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the Complete Review
the complete review - epic

The Memorial Feast
for Kökötöy Khan

Saghïmbay Orozbaq uulu

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To purchase The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan

Title: The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan
Author: Saghïmbay Orozbaq uulu
Genre: Epic
Written: (1925) (Eng. 2022)
Length: 334 pages
Original in: Kirghiz
Availability: The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan - US
The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan - UK
The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A Kirghiz Epic Poem in the Manas Tradition
  • Kirghiz title: Көкөтөйдүн ашы
  • Translated and with a Foreword by Daniel Prior
  • Previously translated by A.T.Hatto (1977)
  • With numerous illustrations and two maps

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Our Assessment:

B : very well presented; a fun (part of a) grand epic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Sun . 30/10/2022 Jude Russo

  From the Reviews:
  • "The bombast and energy of Orozbak’s oral performance leaps from the page -- he backtracks, interrupts himself, leaps forward, whatever it takes to maintain the forward movement of the poem. Epithets pile up on action (.....) Mr. Prior’s extensive notes and prefatory material keep the reader who is unfamiliar with the Kirghiz epic from becoming lost; a long final essay holds out a guiding hand for those who would like to dig deeper." - Jude Russo, The New York Sun

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan is a self-contained part of the massive Kirghiz (Kyrgyz) epic, Manas. An oral epic, handed down over generations, Daniel Prior's translation is based on a transcribed version of Saghïmbay Orozbaq uulu's highly regarded rendition of the entire Manas. (as Prior notes: "Saghïmbay's painstaking work over several years to unify the sprawling plot lines of the epic cycle, add supplementary material, and get the whole thing committed to writing was an unprecedented and influential achievement".) This part of the verse epic, the eighth of its ten episodes, has "approximately 13,500 poetic lines" (while the entire Manas, in Saghïmbay's version: "totals over 185,000 lines"), but in this translation the verse is rendered in prose -- presumably losing much of the feel of the original oral delivery in the process. Nevertheless, Prior's translation reads in an appropriately lively and energetic way -- and even in this form lends itself to being read aloud. (In his Foreword Prior also notes that: "Saghïmbay's poetry, like that of many Kirghiz epic bards, can be translated literally more readily than it can be translated intelligibly", so there's also that to consider .....)
       The story is a fairly simple one. It opens with octogenarian Kökötöy Khan basically on his deathbed -- "I can feel death closing in on my borrowed soul !" he laments -- and reciting what amounts to his testament. His only son, Boqmurun, only reaches his bedside as the old man passes away -- but then Kökötöy Khan doesn't seem to have to high expectations for the then-just fifteen-year-old: "I know he's been a mischief-maker his whole life; he's got no sense". But the burden of succession falls upon the teen. (Kökötöy Khan has also married off eleven daughters, but they are far afield: "my eleven sons-in-law are all over the world".)
       Kökötöy Khan seemed to go back and forth about how his death was to be commemorated -- with a grand gesture, or with a husbanding of his (many) resources. To Boqmurun it's clear, however:

We owe my father a memorial feast. It was apparently just what he was requesting.
       Kökötöy Khan seems, in fact, to have (coyly ?) said the opposite, but Boqmurun understands that a memorial feast is pretty much obligatory.
       As Prior explains, such memorial feasts were a big deal -- and big. They were also a show of power and wealth, as the transition from one generation (or leader) to the next was made -- though with the danger that the host would overextend himself, weakening his position. In any case, the bash Boqmurun then plans is of ... epic proportions.
       The great leader Manas eggs the youngster on -- making clear also that the boy has to demand from those he invites that they participate in honoring his father: "inform and invite me as well ! -- saying, 'Those who don't come, I'll cut off their heads ! I'll end their years in a trice !". Not everybody will then be thrilled by this hard-nosed approach, but pretty much everyone does eventually show up.
       The ambitions for the feast are great -- but then, as one local leader tells Boqmurun, that's the idea:
Let people praise this feast until the end of time ! 'Kökötöy's memorial feast' will become a household phrase.
       It is some three years before the actual feast takes place -- but it is certainly large-scale by then, some hundreds of thousands of men, all told, coming from far afield, along with huge herds of animals. There's considerable feasting, and there are a variety of contests, including wrestling (and a variation, wrestling on horseback), as well as a more creative kind of sex-display-game (whereby: "Manas the excellent hero let it be known that he would kill any Muslim who took part"). A highpoint is a horse race -- "on a race course that was six days outbound".
       The various guests are not all well-disposed to one another, and feathers are repeatedly ruffled. From some of the reactions of the demanding invitations to grousing about how they're treated ("It's not that they haven't served us anything, it's just that the meat they did serve to me and my companions didn't fill me up") to opportunistic attacks, the memorial feast is not some great, happy get-together; indeed, a great deal of the time it seems to be an opportunity to preen, in various ways, and show who is more powerful. So also eventually Prince Qong of the Qïtay -- the Chinese -- really wants to turn the tables:
Let us turn their memorial feast into a torment and make them a laughingstock ! Let us turn their banquet into a hell and bring torment upon their rabble !
       The Qïtays then brazenly steal the prize-herds from their hosts -- but this ultimately plays right into the hands of Boqmurun (and the story), as he proclaims:
This is what I have wished for. This is the moment for the sons of the religion of Islam to show their courage !
       And, of course, they are up to the challenge. as the story culminates in a great big battle -- and the rout of the Chinese, among others, as: "All who had tried to meddle with the Kirghiz has been humbled". (The magnanimous Kirghiz crush their enemy, but do not completely destroy them, even providing them with sufficient food to survive in defeat.)
       It's a fairly gripping epic, with a lot of drama and confrontation and quite a few amusing bits, too. It's both a bit sprawling and a bit messy in the telling -- with, as Prior repeatedly notes, contradictory and fudged claims, which can cause some confusion. Still, the story is strong -- and, basically, simple -- enough to follow and enjoy, and the bombast and behavior is good fun.
       Beyond the 'The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan'-text and translation itself, it is worth noting that the supplementary supporting material is excellent, and very helpful in introducing a culture and a form of epic that likely are unfamiliar to most readers. Prior's Foreword is of interest, but it is, in particular, his appendix-'Introduction to a Reading of the Tradition' that is informative and useful, while Glossary, a well-conceived Index, useful but not overwhelming endnotes, the two maps, and even the photographs help greatly with the reading and understanding of the text. This volume is a fine example of how to present a literary work from a lesser-known culture and tradition to readers. (The particular circumstances of the version that is translated here -- a classic tale, but here recorded in early Soviet times -- add one more fascinating layer to the whole thing, too.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 December 2022

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The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kirghiz oral bard Saghïmbay Orozbaq uulu (Орозбак уулу Сагымбай) lived 1867 to 1930.

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© 2022 the complete review

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