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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

When the Edelweiss
Flowers Flourish

Begenas Sartov

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To purchase When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish

Title: When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish
Author: Begenas Sartov
Genre: Fiction
Written: (1978) (Eng. 2012)
Length: 159 pages
Original in: Kyrgyz
Availability: When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish - US
When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish - UK
When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish - Canada
  • Kyrgyz title: Мамыры гүлдөгөн маалда
  • Translated and with Preface Notes by Shahsanem Murray
  • Includes the title-novel, and six short stories

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Our Assessment:

(-) : somewhat clumsy exposition (and translation) but some decent twists; fascinatingly bizarre

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Kyrgyz science fiction of the Soviet era, and with a title like this -- it's hard to know what to expect, and even so: When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish defies most expectations. In part it is certainly the stilted translation (and poor copy editing) that contribute to its very alien feel, but looking beyond that the novel and stories collected here are of real interest.
       Yes, the language is a hurdle one has to accept: this is a volume which opens with some prefatory notes (these presumably (more or less) originally written in English) by Shahsanem Murray (the author's niece), the first one of which reads:

Written in the Soviet period and critical of that system people who run and abuse, although acceptance of communism being the way to run a society
       Sartov's own, fairly realistic prose is, fortunately, more straightforward and, for the most part, not quite this awkward or labored. The layered story is fairly easy to follow, even as it shifts back and forth in time and relies repeatedly on stories-within-stories.
       The novel opens with Melis receiving a letter telling him that Rena is ill, but this is only the framing, close-to-present-day narrative; the story immediately jumps back to years earlier, when Melis and Rena, both aspiring writers, first met at the New Talent Literature Festival. Melis -- a shepherd clearly feeling a bit out of place in the big city -- is very impressed by Rena, but it is she that makes the first approach -- and, in fact, immediately invites him up to her student dormitory room. They go out to eat -- and drink, heavily -- instead, and, by way of a brawl, become close friends with several others from the festival. They all remain best friends, even as they go their different ways and begin to settle down with families and in careers.
       Melis and Rena seem destined for one another, but something came in the way -- and continues to prevent Melis from proposing (to Rena's continuing disappointment). Eventually, Melis reveals what he experienced then, and in the intervening years, that has prevented him from settling down in the way Rena hopes for. It began when, while in the mountains, Melis uprooted a rare edelweiss -- the 'soul of the mountain' -- and was confronted by a stranger who took the flower from him. This stranger is an alien from another planet and he explains that: "This particular flower has the properties we need" -- meaning also this one particular plant, that grew on that specific spot hit eleven years earlier by the shadow of an eclipse.
       The alien's name is Silem (yes, 'Melis' spelled backwards ...), and the medicinal properties of the plant are so wonderful that emissaries come to earth every few years to collect samples. The aliens' ethical system prevents them from wider contact with humans (earth isn't ready for them yet) -- and, as it turns out, also has something to say about the way Silem dispossessed Melis of that particular flower. To atone, Silem is directed to empower Melis with the plant's great properties -- "the last chance for mankind to survive and reach these results for themselves" -- though that comes with other consequences as well. Melis' love for the by then terminally ill Rena leads him to throw something of a wrench into their plans, and in a very creative twist Sartov has Melis manage both to save and lose Rena.
       This science-fiction part of the story, heavy on the symbolism, is reasonably well done, even as much is on a very basic level, with Sartov showing little interest in a detailed imagining of the alien's alternate reality (and Melis also rather incurious about the alien's world). So also there are scenes such as:
Silem took his Asa Musa, raised it high, and used it to call his flying saucer. As the craft approached he wrapped his flying raincoat tight and moved off towards it. I didn't wait until he was flying away: I went down to round up my sheep.
       Despite venturing to the big city and also dealing with this alien, Melis is very much a country boy, dedicated to his family, and at heart just a shepherd. So, for example, he doesn't want to be sent away to further himself, even for just a one-month course for master shepherds. Indeed, When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish turns out to be very much a novel of this land and pastoral life on it, much of it outside the ideological system that has taken hold in the country (if not necessarily all the countryside). So also the longest section of the novel is, in fact, the 'Story of my Father', a dramatic account of Kyrgyz life that has little to do with the science fiction part of the story (beyond once again extolling the medicinal properties of local plant life).
       Yes, When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish is a bit clumsily (and digressively) told, and a poor translation doesn't help matters, but the material is so unusual that one can make allowances for most of this. It's not great literature, but it is certainly of considerable interest.

       Six short stories fill out the volume. These are much shorter and more tightly focused pieces, each centered on a specific twist -- such as a sixty-year-old scientist who develops "a drug that took ten years off the ages of older people" but who didn't realize that multiple doses had an exponential rather than merely cumulative effect. Most of this is standard science-fiction-magazine fare, but they are enjoyable enough -- and the final piece, the two-page 'Human or Android' is a nice one to close with, as a man deals with an android that turns out to be an arguably way too exact copy of him.

       As is, When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish is a striking (not always in good ways) curiosity. Sartov -- who died very young -- seems to have had some real talent and potential. Made more presentable in a cleaner translation and with considerable editorial tidying, this novel and these stories could easily hold their own. Still, given the paucity of translations from the Kyrgyz (how many have you come across ?), even this edition is welcome and serves a purpose.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 June 2013

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kyrgyz-writing author Begenas Sartov (Beganas Sartov, Беганас Сартов) lived 1945 to 1978.

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