Begenas Sartov: Мамыры Гулдогон Маалды (Russian: Когда цветут эдельвейсы) (When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish)

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A Kyrgyz science fiction novel written in the Soviet era and only published in the UK in 2012 is something of an anomaly, particularly as it is published by a relatively obscure publisher which specialises in publishing literature from the Former Soviet Union in English and English literature in Central Asian languages. Anyway, we can be grateful for an interesting venture and an interesting book, which we also certainly would not otherwise have heard of.

The story is set in Kyrgyzstan during the Soviet era. Melis is a young Kyrgyz poet attending the New Talent Literature Festival. He is to read his poem but the reading starts with a poem by another new talent, Rena. Melis is particularly impressed with her reading, partially because of the quality of the poem, partially because she mentions the edelweiss in her poem and mainly because he is clearly attracted to her. For him and his people, the edelweiss is the soul of the mountain. It is a flower found only in the highest parts of the mountain range and difficult to get. Indeed, his poem is about the flower. After the reading Rena seems to go off with a group of rowdy poets, while Melis goes off on his own. On the road, he trips up and it is Rena who suddenly appears to rescue him. They go off to a restaurant where the rowdy poets are gathered and there is an exchange between the two groups, which results in a fight. Melis and Rena leave but the poets follow. Melis, who is a wrestling champion, easily defeats the four drunken poets and then has them arrested by a police friend. The next day, he bails them out and the six become firm friends.

The story moves to the future. Melis has finished university and has worked as a shepherd for his father. The other five have got careers and, in some cases, got married. At a reunion, however, Rena berates Melis for keeping her hanging on - he asks for another year - and he then explains why. He had been out high in the mountains looking for an edelweiss for her, with a friend. He slips and falls off the edge of the mountain. As he is falling, he sees a light and reaches out for it and is pulled in by a strange man. This man is, he explains, from another dimension. However, he is very critical of Melis uprooting an edelweiss, saying that he should only have picked the flower, so that the plant could then regrow. The man's origins, subsequent actions and how he relates to Melis and Rena will form a significant part of the rest of the book. However, the science fiction/fantasy story, involving the interplanetary visitor, his need for the edelweiss and his interaction with Melis is not the only part of this book. The visitor will return at a later date, disguised as a beggar, and he will tell his story to Melis and Melis' father but we also get the story or, rather, a story of Melis' father, involving horse herding, bears, wolves, strange illnesses and how to cure them with herbs and even ghosts (which may well have been the visitor coming on a previous occasion).

It is something of a strange tale even if the science fiction aspect is relatively conventional, telling the story of a visitor from a strange planet with a civilisation more advanced than ours, and the ending is even stranger, concerning the relationship between Melis and Rena, which does not work out in a way either the reader or the characters could have predicted. However, it is still a fascinating slice of Kyrgyz life with an interesting science fiction aspect to it and makes for pleasant reading.

Publishing history

First published by Mektep, Frunze in 1978
First English translation by Hertfordshire Press in 2012

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