Kazakh literature is rich in folkloristic poetry: sagas of Kazakh knights (batyrs), love tragedies, heroic epics like Alpamys and fairy tales, in which witty rascals rip off rich and ignorant beys. A striking assessment of this traditional art comes from Yuri Rytcheu, an author from the Chuchi people: "No other human craft breathes such optimism, such belief in the victory of good over evil, such refined humour and such sensitive understanding for social harmony and justice, as we find it in the oral tradition of popular poetry." The amazing thing is that countless verses, songs and tales of truly epic length have passed from generation to generation for centuries with great accuracy, both in terms of meaning and wording, to the extent that historic events can be accurately reconstructed with the help of other sources.
The development of Kazakh literature is closely allied to that of its music, as an oral tradition focused on the tales and epic poetry of the akyns and zhiraus. The epics were often based around the heroic exploits of Kazakh warriors, batyrs, the stories invoking the spiritual interventions of the saints, ancestor and forces of nature in a blending of religious traditions, and normally also featuring a remarkable horse of great speed and strength belonging to the hero as well as the assistance of a beautiful woman. Epic love stories, such as Kyz Zhibekk were also popular. Individual works start to be known from the 18th century, including some of those of Bukhar Zhirau, an adviser to Ablai Khan. In the 19th century, works of poets such as Makhambet Utemisov expressed concern about the increasing Russian control over the region.
The leading Kazakh literary figure of the 19th century, and regarded by many as the founder of modern Kazakh literature as a written rather than simply oral form of communication, was Abai Kunanbaev. His works drew from the oral tradition of the steppe, from Islamic authors such as Navoi and from Russian literature, in which he was immersed through his friendship with exiled Russian intellectuals in Semipalatinsk. He wrote poetry and songs, especially lyrics about love, translated Russian poetry into Kazakh and set down an ethical code, through a series of short essays, or Words. Other important Kazakh writers came to the fore, like Ibray Altynsarin, who demanded that literature should not only narrate but also provide food for deep thought, and Chokan Valikhanov.
A whole generation of Kazakh writers in the early 20th century was put to death in the Stalinist repression of the 1930s, for fear that its leading figures were too close to nationalist or pan-Turkic sentiments. Shakarim Kudaiberdiev, Saken Seifullin, Ilyas Zhansugurov and Beimbet Mailin were among those killed. One of the few prominent Kazakh writers to be spared was Mukhtar Auezov, whose writings did much to promote the work of Abai, as well as to provide a wider picture of Kazakh traditions.
A prominent example is Mukhtar Auezov (1897-1961); during the 1930s Auezov came under attack for allegedly propagating a feudal Kazakhstan in his life's work, the four-volume Abai's Way, which is a crucial contribution to Kazakhstan's self-awareness. Ultimately, Auezov was granted the Order of Lenin for his four-volume book after Stalin's death, recognizing that it offers an encyclopaedic view of the Kazakh way of life during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many good writers dedicated their work to historical topics. The most important are Anwar Alimzhanov (1930-1994) and Ilyas Yesinberlin (1915-1983), whose trilogy The Nomads is a thriller-like description of Kazakh history from the 15th-l6th centuries, and to this day is among the best-read books in Kazakhstan. In his books and dramas Takhaoui Akhtanov (1923-1994) depicts everyday life in the cotintryside during the 1950s and 1960s.
Significant writers of the later Soviet period include poet Olzhas Suleimenov, who wrote in Russian and later became a prominent anti-nuclear-testing campaigner at the helm of the Nevada- Semipalatinsk movement. Suleimenovs 1975 book AZ i YA, its title combining the Kazakh and Russian words for 'I' to make the sound 'Asia', was his most controversial literary work, condemned by the Moscow establishment for its glorification of what they regarded as the feudal nomadic culture. In this work, Suleymenov tries to demonstrate that Kazakhs are a nation born to rule the world. This should perhaps be understood in context - at that time the self-confidence of Kazakhs was very low - but the book can certainly lead to misunderstandings. It took an intervention from the then First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Dinmuhammed Kunaev, to save Suleimenov's career.
A gradual transformation from enthusiastic believer in Soviet progress to disappointed sceptic can be seen in the books of Kyrgyz-Kazakh writer, publicist and politician Chingis Aitmatov (1928-2008). His books, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years and The Place of Execution, are set in Kazakhstan. His other works, set in the Kyrgyz mountains and the valley of the Chuy, display the comparative life of the neighbouring countries.
Mukhtar Shakhanov (born 1942) went from tractor driver to writer and politician and became one of the most respected authors in Central Asia, and is currently ambassador to Kyrgyzstan. The work of this lyricist, essayist, playwright and prose writer has been translated into 30 languages. In the 1970s he became engaged in civil rights and ecological movements. His work Four Mothers gives his impressions of Kazakhstan's rebellious youth movement in 1986. The Wandering Path of Civilisation is a grim poem on progress and loss of values. The Weeping of the Hunter Over the Abyss and Night of Thoughts on Socrates, both of which he wrote with Chingis Aitmatov, are works of great wisdom, the relevance of which stretch far beyond Central Asia.
Dukenbay Doszhan (born 1942), though sharing his literary contemporaries' historical pessimism, ostentatiously stays aloof from public life. He published his selected works in 13 volumes in 2002. Silk Road brings the Shah of Khorezm and Genghis Khan back to life. In 1983, his work Wind-lions' Manes was translated into Russian by Anatoly Kim and into German by Herold Belger. Doszhan broke away from the Soviet-style polarising of heroism at an early stage. He adds a human dimension to his historical heroes, after the tradition of Dostoyevsky, recognizing that no man is only good or evil. His biography of Auezov, Mukhtar's Way, is among the best-read Auezov biographies in Kazakhstan.
A small number of Kazakh writers have come to the fore more recently, though little of their work has been translated. Among them the best known are perhaps Ilia Odegov, author of Zvuk, s kotorim vstaet solnse and Bez dvuh odin, and Ramil Aitkaliev, the writer of Pesnia 81.