Monday, March 2, 2009

Chingiz Aitmatov's The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is a good novel

I have some bad news. I recently came across the name of Chingiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan's "greatest writer". I read one of his novels, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years (1980). Here's the bad news: it's good, really quite good. Here's worse news: it is, strictly speaking, socialist realism.

I'm joking, but I'm not. If there were a single literary genre which I thought I could completely skip, that must be entirely without literary value, it was socialist realism. Meine Frau tells me that she once read an East German socialist realist novel about apple-cheeked young factory workers who inspired their colleagues to ever-greater productivity. That is definitely not the novel Aitmatov wrote.

Burannyi Yedigei works at a railroad junction in the southern Kazakhstani steppes. His best friend has died, and Yedigei organizes a journey to bury him in a traditional cemetery. That gives us the "day" of the title; we rummage around in Yedigei's past as he rides his camel across the steppes. We learn about his World War II service, his relationship with a young family who are exiled to the railroad junction, and his perhaps even more complicated relationship with his bull Bactrian camel. There's a lot about camels. Some of the best writing is about the camel.

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years has, intermixed with Yedigei's story, a genuine science fiction plot, about alien contact. The novel also dives back a lot farther than a hundred years to pull in a couple of "traditional" stories, one from the oral folk epic Manas, one of Aitmatov's own invention. So we sometimes leap from cosmonauts on a space station to a legendary tale of warrior nomads who tortured their captives until they became mindless automatons, and a heroic mother who tried to rescue her enslaved son. Science fiction fans may very well find this more irritating than reg'lar ol' readers of literature. My only criticism is that some of the allegory is a little bald. But the linked layers work - they mean more together than they do spearately.

The tortured and brainwashed slaves, a weak-willed rationalist who argues that soon the state will control people's behavior through radio waves, a science fiction plot that is clearly a criticism of the Iron Curtain and Soviet cultural isolation, and an entire novel that seems to me plainly to advocate individualism within the context of a traditional culture, and whose protagonist is unapologetically Muslim - how was this published in the Soviet Union in 1980?

I don't know, and neither does the author of the foreward, Katerina Clark. She suggests that the Soviets were allowing more expression of nationalism by minorities, and that Aitmatov was a Communist insider, and that the novel is sufficiently ambivalent that the Soviets could let it through. I did notice that most of the really bad activity in the novel occurs under Stalin, and there are just a few pages of dull stuff near the end ("We must, all of us, all as one, hold on to this view of justice," and so on, p. 320) that sound like the real socialist realist deal. Was that really enough to assuage the censors?

Lest I give the wrong idea, I don't want to claim that Aitmatov's novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude or Midnight's Children or The Emigrants or Things Fall Apart, one of those novels of big international reputation that most readers should probably try just to see what the fuss is all about, nor that it's a great injustice that the novel is virtually unknown.

But it's a modest injustice, and I would like to read more of Aitmatov's books.


  1. Thank you for your excellent blog (which I only recently discovered). I shall visit often and rely upon it as a refuge from my campus experiences as an instructor of literature at a southern university (especially when I need to clear my mind of the academic cant that tends to accumulate like dryer lint).

  2. "Wuthering Expectations" is too good to lose for "Sir I Am A Library Geek", but somebody should certainly start the "Sir I Am A Library Geek" blog.

  3. Darn you. Another strange and obscure book finds its way to my TBR stack.

    Sounds very interesting and kind of fun, too.

  4. C.B., just wait till you read the passage about the urinating camel that's going up tomorrow.

    Prof. Davis, welcome to LitBlogLand!

    There's no way I'm getting rid of the name "Wuthering Expectations" - it's my one siginificant contribution to human civilization. But "Amateur Reader," I sometime rethink that one. How about "Amateurish Reader"? Or "Annoying Reader"? Or, to switch directions, "Easy Reader"? Yes, that one is very cool.

  5. Here is the kind of book I'd love to have read already, since I suspect it will be a real act of will to get me to locate a copy and read it - and yet you've made me incredibly curious.

    Looking forward to the urinating camel...we'll see if that seals the deal.