[An English translation is available online - see below.]
Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008) was a Kyrgyz/Soviet writer who wrote novels, essays and plays for the theater in both Russian and his mother tongue. Although Aitmatov was apparently more than merely tolerated by the Soviet authorities (he was awarded the Lenin Prize), I can't help but think that he was a token ethnic author to them, for the books I've read up to this point have not been in the approved soviet realist style complete with Soviet Heroes of Labor and the like.(*) Perhaps because he usually worked folklore into his texts they thought he could be safely pigeonholed in that officially approved category. But Aitmatov did not employ the folklore of the eastern steppes and Siberia for the sake of exoticism, and certainly not in order to reconcile the Turkic peoples living in the eastern wilds of the Soviet Union with their Russian masters. No, the nature mysticism, the shamanism and the traditions of his Turkic, nomadic forebears actually resonated within him.
However, this story is set among the Nyvkh people on Sakhalin Island in the icy Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan. Life is extremely harsh in those frigid wastes and is maintained only by hunting seals, of which every single piece is put to use for food, clothing, shelter and bone utensils by these relatives of the North American Eskimos. Aitmatov dramatically sets the scene of an elemental war between land and sea:
In the impenetrable maritime night, filled with flying spume and cold wind, all along the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk, all along the battlefront of land and sea, the everlasting, implacable opposition of two elements was being fought out: the land was obstructing the movement of the sea, and the sea never wearied of assailing the land.
The sea boomed and heaved in the dark, charging forward and dashing itself on the crags. The rock-hard earth groaned as it beat off these onslaughts by the sea.
They have been duelling like this ever since Creation--since the time when day first became day and night first became night, and so it shall be, all days and all nights, as long as earth and water abide in unending time.
And then he sends frail man out into it. From Spotted Dog Bay three men and a boy set off in a kayak, the two younger men working their double oars, the eldest, Organ, steering at the stern, and the excited boy, Kirisk, in the prow on his first hunting trip. The two propelling the boat are Emrayin, Kirisk's father, and his cousin Mylgun. Kirisk must learn the handiwork necessary for the clan's survival. But every time one rows out into the moody and treacherous waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, one is putting one's life on the line.
And so it was on this day. This is a concretely realistic and gripping parable of mortal danger, courage and self-sacrifice. And I enjoyed the glimpses of the folklore of these people, particularly the kinren, evil spirits who are so dangerous but who can be so easily led astray - even the creation myth was worked into the story without a strain.
(*) But neither were they the bitter, blackly humorous satires so ubiquitous in the samizdat crowd.
[Translated as Spotted Dog Running Along the Seashore in the UK and as Piebald Dog Running Along the Shore in a translation published in Moscow(!) and online here
I read this novella in a German translation entitled Der Junge und das Meer. The story was originally published in 1977. A film based on this book was made in Russia in 1991.]