This unusual and highly uneven novel, powerfully evocative of place, is set in remote regions of Central Asia that will seem as exotic to most Western readers as distant planets: the Issyk-Kul Ridge of Kirghizia, a wild upland country of treacherous, forbidding glaciers and ravines, and the vast steppes of Moyun-Kum in neighboring Kazakhstan, in summer a bountiful, sun-baked expanse of wild grasses, reigned over by noble birds of prey and grazed by fleet saigak , or antelope, and in winter a desolate, "boundless white ocean, frozen in waves."
It is a deep love of these lands, along with a strong faith in the redemptive power of unorthodox Christian religious beliefs, that forms the basis of values used by 61-year-old Soviet novelist Chingiz Aitmatov--himself a Kirghiz native son--as a platform for this extended moral tract in the form of a novel. Hailed in the West as a progressive literary breakthrough made possible by the new freedoms of expression brought on by glasnost (and excerpted by Time for its putative controversial content), "The Place of the Skull" is in fact, and in method, far more traditional than modern, laden with sermonizing and severely limited by old social realist narrative modes. The strength of the book lies not in its political critique, but in its moments of poetic vision, contained in passages of lyric response to the natural world.
The book is divided into two complementary parts, titled "Man" and "Wolf." At the outset of "Man," Aitmatov follows the fortunes of a she-wolf and her mate, driven by man's intrusions out of savannah hunting grounds whose beauties are limned in an uplifting prose disclosing the novelist's evident familiarity with and affection for the pristine wilderness of the Moyun-Kum.
"In that evening hour a whole flock of white-tailed kites was circling high above the earth. They flew smoothly and aimlessly, simply for the joy of it, in the faint haze of the cool, cloudless heights. Round and round they circled, as though to symbolize the eternal stability of the land and of the sky, silently observing the life down below them on the earth. Thanks to their exceptional, omnipotent vision (their hearing is vastly inferior), these aristocratic birds of prey live their whole lives in the heavens above the savannah, descending to the sinful earth only to eat and sleep."
The vantage soon descends, however, to that sinful Earth. Breaking into the peaceful natural paradise is a raiding party of armed mercenary roughnecks in jeeps and helicopters, dispatched by local officials to top off the regional Five-Year-Plan meat quota by slaughtering the saigak. Caught in the ensuing stampede, the wolves' cubs are crushed, the parents wounded and forced to flee.
The only one of Aitmatov's human intruders to approach the wild lands with an interest not arising from sheer rapacity, a deacon's son and former seminarian named Avdiy Kallistratov, becomes the focus of the action through the remainder of the book's first part. A self-appointed, well-meaning ethical crusader bent on the moral reformation of a band of teen-age drug smugglers, Avdiy joins their expedition into the steppes to gather anasha, the wild cannabis plant that grows there in profusion. When his companions discover his motive is not the profits of the weed but his own obscure idealism, they beat him up and fling him from a speeding train in the middle of nowhere. At this point the persecuted Avdiy is seized by a vision of Christ conversing with Pontius Pilate. The scene carries obvious echoes of the Christ-Pilate confrontation in Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" and seems to confirm a link with Dostoevsky as well (though Aitmatov's Christ-like Avdiy, it must be said, is drawn with little of the subtlety of his famous Russian forerunner's saintly Alyosha).
Rescued and recovered, Avdiy is briefly consoled by a comely scientific researcher who shares his hatred of anasha (in fact she's employed in a government campaign to eradicate the "evil weed"). But their romance ends when a misunderstanding bred of a missed rendezvous leads to his rash enlistment in the saigak hunt, which proves as disastrous for him as for the defenseless antelope.
In "Wolf," the setting shifts to the Issyk-Kul mountains, where the migrating she-wolf and her mate are found dwelling in uneasy proximity to local shepherds. Here Aitmatov introduces a second main character, the "model worker" Boston Urkunchiev. Urkunchiev, another goody-good with an earnest conscientiousness to match Avdiy's religious fervor, clashes with the inflexible head of the state collective farm. The latter figure refuses his request for private grazing lands and colludes with Noigutov, the teetotalling Urkunchiev's envious, vodka-swilling rival, to bring about his downfall. There is one last fatal encounter between man and wolf, after which the reader is left to ponder the "eternal riddle of why evil almost always triumphs over good."