Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The unfamiliar light was like a blow on the head - Chingiz Aitmatov's animals

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years contains one more surprising jab at the Soviet government that I did not mention yesterday. The protagonist grew up as a fisherman on the Aral Sea, and Chingiz Aitmatov vividly, angrily, describes its destruction. It's more of a sub-theme than a primary one, but this is, among other things, an eco-novel.

The first three pages of the novel are told from the point of view of a fox. I first thought this was a way to "make it strange" - "it," in this case, being the railroads that run across the steppes. But later scenes are from the point of view of a camel, and an eagle, and, for part of one paragraph, maybe just a couple of sentences, a sturgeon:

"It was a large fish, a powerful and beautiful fish. It flapped its golden tail feverishly, twisting, jumping and throwing the wet pebbles around; at the same time, with its rosy mouth open, it turned towards the sea, struggling to get back to its own element, back to the surf. For a second or so it was suddenly still and quiet, looking around with its unblinking, reproachful eyes, round and clear, trying to adjust to the new world in which it had found itself. Even in the dusky evening of the wintry day, the unfamiliar light was like a blow on the head. The fish saw the shining eyes of the two people leaning over it, a bit of the shore and the sky; in the distance far away out over the sea, it could make out on the horizon, behind thin clouds, the unbearably bright light of the setting sun." (245)

Oh, this is better than I had remembered. "Powerful" and "beautiful," those are the thoughts of Yedigei, the protagonist. The next sentence is more objective, but by the word "reproachful," perhaps, we have entered into the perceptions of the fish. So Aitmatov leads us into the fish. First we, with the people, see the eyes of the fish, then, with the fish, we see the shining eyes of the people. The gaze into space actually hints at the science fiction subplot and the climax of the novel.

A fragment from the bull camel's persepctive:

"How dare people come into his territory? How dare they approach his harem? What right had they to interrupt his rut? He shrieked in loud protest and shaking his head on his long neck, bared his teeth like a dragon, opening wide his fearsome, yawning maw. His breath poured like smoke from his hot mouth out into the cold air and settled on his black, shaggy locks as a white hoarfrost. In his excitement he began to piss, standing there and sending forth a stream into the wind so that the air stank of it and icy drops fell on Yedigei's face." (268)

Aitmatov was actually a veterinarian before he became a writer. That explains his interest in animals, perhaps, but not the way he writes about them.


  1. Your two posts about this book are really interesting, especially the animal viewpoint quotes you pull out. I have never heard of this author before.

  2. Okay, now I'm going to have to add this to my pile, assuming I can find it someday. Thanks.

  3. I'm curious who did the translation of this novel, mainly because I'm interested in what issues/problems the language posed for translation into English. Or was it written in Russian?

  4. A little googling and I've found my own answer - Russian! But he did write in Kyrgyz as well...

  5. I forgot to mention the translator - John French. I read that Aitmatov abandoned Kyrgyz for Russian early in his career, for reasons political and economic - he couldn't get published in Kyrgyz.

    The animal passages are an unusual feature of the Aitmatov book. They have thrown off my posting - now I'm just thinking about animal writing.

  6. I like this too--and the animal direction in the next couple posts is very good. Some gorgeous pictures of Kyrgyz people and their animals here from the other day.

  7. Fantastic, thanks - the eagle is in the novel. Not the wolf-baiting, thank goodness.