manas epic is unrepeatable; it’s impossible to manufacture a national masterwork.
I had no doubts that Sayakbay Karalayev’s “rap-Manas” would go off that day with great success, because the Manaschi had performed it many times, he had been famous for a long time. The day was also more than just open—the full heat of summer was on. The crop-harvesters and grass-cutters had all stopped their work like everyone else. Everyone was there.
Finally the moment we’d all been waiting for arrived. Great Sayakbay Karalayev got up on a stallion and started the Manas.
To tell the truth, it was the first recitation from horseback I had ever seen. Later the Manaschi said it was also the first time he had delivered the Manas from horseback. Thinking on it now, I see what a shrewd decision it was, and in my heart I praise whoever thought of it. Depending on the moment in the story, the Manaschi could turn the reins here and there, addressing the circle of listeners, continuing the story’s unbreaking thread in total comfort. By the way, in those times, there were no microphones.
From the start, it was clear that the epic’s stitches of poetry made a strong impression on the listeners. As the Manaschi spread the magical secret of the Words’ strength, the audience felt the world transform into a mysterious, spiritual place. The reciter and the audience had submitted to the Creator, and the Creator, as one with them, also listened attentively to Manas’ secret world, the Kyrgyz peoples’ centuries-lived history, events passed together, relationships with neighboring nomadic peoples, the entire nation’s great spirit, heroic battles, hoping only for the epic’s pure triumph.
Of course, on a topic like this there could be a lot of thoughts, predictions, proofs of its mythological roots. My goal, the main thing I want to turn your attention to, is what is located in the center of the Manas epic’s cosmic essence.
In short, imagine this: on this high summer day, outside the village office, with any and all people finding room to listen, the Manaschi Sayakbay Karalayev was surrendering, unwinding the story’s secret ball of yarn. To no one’s expectation, black clouds were gathering right above the group of people, and suddenly all at once thunder clapped, lightning struck, a midday storm’s buckets of rain started pouring, waiting for nothing. I jumped up from the place where I was sitting and ran inside the office, stopping to catch my breath only after stumbling and tripping over the threshold.
Coming back to my senses, I pictured a kolkhoz Olympics—some of the seated people running to the office to take cover, the rest flying up and scattering here and there like little birds. I thought the Manaschi would get down off the horse and come into the office behind the rest of the people, vowing to lift the mood and strengthen everyone’s spirits.
One minute passed, and then another, and another, and still not one person had come into the office.
What was going on? Where was Sayakbay? Hadn’t he gotten down from the saddle? What about the rest of the people?
I ran back outside to the pounding rain. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not a soul, not even the young people crouching on the tree branches, had moved. I saw the seated kolkhoz director and partorg, soaked, frozen in their places just like the rest.
But more than anyone, the Manaschi himself surprised me.
Sayakbay Karalayev was on horseback, not moving, having summoned strength and energy from the tale. He was made of water from head to toe, and despite the thundering midday lightning, the pounding rain, with sorrow and anguish he was sputtering Manas—the legendary words, the bygone history—like it was the universe’s own midday legend from the sky. His high melody was ringing out to the circle, pouring out harmoniously with the sounds of the storm. How could I not be astounded: it seemed that the Kyrgyz words, ever renewing, ever creating anew, were raining down from the sky. Not a man, not a woman, not even the children had moved from their seats. I alone had run off seeking shelter. I cannot express my embarrassment at this—I must value my own soul too much.
Both the rain and the lightning turned into Sayakbay’s Manas, pounding out a rhythm, constantly electrifying, constantly strengthening. The durability of the people’s will could not fail the sky’s test of the Kyrgyz destiny.
Unable to endure my shame, I ran over to Sayak’s side and, as if nothing had happened, took hold of the horse’s reins, joining him and the horse in their movement.
Again, from some influence in that moment at Sky and Word’s melodious border, the two of them joined by an umbilical cord, Word created by the Manas, Sky by the pouring rain, I began to tremble. I’ll say it in Kyrgyz: “нөшөрлөп төккөн калың жаан манасчынын күчүнө күч кошуп, шериктеш болуп түрдү![3] The duet between Sky and Word was audible just like that. As they sang to one another, the Manas epic’s resonant melody rang out like lovers’ cries of praise. While I held onto Sayakbay Karalayev’s stirrup, all of us listeners added our voices to the paired melody.
I saved that moment in my heart fully and forever: the great overflowing of Sky and Word turning into a holy duet, the Manas epic’s unforgettable recited story passing from generation to generation, rising to sky- and moon-like strength. As the rain poured, its invisible current united ordinary life’s victories and collapses, heroism and decision, wisdom and prophecy, love and parting, anger and humility, creativity and fulfillment, death and birth, fame and notoriety, in the recited word.
And in that moment the pouring rain, and all of us under the storm, united with Sayakbay Karalayev and sounded a battle cry.
I’ll say in closing: I stood under the storm and held the horse’s bridle as if it were the flag of the spirit of Manas. And because the rein I held was the epic’s interior spirit, and its eternally renewing message, I am grateful to my destiny a thousand times over.

[1] Mukhtar Auezov (1897-1961) was an eminent Kazakh writer and philologist.
[2] A model of Soviet passenger car manufactured by GAZ and based on models from Ford.
[3] The pounding, emptying, thickening rain added to the Manaschi’s strength—they became partners!

Natural History

contrary to popular belief
—florists included—
tulips are not native to Holland, but to Anatolia instead.

Neither Madame, nor Mademoiselle

You understand, don't you? This strange feeling that consumes you when you look in the mirror and don’t recognize the person in front of you.