November 22, 2004

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov

baikonur_syrdarya_aerial_2.jpg
An aerial view of the Syr Darya River near Tyuratam.
Copyright 2000 by Anatoly Zak

Trains in these parts went from West to East, and from East to West.

And on either side of the railway lines in these parts lay the great wide spaces of the desert -- Sary-Ozeki, the Middle lands of the yellow steppes.

The main plot of this novel which is set in Kazakhstan is the heroic story of Burannyi Yedigei's journey to bury his friend Kazangap in the Ana-Beiit cemetery following the traditions of his clan. Traditions which seem to have become increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly modernized world that Yedigei has to struggle against.

This `day' during which Yedigei has to complete this burial is contrasted with several much longer spans of time (hence the title) that stretch from his past, to the exploration of outer-space, to the timeless legends of his people.

Yedigei works at a railway siding at Burannyi near a large rocket launch facility, probably meant to suggest the Baikonur cosmodrome at Tyuratam. Yedigei's unwillingness to lose his customs or to permit any kind of change in Kazakhstan due to the modernization brought to his country by Russian influence is contrasted with the human discovery of a utopian civilization by a joint U.S.-Russian space station crew. The utopia is considered dangerous by the two superpowers (Aitmatov is writing when the Soviet Union was still going strong) and further contact with this utopia is forbidden. Don't read this book for its science-fiction sub-plot. Even though Aitmatov is prescient about a joint American-Russian space station, he is simply using the alien civilization as a plot device and the novel as a whole explores some general ideas, but not using the sf genre.

While the novel is about Kazakhs and the past legends of Kazakhs, it should be noted that Aitmatov himself is Kirghiz. The most compelling parts of the book are the legends of Yedigei's clan, such as the legend of the creation of the Ana-Beiit cemetery (Naiman-ana's tragic search for her son lost in war) or the love of the famous bard Raimaly-aga for the much younger Begimai (Aitmatov compares Raimaly-aga with Goethe). These legends are adapted and invented by Aitmatov with inspiration from the great Kirghiz epic poem, `The Manas'.

There are many instances where Stalinist purges are condemned by the characters in the book. However, Aitmatov never directly addresses the Russian influence in Kazakhstan. There are no negative Russian characters, only local Kazakhs who are in positions of power because of the Russians. While Aitmatov himself was the roving correspondent for Pravda in Central Asia and a member of the Supreme Soviet, in this novel he seems to be subtly painting a tragic picture of Soviet Central Asia.

The last part of the book is quite strong, but it might take some effort to make it there if you are not fascinated by the Central-Asian backdrop.

%T The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years
%A Chingiz Aitmatov
%A :translated into English by F. J. French
%I Indiana University Press
%D 1980
%D :First Midland Book edition 1988
%G ISBN: 0253204828 (pb)
%G ISBN: 0253115957 (hc)
%P 352
%K literature, central-asia, science-fiction

Date written: 2000/05/13

Posted by anoop at November 22, 2004 09:30 PM