‘To Hell With Poets’ by Baqytgul Sarmekova

Peter Gordon in the Asian Review of Books: How is a reviewer, faced with (yet another) excellent short-story collection, supposed to convey to readers a convincing rationale for “why this one?” To note that this author is Kazakh is necessary but insufficient; if diversity alone were the criterion, one would need an entire year to cycle through books from every country, territory and language in the world. To Hell with Poets is good not just in the context of Kazakh or even Central Asian writing available in English, but good, period.

To Hell With Poets, Baqytgul Sarmekova, Mirgul Kali (trans) (Tilted Axis, March 2024)

So, why? Baqytgul Sarmekova is indeed Kazakh and the stories are set in Kazakhstan. The reader will be introduced to auls and tois, respectively villages and parties, particularly weddings.

Soon, the yellowish, moss-grown roofs tucked between drab-colored hills overgrown with squat tamarisk bushes came into view. The squalid aul looked like a sloppy woman’s kitchen.

She includes towns such as Astana and even Atyrau (on the Caspian) which the reader has probably never visited (although I, entirely coincidentally, have visited Atyrau, several times). There are stories about a rural way of life that hardly exists anymore in the developed anglophone world (and is probably on its way out in Kazakhstan as well). And yet, there are parts of the USA or Hong Kong that seem more exotic: Sarmekova’s stories and characters are so rooted in common humanity and daily life that little seems unfamiliar.

A young woman leaves her village for Astana to find a job and possibly a husband; she waits in “a long, seemingly endless line” at the unemployment registration office,

“Armangul was tired of waiting. Even waiting for cows to come home for their evening milking was bliss compared to this. It took her all day to reach the door of the first room, but she came out with her hopes shattered. She imagined her hope as a young woman with a long braid, and this braid had just been chopped off. Lady Hope flipped the stump of her braid back over her shoulder, shot a glance at her, and took off.”

There are stories that feature a bridal scam, that special connection between rural people and their animals, an erstwhile pet’s desire for human companionship, a shepherdess, post-Soviet cars, the “Great Retreat of Kazakhs from the Jungar Invasion” (or at least a book about it), a cobbler. There are stories about women alone in the city, children’s love for grandparents, children yearning for ice cream, sacrifices women make for men, art and life in general. Sarmekova’s stories are familiar songs with different harmonies.

More here.