The book of clay
Olzhas Suleimenov (b. 1936) is Kazakhstan's greatest living poet. Having chosen Russian as his principal language of literary production, he nevertheless remains steeped in the folk and literary traditions of both nations and their respective cultures.
Nowhere is this duality brought forth more vividly than in the poet's masterwork, The Book of Clay (originally published in 1969), a terribly serious mock epic bristling with cultural
paradoxes, misappropriations, anachronisms, fractured perspectives, sexual ambiguity and, above all, undiluted genius.
At the center of the poem is Ishpaka, the young and valiant chieftain of the ancient Scythian people (identifi ed with the Kazakhs), and his fateful love for a mysterious Assyrian beauty Shamhat-love that transforms him from a coarse savage into a subtle poet, an outcome by no means decisively positive. About the lovers, in a kind of raucous dance, whirls a chorus of priests and elders, gods and spirits, chroniclers and doppelgangers, soldiers and sages, trying to outshout one another in the deafening roar of History.
The Book of Clay, translated here for the first time in its entirety, is certain to find a broad and appreciative audience among readers already familiar with the poetry of Olzhas Suleimenov, as well as those discovering this master for the first time.