If I have life in me after I finish this dratted novel, I want to spend it with oral epic from the steppe. Perhaps I can begin to learn Turkic from my dual-language edition of Manas … where I like to browse the facing page for a sense of verse and rhyme. I say ‘Turkic’ because yesterday I read Paksoy’s book on Alpamysh. It is his strong conviction that the ‘cultural-linguistic unity’ of Central Asia has been split up into artificial languages, in a Soviet divide-and-rule strategy: the epics are common cultural heritage and are a way back into that shared tradition. I found this vision a glint of a light of hope – maybe I can struggle into Chagatay, the old common language that he explains to me is more rightly known as Turki and is ‘alive and well across Central Asia. It has never died.’ – although pronounced extinct. Until yesterday I understood I faced Kazakh epics, Uzbek epics, Karakalpak epics… If this was meant to make the task seem impossible, it certainly worked on this interested party in Australia.
Even in Paksoy’s functional translation, Alpamysh is richly a poem. This was thrust home upon me when today I turned to the Battalname (Turkish with Arab background, written down in the 15thC), a folk epic in prose. Battal’s life on the Byzantine frontier has story coincidences with Alpamysh in his setting over east, but suffered from the contrast, being such plain prose. No, no, I want the poetry.
Paksoy also told me that the plot summaries most of us rely on for acquaintance with steppe epic (eg. in Oral Epics of Central Asia or The Oral Epic of Siberia and Central Asia) issue out of a process of distortion with political intent. So there is both heartening and depressing news from him.
For incentive, I have my despair of ever reading Kyrk Kyz /Qirq Qiz unless I learn to in the original. The title translates as Forty Maidens/Girls. If you know me, you might know I have a thing for fighting girls – well, there are forty of them in that plot.  (Never, never tell me that women with weaponry are a contemporary fictional fashion, because I’ll quote you old epics from the Mamluk-age Sayf, Knight of the Yemen to the Byzantine Digenes Akrites – in the latter of which they are wretchedly done. But that only proves they have to be there.)
Let me not get side-tracked.
Oral poetry resources online. First, H.B. Paksoy makes his work available for free online at Carrie Books.
John Miles Foley, pioneer (alas, the late) believed in the congruence of the internet and oral tradition. See his philosophy on this at the Pathways Project.
The Oral Tradition Journal, founded by Foley above, is online and open access. Issues from 1986 onward. A very well-ordered and usable site, and amen to their statement on universal access.
The Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative. PDF files, MP3 audio files, video files. Extremely valuable but not extremely easy to navigate, at least if you need to find English content.
Again I direct you to the online Manas. As Paksoy says, Manas “contains one million lines and requires up to six months to perform.” Here we have the beginning. It’s marvelous so far.
I’ve always liked epic, and spent most of my thirties with Beowulf – a translation that tried for too much poetry, and a novel from Grendel’s point of view, both away in a drawer. But now I have met the epics I like more than Homer… I won’t say more than Beowulf, but he gets enough attention and these don’t.
One thing I smiled to see – as a historical novelist – was at the end of Paksoy’s book, where he talks of a new way to save the dastans, historical fiction inspired by them. Published in Tashkent and Alma-Ata. Like the Mongolian novels I hear about (one called Water on Fire, about Temujin and Jamuqa) – unlikely to be seen in English.
Did you hear of the guy who taught himself English entirely from his copy of Shakespeare? He was a fantastic conversationalist. I’m going to start following my Manas on the facing page.
- potted plot (from a Soviet encyclopaedia):
(Qïrq qiz), a Kara-Kalpak heroic epic. It was recorded in 1939 and 1940 in 20,000 lines from the recitation of the folk narrator Kurbanbai Tazhibaev. The main plot has much in common with Herodotus’ accounts of Queen Tomirisa of the Massagetae tribe and of her war against the Persian king Cyrus, as well as with Diodorus Siculus’ account of Queen Zarina of the Sacae, who freed her people from foreign bondage. In Forty Maidens the heroine, Gulaim, goes into battle against the Kalmyk khan Surtaishi and the Iranian ruler Nadir Shah; she is aided by her beloved, Aryslan, and by 40 girl-warrior friends. Having freed Khwarazm, Gulaim and Aryslan form a government from the representatives of the four nationalities inhabiting the country: the Kara-Kalpaks, Turkmens, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs.
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