Guest post by Adrian Boskovic
People often say fairy tales are for kids. They say such stories are unbelievable, ridiculous, or even silly. Personally, I think this sentiment misses the bigger picture. To a large extent, fairy tales can speak to the human soul. Dreams, aspirations, character, and values across countless different cultures can be drawn from silly little tales to grow into something meaningful. From the whimsical, to the tragic, to the bittersweet, I somehow always find that fairy tales are what stay with me the longest. The stranger a story, the more I’m allowed to tap into the depths of my imagination, and the more that image stays with me for years to come.
Yuriy Serebriansky’s Kazakhstani Fairy Tales, published in 2017 with translations in both Kazakh and Russian, offers a contemporary look into Kazakhstan – its cities (especially Almaty), its history, people, and landscape all viewed through a delightfully whimsical lens. Readers, both old and young, will chuckle at Serebriansky’s playful collection of short, clever tales, and perhaps be enthralled by how he carefully and creatively weaves this heartfelt tapestry. Some of these stories are modern, and others inspired by folklore or historical figures. The first story, which Serebriansky chose to open his collection, depicts the famously eccentric Soviet painter Sergey Kalmykov riding atop a giant turtle through the streets of Alma-Ata in late March. Hence, the title “Ехал на черепахе”, which literally translates to “Was riding a turtle” in English. The image is absurd, but amusing, and in Serebriansky’s version of the city this occurrence is certainly possible (albeit uncommon). By drawing from the absurd, Serebriansky is able to pull his readers into a playful conversation with a quirky historical figure in a historical setting in an altogether creative way, which I find is an effective method to introduce Almaty to someone who may not be familiar with Kazakhstan.
“Ехал на черепахе” is far from the only story in Serebriansky’s collection, however, as it includes at least 12 different stories, each told in unique settings and time periods, and carefully composed illustrations to accompany each. These tales are, for the most part, short and sweet. I enjoy reading about the ironic forgetfulness of the “Король-изобретатель” (“Inventor King”), or the peculiar backstory of Lake Balkhash in “Балхаш”, or, in my personal favorite story, the origins of the flag of Kazakhstan in “Золотой орёл” (“Golden Eagle”). Some of the stories, like “Пастухи-близнецы” (“Twin shepherds”), explore the Kazakh nomadic lifestyle of centuries past, with the herding of sheep and Serebriansky’s unique spin on the origins of yurts. Similarly, the story “Яблоки” (“Apples”) paints an amusing picture of the giant apples that existed in ancient times, drawing from the importance of apples in Kazakhstan, which is often regarded as the birthplace of apples across the world. Not all these stories are based in fact; for example, “Замок Кок-Тобе” (“Castle Kok-Tobe”) clearly draws from the imagery of European knights instead of Kazakh nomads, and thus it can be said this story is historically inaccurate. However, within the realm of fairy tales, it makes perfect sense for knights to appear in this story, which I believe only adds to the fantastical nature of Serebriansky’s writing.
Serebriansky’s fairy tales, though often lighthearted, are not always so, and on occasion he uses his whimsical settings to explore more serious topics. In his telling of “Пагода” (“Pagoda”), Serebriansky seeks to teach a moral lesson to his readers about existentialism, legacy, and greed, as well as the potential consequences of abandoning tradition. The character Vacharavat, struggling with the realization of his own mortality, is faced with the choice to accept his fate and live as one with the land, or to defy his elder to transform his people into a nation to be remembered throughout history. This tale is quite a bit longer than the others, and by its conclusion the reader may be left with more questions than answers. Another story, “На других планетах всегда веселей” (“It’s always happier on other planets”), is somewhat less philosophical, but thought-provoking all the same. It transports the reader into the setting of a toyshop, where a kindly salesman comforts a crying girl by telling her the story of a toy robot. This story is heartwarming, with a message about finding home in an unfamiliar place. It’s a theme that highlights Kazakhstan as a multi-ethnic country, where people of many different origins and backgrounds have been welcomed despite linguistic barriers. As a whole, each of Serebriansky’s stories has something interesting to say, including the more lighthearted ones, and in very little time these tales convey important themes that can stay with the reader long after reading them.
So, what do I think of Kazakhstani Fairy Tales by Yuriy Serebriansky? Personally, I think it is well worth a read. The English translation I read is likely quite a bit different from the Kazakh-Russian in which the work was originally published, but at the end of the day, I still found this collection to be delightful, fantastical, and thought-provoking. So set off on your journey and go where the turtle takes you! I’m sure it won’t disappoint.
Yuriy Serebriansky is a Kazakhstani author of Polish origin who writes prose, poetry and translates. He teaches at OLSA and works as an editor for Kazakhstani Polish diaspora magazine “Ałmatyński Kurier Polonijny” and Russian literary magazine “Literratura” (before 2023). His works have been translated into many languages and published in a number of different magazines. Yuriy has been awarded the prize “Russkaya Premia” twice and his book Kazakhstani Fairy Tales was named the best bilingual book for young in 2017.
Adrian Boskovic is an American student from Sammamish, WA, who currently studies at Carleton College. In spring of 2023, he participated in an exchange program at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he studied Russian language, literature, and cultures across Central Asia.