Biblical Motifs in Chingiz Aitmatov's the Place of the Skull

Article excerpt

The 1968 publication of Chingiz Aitmatov's Plakha (The Place of the Skull, in Natasha Ward's translation) created a heated discussion around the controversial topics of drug smuggling and ecology, the author's choice of a pair of wolves and a former seminarian as the main protagonists, and the complex juxtaposition of three separate story lines in one novel.l One of the most controversial questions proved to be Aitmatov's introduction of Biblical materials into the otherwise contemporary plot, and its significance for the novel's philosophical and ethical interpretation.

In assessing the role of Biblical references in The Place of the Skull, the critics reproached Aitmatov for his arbitrary treatment of the Bible. Vadim Kozhinov admonished the author for his distortion of the Biblical story of Pilate's interrogation of Jesus, his incorrect portrayal of Pilate as the chief culprit, and his depiction of Jesus as a liberal humanist strongly opposed to the Roman Empire.2 Similarly, Igor Zolotussk admonished Aitmatov for his oversimplification of the Biblical narrative of Pilate and Jesus, which Aitmatov presented as a polemic on the question of power and authority versus individual free will. He was also criticized for his depiction of Christ as a social revolutionary, who questioned the authority of the state, while defending the interests of the poor and the oppressed.3 The sharpest censure of Aitmatov's treatment of the Bible came from Sergo Lominadze, who accused the writer of misrepresentation of Biblical ideas, and the debasement of Christian teaching, particularly with regards to his rejection of the idea of the Last Judgment.4 The second major criticism of Aitmatov's treatment of the Biblical material was directed towards the striking similarity between The Place of the Skull and Mikhail Bulgakov's Master i Margarita. Lev Anninsk considered the Biblical episode in The Place of the Skull a paraphrase of the same story in The Master and Margarita,5 while Natalia Ivanova criticized Aitmatov for "placing the figures" in exactly the same positions as did Bulgakov fifty years earlier.6 And Sergei Averintsev reproached Aitmatov for following too closely Bulgakov's approach to Jesus as a historical figure, a tradition which, according to the critic, has been exhausted in Russian literature by The Master and Margarita.7

The criticism of Aitmatov's dependence on Bulgakov and its purported distortion of the Biblical story of Jesus and Pilate was carried out in a polemical fashion, without substantial analysis of the questions concerned.8 The purpose of this article is to examine these questions closely by juxtaposing Aitmatov's Biblical story with the New Testament and Bulgakov in order to identify both similarities and differences. More importantly, the article will also examine the links between the Biblical story and the rest of the narrative, and assess the role Biblical references play in a novel dealing with contemporary issues.9

The Biblical motifs are introduced into The Place of the Skull both in overt and covert forms. The most obvious instance is the embedded story of Pilate's interrogation of Jesus, inserted into the subplot that deals with Avd Kalistratov's attempts to change the world into his Christian ideals. The embedded story appears as Avd's delirium, following his confrontation with drug smugglers who throw him from a moving train. Lying semi-conscious by the railroad tracks, Avd hallucinates about Pilate's interrogation of Jesus. The link between the Biblical story of Jesus and the contemporary story of Avd is not coincidental, since Avd is portrayed in the novel as a modern Christ-like figure, preaching Christian ideas of forgiveness and love, and the rejection of evil.

Reconstructed in the mind of the delirious protagonist, the story of Pilate and Jesus retains most of the elements of the New Testament version.I0 For example, it preserves the same participants: Pilate and Jesus appear as the main protagonists; Caiaphas, the Jewish elders, Judas, and Pilate's wife are secondary characters. …