National Identity Through Myth and Legend: Magical Realism in Ajtmatov's Early Fiction

Erika Haber, Syracuse University

Using narrative theory of the fantastic (Brooke-Rose, Hume, Hutcheon) and focusing on Ajtmatov's "Pegij pes, begushij po krajam morja" and "Belyj paroxod," this paper will analyze Ajtmatov's stylistic and narrative techniques, which until recently have been largely ignored or misrepresented for ideological reasons. I will show how Ajtmatov employed the characteristics of magical realism in the 1970s as a means of championing the myths and legends of the Kirghiz and Nivkh peoples and of transgressing the limiting boundaries of socialist realism.

Magical realist texts present elements of a mimetically realistic world alongside myths, legends and magic of a traditional native culture without distinguishing a hierarchy between them. By accepting and presenting both worlds as authentic and legitimate, the magical realist text undermines the superiority of the "colonizing," non-native culture and provides a way to celebrate the national identity of the non-dominant culture. For non-Russian writers of the Soviet Republics, like Ajtmatov, magical realism supplied a medium for national self-expression, for revealing the unique traditions, superstitions and beliefs of the non-Russian cultures of the Soviet Union, which the Soviet regime largely chose to ignore or play down. Likewise, Soviet literary critics often passed over the exotic legends and myths in these texts as well, preferring instead to praise the socialist realist elements.

This paper will demonstrate how by juxtaposing fantastic, folklore, and myth with Soviet reality, Ajtmatov's magical realism presented conflicting realities and provided varying interpretations, thereby actually undermining socialist realism by suggesting a plurality of worlds and truths, including those of the native, non-Russian cultures.