Selected Writings, by Didar Amantay: Introduction
The first stories of Didar Amantay appeared in the early 1990s, at a time when Kazakhstan was undergoing economic shock therapy and no-one cared about what was happening in literature. Artists and academics were in a state of crisis. The conversation about a post-Soviet Kazakh literature would begin only near the end of the 1990s, when the Kazakh economy was booming. By then, Didar Amantay had become a well-known writer. His reputation was built not on large sales but on a mixed reception.
Older generations of Kazakh writers and critics, who had established themselves by serving the cause of the Soviet Union, condemned his work as unfit for literature. Amantay did not write long historical novels that intended to celebrate Kazakh nationhood. His characters were not idealized builders of a new society; instead they were rather ordinary young men and women, who were drinking vodka and looking for physical love. His stories were driven by dialogue and marked by abrupt endings. This was not what the literary establishment had come to expect of Kazakh literature ever since the Bolshevik program of Likbez, whose official aim was to eliminate illiteracy, had been implemented in the 1920s.
Some critics accused Amantay of being alienated from his roots. Amantay’s characters did not belong to ‘aul’, the rural community of Kazakhs loyal to their traditional culture. However, the generation that had come of age during the Perestroika of the 1980s thought differently. Being able to read Soviet-era novels that had hitherto been banished, most notably Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (1966-83) and Anatoly Pristavkin’s Inseparable Twins (1987), this new generation sought different ways of expressing itself. This generation, whose worldview had also been affected by Sergey Solovyov’s cult film Assa (1987), featuring Victor Tsoy’s youth anthem ‘I want changes!’, aspired for real justice and rejected the idea of honesty as it was taught in Soviet schools.
This generation, eager for any kind of change, viewed Amantay’s stories in a much more positive light. Amantay’s stories broke with the conventions of socialist realism. They were largely (auto)biographical. The characters were Amantay’s friends and the girls that he and his friends met in the streets and restaurants of Almaty: usually, Kazakh youths who had come from rural places to study and grow up in Almaty. These youths identified themselves as a ‘lost generation’, a generation uncertain about the legitimacy of both the old Communist system and the new capitalist economy.
Amantay’s characters, too, often seem to be lost, full of questions without answers, searching for a purpose in life without ever finding it. What has not been sufficiently recognized by the critics of Amantay’s writing, however, is that the youths of the Kazakh lost generation made for interesting subjects in art. Growing up in Kazakhstan in the 1980s was disorienting, but it has given Amantay and his artistic peers the energy to continue thinking, painting and writing about the new Kazakhstan to this day. Amantay’s stories and novels are art: they try to present the lives of ordinary Kazakh men and women as honestly as they can. This book offers for the first time in English a selection of the writings of this important Kazakh author.