Dissertations Never Die
“The Archivist” by Mukhtar Magauin, a short story translated from Kazakh about the horrors of academic obsession
INTRODUCTION BY MIRGUL KALI
“The Archivist” (“Архив хикаясы” in the original), a short story by Mukhtar Magauin, a well-known Kazakh writer, was first published in 1973. There is a rumor among Kazakh bibliophiles that the man behind the mad archivist’s character is the late Alkey Margulan, a brilliant archeologist, ethnographer, and researcher of Central Asian art and culture, whom Magauin knew well. In a 2017 interview to a Kazakh magazine “Anyz Adam,” Magauin revealed, “I am the main character of this story. The archive is a deep well that sucks you in. It’s very difficult to climb out of it, once you get in. You find a rare record, and you want to keep digging for more. You must know when to stop. [Alkey] had gone down many a rabbit hole, and I had too, and I had struggled to quit.”
However, for Magauin, who has a PhD in Philology, sifting through the archives had proven very fruitful. In 1968, he published Қобыз сарыны (The Song of Kobyz), his doctoral paper later turned into a book, which introduced and discussed previously unknown records of XV-XVIII century Kazakh poetry. In 1970 Magauin published a collection of these poems in an anthology titled Алдаспан (The Sword). Magauin’s research of the early national poetry has since been incorporated into the Kazakh literature curriculum in the country’s schools and colleges. Between 1980 and 1982, Magauin wrote the historical novel Аласапыран (The Time of Troubles), considered by many to be the author’s central, defining work. The two-part book portrays the life in the Kazakh Horde, Siberian states, and Russia in late XVI — early XVII centuries as it follows Sultan Oraz Muhammad, a man who goes from being a hostage of a governor of Russian province to serving as the Kazakh ambassador to Russia and later becomes a ruler of Qasim Khanate. In “The Archivist,” Samet brings up Oraz Muhammad’s name when he goes into a frantic, defensive tirade that hints at his discovery of very valuable historical records and manuscripts. Finally, there are four volumes of Шыңғыс хан (Ghengis Khan), a historical non-fiction epic, written between 2008 and 2015 and published between 2011 and 2016.
While all these and other books by Magauin wait to be translated into English, it is difficult for Kazakh readers to imagine contemporary national literature without Magauin’s works. Yet, “The Archivist” reminds the reader of the time when the author was close to being swallowed by the dark, bottomless cavern of the archive. The cavern that gives a false promise to satisfy an artist’s ego, to provide with the greatest reward as long as they keep their discoveries and thoughts to themselves and never share their knowledge and art with the world.
Dissertations Never Die
by Mukhtar Magauin, Translated by Mirgul Kali
I ran into him on a street. We live in the same city, but it’s been over a year since we saw each other last. He looked the same. Not the same as in the last year. Or the year before that. The same as in ten years ago, when we were graduate students. A felt hat, pulled low over his forehead, almost down to his eyes. Black and white scarf, sloppily tied around the neck. Light fall coat, tapered pants, shoes with thick soles. Black leather gloves, held loosely in his left hand. Fashion styles came and went; seasons replaced each other, but Sembek never changed his ways. In fall and winter, rain and snow, he looked exactly the same. And it wasn’t just clothes. His appearance, personality, even his knowledge and intellect — did not seem to have changed a bit.
I knew from the first day we met that he was an extraordinary young man with a brilliant future awaiting him in academia. He was twenty-two when he graduated at the top of his university class with a major in history and was accepted into the university’s graduate program at the Academic Council’s recommendation. He was equally fluent in both Russian and Kazakh and knew German and English well. He was studying Farsi and Arabic at the time and had plans to move on to learning Mandarin Chinese next.
I was also in my early twenties. I was also among the top students. I was. . . In short, I was very proud of my own achievements at the time. But it didn’t take me long to admit that Sembek was far superior to me; that he was a true scholar. Admittedly, our studies were in different fields, and language ability cannot be equaled to an aptitude for science. But it wasn’t Sembek’s comprehension that impressed me; it was the depth of his knowledge. His erudition was limitless and unfathomable. After a while, I refrained from speaking about philology, which was the subject of my studies, in his presence. And I wasn’t alone — all graduates in our dormitory held Sembek in high esteem. We had no doubts about his completing studies well ahead of the time; we knew that he would be the first among his peers to secure his doctoral degree.
Youth is the time when emotions reign supreme. We meet people easily and fall for them readily — only to find ourselves detesting and avoiding them later. A year, then another went by, and we became skeptical of Sembek’s singular ability. Well into the third year, we realized that he was not only an ordinary man but, in fact, a lesser intellectual than many of us. In all this time, he passed just two of the qualifying exams. He hasn’t published any research articles; he hasn’t even begun working on his doctoral thesis. Did he lose interest? Hit the bottle? Take to partying? No, no and no. He spent days and nights in libraries and archives. Traveled to Kazan twice, and once to Moscow and Leningrad each, to gain access to the local records. However, nothing came out of it. Finally, when most of his schoolmates who had finished their studies and defended their dissertations were leaving the school to start tenures at various universities and colleges, Sembek passed his last exam, received a piece of paper about completing the graduate coursework and got himself a job as a clerk at the Central Archive.
Although Sembek and I were not close friends, we kept in touch; when we came across each other, we always stopped to say hello. We inquired about each other’s life, family and work. To be precise, I stopped and greeted him, and he asked questions. Out of arrogance or absent-mindedness, he wouldn’t recognize me even when I came right up to him; only after my greeting would he look at me, startled as if he were just woken up, and grab my hand. He would then go on to interrogate me about my wife’s job, my children’s health, progress on my research — it was as if he was checking these questions off some list in his mind. I didn’t dare ask him similar questions. He never married, so he had no children. He hadn’t completed his dissertation, so there couldn’t be any talk about a doctorate. I attempted to ask about it a few times, then quit. It’s hard to talk to loners and castaways. Misfortunes and failures turn them into very sensitive people. It’s even more difficult if we knew these people when they were starting out. Sooner or later, we meet and talk, and questions are inevitable. We have achieved something, and they have made nothing of themselves. They imagine that we despise them, so we get stuck between a rock and a hard place.
However, it’s somewhat easier with good acquaintances: over time, we learn what to say to them at any moment and what subjects to avoid. I came to know Sembek a little in the last ten years. That day, as we proceeded to shake hands, mention how long it was since we saw each other last, and exchange usual questions about health and life, I saw that my recent impression was wrong — that there was a notable change in Sembek’s appearance. He looked paler than usual. His thin, delicate lips seemed firmer, and the right corner of his mouth curled in a sneer. His slim nose looked sharper; his eyes were blank; a deep furrow between dark, thick brows extended into the forehead, almost cutting it in half before it faded. He didn’t offer regular questions about the health of my wife, whom he had never met; the languages my children, who hadn’t yet started school, studied, and careers they were interested in. Holding my hand tightly with his thin, bony fingers, he paused and looked intently into my eyes as if he wanted to tell me something. I waited to hear some important news, but Sembek didn’t say anything. I looked at his grim face and realized that his mind wasn’t here — it was presently in some strange world, another planet; he even forgot that I was standing before him. As if taunting me, Sembek gave out a random chuckle, his thin nose scrunching in a hideous smile. Still, his mind was elsewhere.
“How is your health?” I said at last.
“What?” His body gave a shudder that startled me.
“You lost weight.” I made an attempt to free my hand from the iron grip of his fist.
“Old Samet passed away,” he said.
Must be someone close to him, I thought. I expressed my condolences.
“No, we were not related,” Sembek said. “You know him. He was one of the archive administrators. The one who used to limp on the right leg.”
I did know him. A frail, sallow little man who always looked askance at people as if measuring their worth against his own.
“But didn’t he die a while ago?”
“Correct,” he let my hand go at last. I had no idea he had this much strength, scraggy as he was. “When we were in graduate school. Today is exactly seven years, nine months and twenty days since his death.”
His words sent a chill down my spine. There were rumors among the fellow graduates that Sembek had been studying so hard that he had gone nuts. I didn’t believe the rumors, but they gave rise to a vague sense of disquiet within me.
“He was afraid of me,” Sembek said. “He knew he would lose against me. That’s why he covered his tracks. Yet I have already done enough work to match his efforts. He was a great scholar, and I left him behind… There are many places that he was not able to get to. And I will get there. Do you know what places I am talking about? The library of the Istanbul University is one. The Topkapi Palace. Then there is the British Museum . . .”
I gave a nod of acknowledgement and prepared to leave.
Sembek grabbed my arm and, after taking a moment to carefully examine my face, burst into laughing.
“By God, you’re thinking that I am drunk or delirious! Wait, you must have believed those people who say I turned into a madman.”
I told him that he was wrong; that I was in a hurry to get to a library and had no other thoughts on my mind.
“Whatever,” Sembek cut his laugh short. “Let people think what they want; I don’t care. But you’re my old friend, and I want you to know. You must know. Who I am and what I have been doing all these years. I will walk with you to the library. My story shouldn’t take more than ten minutes.”
You remember how good I was when we started the graduate school. Everyone expected me to go on to accomplish remarkable things. I, too, have never doubted that I would ascend to the Hall of Fame of Science, and that it would only take me a couple of years. I had knowledge, intellect and energy for that. Half an hour after I had been accepted into the graduate program, I was at the archives. I was in a hurry, great hurry. I ignored weekends, skipped parties, stopped going to movies and theater. Worked fifteen to sixteen hours a day. And you know of my ability to accomplish in one hour a task that would take others five hours, five days, even five months to finish.
I realized on the very first day at the archive that I was being watched. Nothing escaped my follower’s attention: what I was doing, what files I was looking at, which page I was reading, what part of a document I was copying. Squinting his old dim eyes, he would throw a single glance from afar or walk past without so much as turning his head, yet I had no doubt that a few seconds were enough for him to gather all the information he was looking for. At first, I was puzzled; then, amused, finally, irritated by this routine repeated day after day, month after month. There wasn’t a trick left that I hadn’t tried in my attempt to throw him off my back, even to cause him grief. I requested files that were of no use to me and kept many different binders open in front of me, but he always knew exactly what I needed, what I searched for, and what I found. You know how research at the archive goes. There are days, even months of fumbling around to no avail; then there comes a day when you find a treasure trove of material worth a year of research. Well, the old man was nowhere to be seen on my dry days. Absent. But as soon as I hit upon something useful — oh, wonder — he would be immediately found near my desk. I began suspecting that this puny old man had psychic abilities.
Toward spring, my efforts bore fruit. I discovered a rare, previously unpublished record related to Kazakh history. The document was bound to be immediately accepted for publication and would make me an instant celebrity in academia. In those days, I was, like many young people at the offset of their scholarly careers, arrogant and vain. I sought to be recognized, to excel. I was confident that I would make groundbreaking discoveries that would establish my fortune and take me to the top. My findings, therefore, were not altogether surprising to me. Still, I was very happy. I studied the record carefully. Made a photocopy. Transcribed the most important parts of the text. Wrote a brief commentary. Everything was ready for the publication. On that day, I also came to finally face the old man who had been watching my every move.
In the last few days I noticed him circling around my desk and once even stopping to look at what I was doing. However, I became so accustomed to his presence and was so engrossed in my work that I didn’t give it much thought. I had finished my work and was heading out of the archive building when I saw the old man waiting for me at the door. Until this moment, he never approached or uttered a word to me. I didn’t even know who he was and what he did. The moment I decided to walk past him, he held both hands out and said courteously, “Assalaamu Alaikum!” This past year, even when our eyes met, we never greeted each other. Today, we had spent all day in one room and had not once given each other a nod of acknowledgment. Indeed, it was ironic. I accepted the elder’s greeting, but I felt embarrassed for failing to follow a custom that required a younger person to initiate the salutation. We were not acquainted, but we were aware of each other’s existence, and in the last six months, I hadn’t shown him a single sign of recognition. I imagined that the old man was there to reproach me.
That would have been a better outcome, but the old man started a conversation on a different subject.
“You accomplished a lot this week,” he said. “Congratulations. You happened upon a very important record.”
I fell silent. I immediately felt regret for being foolish and letting the old man approach me.
“What do you plan to do next?” he said. “Will you publish it?”
“Absolutely,” I replied and started toward a bus stop. I was determined to escape the man, but he hurried after me, limping on one leg until he caught up with me and blocked my way. I became angry.
“Aqsaqal, how may I help you?” I said.
“Please stop first,” he answered.
“Say what you have to say, then stay away from me.”
“I beg your pardon, beg your pardon . . .” the old man panted. “However, you have no right to speak to me this way. I am an academic, just like you. And I am older. Where is your respect for elders?”
I apologized and told him that I had to go.
He ignored my last words. As if afraid that I would escape, he grasped my shirt with neat pale fingers with long fingernails, drew his face close to mine and peered into my eyes.
“Are you certain that you are the only person who knows about this record?” he said pointing at a briefcase in my hand. “Would you state under an oath that it is you, and only you, who first discovered it?”
I had to think about it.
“Aha!” said the old man. “No, you couldn’t do that. Because this is a record that had already been discovered.”
“When and where was it published?” I asked. I knew it had never been in print, but a sinking sensation in my stomach didn’t go away.
“It has not been published anywhere.”
It suddenly dawned upon me.
“You? Did you find it first?”
“Exactly,” he said proudly.
He drew himself up and crossed his arms in front of his chest. Biting his bottom lip, he grinned and squinted his small brown eyes.
“I see,” I said. “You found it last night. I shouldn’t have let you come near my desk. I was being respectful.”
He shook his head.
“You have a quick temper. Not a virtue Kazakhs are known for. But I understand and forgive you. However, you will have to take these words back. You will see what I mean. Let’s go to my house.”
I hesitated for a moment, then followed the old man.
He lived in a single room in a communal apartment with a shared kitchen. The first thing I saw when a door to the room opened were neat stacks of newspapers laid all the way from the entrance to the back of the room to form a floor runner. Five, ten layers, possibly twenty, even thirty layers of newspaper sheets. It looked as if the new sheets were placed on top once the old ones had been worn out. Otherwise, a couple of pounds of newspaper material would be required to replace the entire thing at once. Indeed, as soon as the old man took off his rubber-soled felt boots, he pulled out a rolled newspaper from a pocket in his coat and began laying the sheets on the floor. He used four full sheets placed lengthwise to cover the distance from the door to a window.
“Please, come in,” he said as he completed his task.
I left my shoes at the door, entered the room and looked around. There was a chair with a wire-wrapped back and a small, once-painted, table in the corner by the window. A long narrow iron bed stood along the right wall. The rest of the wall space in the room was occupied with floor-to-ceiling book shelves. However, I couldn’t spot any books on the shelves. Instead, there were rows and rows of neatly arranged binders: made of regular cardboard and cloth-bound; large and small; fat and slim; blue, gray, brown and red; discolored and disintegrating; binders of unknown age and origin.
The old man offered me the only chair in the room and fetched a thin folder with a blue leather-cloth cover from one of the shelves by the door. He turned away from me and skimmed through the papers in the folder until he found what he was looking for.
“Here it is!”
It was a photocopy of the document I had found in the archive a week ago. Six sheets of paper which instantly turned the last six months, not just the last six days of work, into waste.
“I was insulted as an individual and as an academic with your earlier accusations,” said the old man. “That file has been in your possession all week. When would I have the time to make a copy? However, you do have a right to be suspicious — I happen to work in the archive.”
This was news to me. I had no idea that he worked in the Central Archive where I went every day.
“I could, of course, carry out my evil plan in the after hours. But look at this paper! Does it look new to you? It’s turning yellow. Then again, I could have intentionally used old paper for copying. You have a right to think whatever you want. However, my dear fellow, you are perfectly aware of the archive rules. Check their register to find out who had access to this document and when. It was you and I. Only two of us. The date shown next to your name is April 4 to 10, 1963. What date, you think, is shown next to my name? March 7 to 25, 1956. Seven years ago. I discovered it seven years ago! Here, I said it!”
I was crushed. I had nothing to say. I didn’t even offer an apology to the old man.
“Why didn’t you publish it then?” I said, finally admitting my defeat.
“I didn’t have time.” The old man gathered the sheets and placed them back into the folder.
“No time in seven years? But this is such an important document — ”
“Trust me, my dear friend.” He patted me on the back. “This is nothing. Nothing. I am not saying it’s worthless. It’s valuable. A very important document. But, as Shakespeare once said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ The same idea applies to history. Especially to the newly burgeoning Kazakh history. Why worry about a drop when there is an ocean?”
“Do you mean that you haven’t done any research and haven’t written any articles? Not even a summary of your findings?”
“No.” He stood with his arms crossed at the chest clutching the blue folder as though it were the only child of an affectionate father.
A glimmer of hope emerged in my heart.
“It’s true that you were the first to find the document,” I said. “But you haven’t made it public. Nobody knows that the document exists, and that you are the person who have unearthed it. Seven years passed. Then I came upon this document. Without your help. By myself. Correct? Would you agree with this statement?”
I felt reassured.
“Well, you haven’t found the time to publish the document. All you are aware of is the nature of the record and its location. You haven’t made any notes about it . . .”
“Go on, say it.”
“What I am to say is that I wrote the article you didn’t have the time for. I offered various interpretations and made objective conclusions. The article was the result of my work.” The old man made a gesture as if he wanted to say something, but I didn’t let him speak. “My work. No one will argue that. However, since you were in fact the first person who knew about this document, I am willing to offer you a proposal. Here, take my article and read it. Let’s see if you have anything to add. If you propose changes to the article, we will discuss them. I doubt that the article needs any revisions though. Reading it closely might be enough. Then sign it. The article will be published jointly.”
The old man’s laugh was disturbing. Clutching the blue folder as if it were in danger of being taken away from him by force, he returned it to its place on the shelf and shut the glass door of the book cabinet.
“No!” He clasped hands behind his back and began pacing up and down the paper floor runner, his feet in socks making rustling noise. “No! No!”
“Why?” I said rising from my seat.
“I can’t put my name under someone else’s article.”
“Then write your own article. We will combine our arguments into a single article.”
“I don’t have time,” the old man said. “I . . . I . . . don’t want to write.”
“Fair enough. I will publish my own article.”
“You have no right!” he shrieked. His voice was so loud and thin that it almost split my ears.
“I found it first.”
“And I say that I was the first.”
“You know that is not true. You saw it. Didn’t you see it just now? I proved it to you a few minutes ago. I found it, buddy. I did.”
“How are you going to convince others? Who will believe that you have kept the document to yourself for seven years?”
The old man fell silent. With his shoulders slumped and the head sunk, he became very small.
“If you choose to go through with your selfish plan, there is nothing I can do. But you — ” The old man grasped my collar with those thin, bony fingers again. “You are a sensible and educated youth. I am not trying to win you over. I have watched you for the last six months. I know that you are a gentleman. Tell me, would your conscience, of an academic and a man, allow you to trample over me as if I were some bug and publish your name along with this document? Sure, the law will be on your side. But what about ethics?”
The old man’s words made sense. Even if I did find the new record on my own, my conscience would not allow me to publish it without a consent of a man who had found it first. But I’ve made up my mind. I gave the old man two weeks to write an article. If he produced it, we would publish the article with both our names on it; if not, I would proceed alone.
That was how I met the old archivist Samet. And that was how two of us were yoked together to draw one wretched cart.
Young people can be unkind, ruthless. Samet was an old man with poor health and heart problems. Now that I think of it, I realize that my actions may have exacerbated his illness and led to his early passing.
In the following days, I placed several requests for archival records which promised to contain important data. However, the records kept turning up unavailable due to being rebound, restored or repaired. I remembered that Samet worked in the archive and became suspicious.
I decided to cut to the chase and went directly to the archive management. All documents in question were found intact. Old Samet was reproached for withholding materials in demand, and I went to a reading hall carrying a heap of dusty thick folders. After this event, Samet made it a habit to meet me outside of the archive building at the end of each day. My heart sank every time I saw him. I didn’t want to believe any of his words, but there was no reason not to believe him. In any case, I refused to visit his place again. I tried not to let him speak.
“Is the article ready?”
Samet’s chin twitched, but he didn’t respond.
“Right,” I said. “You have three days left.”
Three or four days later we met at the entrance again.
“Did you bring the article? All right. I am giving you a five days’ grace. Not because I am sorry for you. I simply won’t have time till then. I found many new records. That document is nothing compared to the new ones.”
We met five days later.
“Seven more days. Not out of respect for you. I am simply too busy. I found a few important things today. Wait and see — this is just a tip of an iceberg. I will leave no paper in this building unturned. Six more months, and there will be nothing new for researchers to find in this place. Goodbye. Don’t forget the article.”
I was merciless. I cared neither about his age nor about his health.
He endured. In the fall, when all material for my dissertation was ready, he invited me to visit his place once more. By then, uncertainty eating away at my heart had become unbearable. I accepted his invitation. I knew that some of my new findings would turn up in his collection. Remarkably, however, all the treasures I had spent an entire year gathering one by one were found on his shelves. Samet had it all; Samet knew about it all.
I felt too weary to be surprised or upset. My head hurt; it was as if my scull were splitting apart. I was close to losing my mind. But I persisted. I sang the same old song. He chanted the familiar refrain in response. None the less, the truth was simple and clear: I lost, and he won.
Obviously, I could have still written my dissertation. Nobody would have prevented me from doing it. A research paper based on the records previously unknown to public would not only earn me a plain old Ph.D. degree but would also bring me recognition, even fame, and would have naturally led me to a professorship and fruitful career in academia. But none of the data I gathered were untouched or new. The data has already been found, discovered, copied, and transferred to paper or microfilm. It was difficult news to accept. But that was the truth.
I lost interest in life; I wished to be dead. Still, I believed in myself. I believed that I was a genius, that I was special. That I was destined to withstand cruel twists of fate, life’s blows and storms and go on to accomplish remarkable things. Yes, remarkable things. It was my duty. Death was not in the cards. I had to raise my feeble body off the ground and continue to live.
I chose another subject for my research. An excellent subject on a very important issue. I had to look for data outside of Kazakhstan — in Moscow and Leningrad, in confidential archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Collegium of Internal Affairs of Russia. I spent all winter working. The past year had gone to waste; to make up for the lost time I worked days and nights. I didn’t have time to analyze and summarize gathered material; I resolved to look at all of it later and just kept collecting any potentially useful information. By the summer, I had two large suitcases filled with paper, photos, and microfilms — decent amount of material for a solid doctoral dissertation. I packed it all up and got on a train from Moscow to Almaty.
The train reached Almaty around midnight, with three-to-four-hour delay. I grabbed a taxi and headed to old Samet’s place with my suitcases. He was in bed, but he got up and put on some clothes. He looked ill. Hollow-eyed, with sunken cheeks, he was all skin and bones. Yet he seemed taller than usual. I was anxious, but I hoped that this time the old man would have nothing to show me. I was wrong. Old Samet was aware of the information I had gathered. He went on to retrieve files from one shelf, then another; photographs, Xerox copies — piles and piles of them. He didn’t have all of it, but what he didn’t have was less important, second-rate, mere crumbs. I couldn’t restrain myself any longer and broke into sobs.
The old man tried to comfort me.
“Don’t worry. There are stamp collectors who chase a single stamp all their life and never get hold of it. That stamp simply belongs to another person. They must purchase or exchange it for another stamp. But our work is different; we can do whatever we want, and we decide how much we want to accomplish. Nobody can stop us, and that’s where we have an advantage.”
As if to make sure I stayed put, he continued cheerfully:
“You are an exceptionally talented young man. In twenty months, you managed to do what had taken me seven years. You have a lot of energy. I had spent all my life combing archives. Look at these shelves — the result of forty-two years of continuous work. With your pace, you will be done in fifteen to sixteen years. You will be thirty-nine by then — a whole life will still be ahead of you! You will leave me far behind. That is the truth. This is your era.”
He said many other nice, encouraging words. What was their use after he had taken everything? But old Samet was a good, decent man. He didn’t place demands on me this time.
“If you feel you can’t go through this, then you are free to quit this game. Go ahead, publish and defend your dissertation, only mention that I was the one who found those documents. I will not stand in your way.”
He had never stood in my way. As I said earlier, moral implications of the matter aside, there was nothing illegal in my publishing the documents. But I declined his offer. I found myself disinterested in the current subject of my dissertation. I felt like a man who discovered that his pure, beloved wife had slept with a filthy old man. I apologize for my vulgar comparison. That was how I felt. I threw all my previous work away and decided to take on a new subject.
It was now the third year of my being in the graduate program. The third subject. My professor was very unhappy. He reproached me and tried to persuade me to complete the dissertation, but I was firm about my decision. He was fond of me, poor fellow. He had faith in me and finally chose to go along. Using his influence, he convinced the Academic Council to let me begin new research. Two days later I left for Kazan.
The city of Kazan is one of the cradles of Turkic civilization. “Oh Kazan! Joyous Kazan! Somber Kazan! Radiant Kazan!” If you only knew, my friend, of all the treasures that city holds! It’s brimming with them. Overflowing. I found myself right in the middle of that abundance. This time, however, I didn’t limit myself to a single subject. I grabbed every piece of paper that had not been seen and used by others and threw it into a pile. All that fall and winter I felt as if I was swimming in a vast, endless sea, rousing and stirring its depths.
I returned to Almaty in early spring. Not because my work was done. I had to speak to my thesis adviser, and, to tell you the truth, I wanted to see old Samet. In fact, it was the main reason for my return. But there was an unhappy and somber news waiting for me: Samet had passed away.
He left a note for me — a piece of paper that contained two sentences in sloppy, slanted handwriting: “I have everything! I have it all!”
I believed him. I didn’t doubt his having copies of all the records I had spent gathering that year. Still, I wanted to see them. I inquired a neighbor about Samet’s personal library. Samet had apparently passed his possessions on to a relative who lived a block away from his place. The relative, seeing no use in Samet’s stuff, took it to a thrift store. The shelves, that is. As for the binders, the neighbor wasn’t sure. He told me that the shelves were empty on the day of the funeral. Before his death, Samet spent several days destroying — burning, shredding, throwing into a nearby canal — all his papers. Then he wrote the note for you, he said. I had to take him at his word.
You might think that losing a rival would bring me relief. No. On the contrary, I wish he were alive. I have no certainty these days. I don’t know if a rare item I come upon has already been in Samet’s hands. I can’t claim that I am the first to discover any record I find. I had suicidal thoughts — for the second time in the last three years. But only devil has no hope, and I still believed in my great future. I didn’t die. I couldn’t die. I reminded myself that even old Samet’s lost collection had its limits. It’s impossible for one person, even a genius, to gather the complete information of one nation’s history, art, and literature. I will not be able to have it all either, but I knew I was more efficient and better equipped than Samet. As he said, it would take me fifteen to twenty years to gather the amount of data he had collected in forty-two years.
I gave up everything to reach this goal. You all married, bought houses, had children — and I have none of that. You all finished graduate school; the brightest of you have gone on to pursue doctorates — and I don’t have a single academic degree. But I am the happiest of you all. I am better than you all. While you were chasing superficial titles, I accomplished a lot of work. I have a treasure trove of data! It’s been only ten years since I started my work, yet I have gathered so much material. Yes, in the next five to six, no, three to four years my collection will catch up to old Samet’s. In volume, that is. As for the quality, it will easily surpass his. But I won’t stop there. I will go further. There are still many mysteries to uncover. Just think of all those invaluable records buried in the world’s archives! If only I could spend a year in Istanbul and London each . . .
By the time Sembek ended his story, we reached the Central Library. I was dismayed; I didn’t know what to think or say.
“This is all great,” I said at last. “But why don’t you make these documents public? Why don’t you write about them?”
“There is no time for that, my friend,” said Sembek. “I am too busy gathering data. I am very close to reaching my goal. I need seven or eight more years, ten at the most. Then I’ll get to writing.”
I wasn’t satisfied with his response. “What exactly are you looking for? What did you find in those records?”
“Everything!” said Sembek. “I don’t even know what my specialty is these days. Supposedly, I am a historian. On top of that I am a literature and art researcher, a folklorist and an ethnographer. I have to wear all these hats because I have everything.”
“What is it that you have?” It occurred to me that he might be making fun of me.
“I have been following your writing. You seem to have some knowledge on various subjects,” my friend said. “Here, tell me what type of relations Russia and the Kazakh Khanate had in the early sixteenth century?”
“Well, during the reign of Qasim Khan there were diplomatic relations between Kazakhs and Moscow,” I said. “But we don’t know the specifics of these relations. The records on this matter were lost during the fire — ”
“The Moscow fire of 1812. Along with the original manuscript of The Tale of Igor’s Campaign,” my friend said with a sneer. “There were no planes. No modern artillery. You know how the evacuation proceeded, and who set the fire and when. Which means that these important records could not have simply disappeared.”
“Did you find them?” I asked.
“The correspondence on this subject, written entirely in Kazakh language, was extensive,” said Sembek ignoring my question. “You must understand how important this is — not only for history of our country but also for our culture.”
“Where are they? Did you really find them?” I began losing my patience.
“You must have heard about the Kazakh Sultan Oraz Muhammad Ondanuly who was in charge of the town of Qasim in Ryazan province during Boris Godunov’s rule.” Sembek continued as if he never heard my question. “But do you know that Oraz Muhammad had a splendid library which contained not only works by Arabic, Persian and Turkic scholars but also Russian chronicles and books? What happened to that library? In eighteenth century, a history of Kazakhs, requested by Abylai Khan, was written. Where is that history?”
Sembek kept throwing such rhetorical questions at me until I became quiet. He didn’t respond to any of my earlier inquiries.
“All right,” he said at last. “I took your time with my prattling. Time to say adieu.”
I didn’t like being made a fool of, so I didn’t let him go. I realized that direct questions weren’t working and decided to take a different approach.
“Where do you work these days?”
“Same place,” Sembek yawned.
I was so distraught I couldn’t remember where Sembek worked.
“You look tired,” I muttered. I searched for words. “You need to get some rest.”
“I don’t feel tired. One is never tired of the work he loves. No, I don’t feel tired at all.”
He threw a couple of quick glances around him and asked me if I knew a certain young man. I did — he recently published a couple of excellent articles on Kazakh folklore. If I remember correctly, he had uncovered an unknown version of an ancient heroic epic — a version which was finer and older than the ones already available.
“A shitty guy,” said Sembek. “I invited him to my place and showed him my possessions. Cautioned him. He had no right, no moral right to do it. But young people are disrespectful these days. They don’t listen and don’t care. He went ahead and published it. He spends every day in the archive lately. I’ve been watching him. He found things I’ve already had in my possession. I have everything. I cautioned him again, pleaded with him. But he has no shame. He didn’t listen. Could I ask you to do me a favor? We are old friends. This boy hasn’t defended his thesis yet, but I know he is ready. It cannot wait. Help me. You are well known in the academia. He would listen to you. Could you please talk to him? You may bring him to his senses. After all, I found those documents first. What about justice? What about integrity?”
I didn’t have an immediate response. Although there was some logic in Sembek’s words, the young man didn’t do anything wrong. I decided to tell Sembek that I didn’t want to be involved in this matter.
Perhaps viewing me as a traitor or even the young man’s accomplice, he became angry at once:
“You all are cut from the same cloth,” he said. “You are all fools ignorant of true knowledge. You know nothing. You don’t see what is lying under your feet. Yet you call yourselves scholars. But you are weak; you are cowards. I have no titles, but I am not afraid because I believe in myself. I know my worth, and I speak my mind. Say, you’ve got your doctoral degree. Don’t deny it. People talk. I’ve never heard a rumor that ended up being false. Doctorate, doctorate . . . You have no other purpose in life; that’s all you have. But do you deserve your degree? Have you thought about that? Huh? No, you don’t deserve it. Do you know, for example . . .?”
He proceeded to recite an extensive list of rare records I didn’t know had existed.
“Listen,” I said when he paused, out of his breath. I gave him a hug and patted him on the back. “You must write.”
“What do you think?” Sembek said. “That boy was wrong, wasn’t he?”
“Sembek,” I said. “I understand you. But there is one thing you don’t get. What is it all for? What is the purpose? How are you different from Karabai who had ninety thousand horses but not a single good robe to wear? We can forgive Karabai: he owned his horses. And who owns those works locked in your book cabinets? What right do you have to keep them hidden from others? Those are treasures left to us by our ancestors, and you are a criminal who stole them. And science has nothing to do with philately!”
Sembek ignored my words.
“That boy was wrong,” was all he said.
“He is right,” I said. “Do you expect him to wait until you burn, shred and drown the records? He is right.”
It was at that point when our decade-long friendship ended. The expression on Sembek’s face made it very clear.
Nevertheless, I decided to go on and tell him a few more things. That he must make announcements about his findings and have some of them published as books. That he wouldn’t even have to bother writing articles; a two or three-sentence introduction would suffice. That he must think about his academic integrity and his responsibility before the nation. I touched on quite a few of those lofty matters. Indeed, I went too far in my excitement. But Sembek didn’t flinch. He didn’t hide his disappointment in me. Eventually I shut my mouth. We parted coldly.
Several days went by. I kept thinking about what had happened. I realized that I had never questioned any part of Sembek’s story. As my first impressions faded, I concluded that it was a product of his mad imagination. Gradually, my sleep improved and my appetite returned. I felt like my old self again. Memories of little sallow old Samet, who had spent forty-two years in the archives without producing a single page of research and unearthed an abundance of original records, only to throw it all out before his death, and my old friend Sembek, who took it upon himself to continue Samet’s mission as he wasted away talents he was blessed with, began growing dim. The story of the disturbing encounter now seemed like one of the old fairytales my grandmother used to tell me in my childhood. But in the evening of the day before yesterday, I realized that I’d been deceiving myself.
With a thick briefcase in hand, I was about to leave the archive building when he appeared, like an apparition, out of nowhere. Not Samet, no. Sembek. My attempt to walk by pretending I didn’t notice him failed. He called my name. He didn’t take the trouble of greeting me and went straight to the point.
“I know you have been working on an important paper,” he said. “You’ve gathered all necessary data. Your findings this week, especially this afternoon, have been very promising. But it’s too early to celebrate. All this material has already been discovered and known. I have everything. You don’t believe me? Come with me and see with your own eyes.”
My head began spinning. Yet, somehow, I managed to escape the devil’s trap. I don’t recall whether I flew or run, but when I showed up at home my wife was startled to see my face.
Although I managed not to pass out in front of her or fall ill, I found it difficult to contain what I’d seen and heard. I felt I would burst if I didn’t share it with someone. Finally, after a night of suffocating nightmares and endless tossing and turning in bed, I got up, had three cups of strong black tea and sat at my desk. I wrote all day and revised and edited all night; twenty-four hours later, my story was ready. My wife typed it up, and my son read it through. After work, I hurried to get it to editors of a local literary journal before they left for the day. I kept thinking about my experience on my way to the editors’ office. The story was written and would be published someday. But what to do with a trunkful of material I had gathered in the previous five years? What to do with my interest in further research in the field? By the time I reached the office, I came to a decision. I will have to leave the academia. Not because I don’t value my professorship. Not because I am afraid of difficulties that may be encountered in my academic career. But because I am afraid of Sembek. Not of him exactly. Of his fate. Of it becoming my fate too.