As I continue my reading challenge, I’m often surprised at how I can find a connection to some or other country I didn’t realise, or remember, I had a tie to. From having Canadian family to living in Argentina to holidaying in Spain to having an uncle who lived in Botswana and an aunt in Japan to having a friend who worked in Antarctica, I can play connect the dots around the world.
When I chose to read The White Ship by Chingiz Aĭtmatov for Kyrgyzstan, I remembered that my friend lives there. And he’s a French guy from Nantes who lived in South Africa, watches Russian music videos, and drinks Mexican tequila.
After I selected the book, I sent him a message to make sure I had in fact remembered the country he’d moved to correctly, that I wasn’t swopping Kyrgyzstan with one of the other “stan” countries like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. “Stan”, it turns out, means “place of” or “where one stands” in Persian and Urdu. In modern slang, of course, it means zealously loving something or someone – but enough with the vocabulary lesson.
I told him about my challenge and that I was reading Kyrgyzstan. He immediately asked his Kyrgyzstani wife for a recommendation. She suggested the very author I had chosen, so naturally I was very happy that my book came with a stamp of approval straight out of Kyrgyzstan.
It’s one of several books in my challenge whose main protagonist is a child. I’ve found I really like this type of narrator. They allow the story to fully let loose its imagination. That’s not to say it’s by any means a light or frivolous story. While the relationship between the boy (simply called that throughout the tale) and his grandfather, Momun, is an endearing one, the relations between the rest of the family are tense and abusive.
There is an undeniable strain of cynicism woven throughout the tale, made more heartbreaking by the author’s certainty that although there is much that is good and beautiful, it either doesn’t last or goes unrewarded. It’s heartbreaking to read, particularly in the depiction of the kindly Momun, described as “the soul of human kindness”, a trait which is lamented as an “unprofitable human quality.”
Given the many emotional, social, and economic hardships the family has to endure, it’s not surprising that many seek any means of escape, whether it’s alcohol or imagination. The white ship of the title is vividly symbolic of the boy’s desire for escape. Told with rich imagery throughout the tale, the boy imagines turning into a fish and swimming away.
Much of the novella is also informed by the folklore of the Bugu, a Kyrgyzstani tribe. Bugu means deer in Kyrgyz and is inspired by the Horned Mother Deer from whom the tribe is said to descend. The creature, a representation of hope but also loss of innocence, plays a vital role in establishing these very themes in the story. Acting as a vessel for these contemplations is the boy whose tale may break our hearts along the way, but also serves to remind us what can happen when we exploit family, nature, and culture and, ultimately, lose hope.