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A Canticle for Kirghizia : THE PLACE OF THE SKULL by Chingiz Aitmatov; translated by Natasha Ward (Grove Press: $20.95; 310 pp.)

June 18, 1989|Tom Clark | Berkeley writer Clark's latest novel is "The Exile of Celine" (Random House). and

Human evil and virtue are indeed Aitmatov's chosen protagonists, but his human characters come off seeming hardly more real than cartoon stick-figures, and his true heroes, righteous intentions aside, are the animals.

Certainly the principal message put forward in Aitmatov's preachings--a stern injunction against contemporary people's wasteful, foolhardy and thoughtless defilement of the Earth, and of each other--is a commendable one. The problem with "The Place of the Skull" is that the message is given entirely too much sway over the novelistic medium, unfortunately (and ironically) turning the latter into its own kind of oppressed beast of burden.

--From "The Place of the Skull"

Daylight brought a slight thaw, brief and elusive as the breath of a child, on the south-facing slopes of the mountains; then, imperceptibly, the weather changed: the wind blew down off the glaciers and a penetrating darkness stole up the ravines, trailing behind it the cold pearly-grey of a snowy night ahead. Snow was everywhere. The whole length of the Issyk-Kul ridge lay buried by the blizzard that had swept through a couple of days before with the wild rage of a forest fire. Such storms could be a terrifying thing, as the snowy darkness swallowed up mountains, sky and the whole of the visible world. Later the raging ceased, and a clearer sky broke through. Since then the mountains had stood in frozen silence, imprisoned and isolated from the rest of creation by a mantle of ice.

The only sound was the growing roar of a heavyweight helicopter, cutting up through the canyon of the Unzun-Chat to the frozen wastes of the pass at Ala-Mongyu, half visible in the evening light and the curling wisps of cloud; closer and louder it grew, until at last, triumphant, it filled with its thundering clatter the ridges and peaks, the untouched snows where the only trespassers were light and sound. Echoing off the rock-safe and the screes, the sound grew with such inexorable power that the mountains seemed poised for a repeat of the recent earthquake, remembered with horror by all in those parts. . . .

Suddenly something cracked and a stony slope, denuded by the winds, directly beneath the path of the helicopter, started to move. Shuddering as the sound-wave reached it, a bank of scree ran down but was quickly stilled, like the flow of blood at the utterance of a charm. So unstable was the surface, however, that even this small movement was enough to send a few of the heavier stones crashing down the slope, gaining speed, raising dust and chips in their wake, until they burst at the foot like canon-balls through the bushes of \o7 krasnotal\f7 and barberry, and tunneled through the deeper drifts to thunder down onto the roof of a lair which the grey wolves had burrowed out in a cleft beneath the overhang, tucked between a thicket and a small, half-frozen but gradually thawing spring.

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