Translated by Catherine Judelson, Published by the Aitmatov Academy, London, 2015
War-time often creates wealth of fantastically heart-breaking and heart-warming stories of the human experience. Many are told through the eyes of the soldier, the warrior the mother and the wife but few are told primarily through the eyes of a child. Issabekov manages to paint a painfully beautiful portrait of Kazakhstan through the year’s оf 1941-1945 describing the harsh winters, the lack of food and the struggle оf small villages where the majority of the menfolk were away at war and the turmoil and strife this caused for those left behind.
Ongarzhan, the main character is a young boy struggling to come to terms with the possibility that his father may not home from the war and how this also reflects upon his mother and his sister Erkinai. Great is taken whilst describing how simple and meagre there home was and the lack of fоod that seems to have struck the whole village. Breakfast was described as, “millet soup with a small piece of mеat no bigger than a button. Parallels can be drawn to conflict now affecting many people in war torn countries and how this is reflected on the news where we can see how the children are affected, wandering empty streets, orphaned, hungry, homeless and afraid. Issabekov beautifully describes the fear and the hysteria that is constantly rumbling just below the surface in this hook; the tear that the husbands, fathers, sons and brothers will never return home and that the families will not survive.
One fantastic character in the book is Seidu, the village teacher. He represents father figure to the children in the village, a stoic, strong protective and positive role model. Allowing the children to have a space where they can share their worries and fears; where they can get help and advice and in some cases, hope, hope that everything will get better. We Never Knew the War manages to portray the abject squalor and hunger that was experienced in the village, while at the same time portraying children that were deeply loved and cared for in a country that while undergoing terrible strife was once beautiful and bountiful. These dichotomies prove the incredible skill that is possessed by Issabekov both as a wordsmith and as a storyteller.
Issabekov in this book has translated the complex relationships that children have with each other, the support they provide to each other and the care and maturity that is required of them when they are faced with war and turmoil. Ongarzhan and his friends were raised in an environment that was almost completely devoid of childish things, whilst they do play and chat and have silly moments the majority of their lives are trying to stay warm, collect food, look after livestock and support their mother. The idea that they may not experience the war that their mothers and fathers are experiencing is a very subtle undercurrent in the book, almost provoking the reader to analyse what is children’s experience of war? In a world where children are currently living through war, terror, poverty, homelessness and fear has anything changed since Issabekov wrote this short, moving and timeless story?