The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov

Chingiz Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years is one of the few books by Central Asian authors translated into English. The original text was published in 1980 and the English version in 1988. Appropriate to the Soviet ideal of the “brotherhood of nations,” this volume by a Kazakh author was originally published in Russian and is set in Kirghizstan.

The principal setting of The Day is a railroad junction in the middle of the desert. The central conflict involves the quest of railroad worker Yedigei to give his deceased comrade Kazangap a traditional religious burial in an ancestral cemetery some distance from the junction. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Russian and American negotiators are dealing with the discovery that cosmonauts on the Soviet-American space station have been contacted by extraterrestrials and have departed the station for an interplanetary visit.I found the juxtaposition of a narrative about a commonplace burial and a science fiction drama a bit incongruous at times. But the author employs this contrast effectively to highlight, among other issues, the tension between the value of progress and the importance of maintaining traditions and identity. In the science fiction story line the superpowers reject further communication with the extraterrestrials, believing that the earth, in its tenuous political and economic condition, is not prepared for such a development. They decide to suppress news of the initial contact and to erect a space shield to prevent further communication. The story suggests, though, that if an exchange of ideas were pursued, the citizens of Earth might enjoy profitable social and technological advancement. The inhabitants of this newly encountered planet live harmoniously, are able to control their climate, and have devised highly efficient means of obtaining energy from the sun.

Meanwhile, Yedigei perseveres in his efforts to arrange a traditional burial for Kazangap in the ancestral burial ground. (Plot revelation ahead.) Kazangap’s son and other members of the community ridicule the endeavor, pointing out that their contemporaries have long since ceased to believe in tradition (God, Islam, prayer). Yedigei persists, only to learn that the traditional burial ground is now inside the area fenced off for Soviet space activities and will soon be eradicated.

Throughout the course of the funeral arrangements and the trek through the desert with Kazangap’s body, Yedigei reflects on the past. One of the key events he muses on involves a young widow and her two sons. The husband had been a friend and coworker of Yedigei’s but died after being arrested and falsely accused of propagating unpatriotic material. After the death of his coworker, Yedigei finds himself hopelessly in love with the widow, Zaripa, despite the fact that he is already happily married with children. Zaripa, however, presumably recognizing the danger to the peace and happiness of all involved, leaves the junction unannounced with her boys one day while Yedigei is away chasing his runaway camel.

Throughout the book, Yedigei is closely associated with his camel, Karanar, both personally and in the literary scheme of the author. Kazangap, who gave the magnificent animal to Yedigei, tells him, “Karanar was destined to be yours, you had to be his owner” (88). Karanar is given to seasonal bouts of wild behavior, running off into the desert to mate with female camels and fight with other males. When Yedigei returns and learns of Zaripa’s departure, a disturbing scene ensues, in which the usually mild Yedigei beats Karanar mercilessly with a chain and drives him off into the desert. Later, the still devastated and angry Yedigei tells his friend Kazangap that he intends to leave the junction with his family. Kazangap sagely replies:

“Look, this is your business … but you won’t leave yourself behind. Wherever you go, you won’t get away from your troubles. They’ll be with you always. No, Yedigei, if you’re a dzhigit, you’ll try master yourself here. To run away–there’s no bravery in that. Any fool can run away. But not everyone can master himself” (281).

The suggestion seems to be that Yedigei needs to deal with his own passions in the same way he has dealt with his roving camel. The narrative seems to indicate that those who cannot master themselves and those who forget where they have come from (i.e. lose their identity) are alike no better than animals. We learn that the traditional burial place toward which Yedigei is making his way is named after a folk heroine. It was said her son had been taken captive by the Zhuan’zhuan, who had a practice of cruelly obliterating the memories of their captives. The resulting mankut were bereft of identity, fit only to carry out their masters’ wishes and employed as slave labor to tend livestock. When the woman found her son he had no memory of his parents, no idea from whence he came, and he ultimately killed his mother, being told by his captors that she wanted to harm him.

The connection between self-mastery, however, and the more prominent themes of tradition, identity, and progress seems somewhat tenuous. In the introduction, slavicist Katerina Clark comments that it is rather remarkable that The Day passed under the scrutiny of the Soviet censors and achieved publication. Certain of the free thinkers who were able to publish under the Soviets seem to have smuggled in subversive content alongside thematic material that would placate the Party. Perhaps the message of self-mastery (among other content) performed this placating function for riskier questions, such as, Must progress always take place at the expense of tradition and identity? If so, is advancement worth the cost?

Clark’s introduction offers an enlightening discussion of The Day in its political and literary context. She points out that the book’s two parallel story lines, which do not intersect until the final pages, give it both a narrow, provincial focus and a universal, cosmic perspective. Similarly, the main story line centers around a single day, but through flashbacks and folk stories, the action roves through the main character’s lifetime as well as the historical and legendary past of the steppe peoples. Clark describes how Aitmatov’s approach both reflects and diverges from trends in Soviet literature at the time he wrote.

I learned about The Day only recently from a discussion of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway on the Neweurasia blog. Neweurasia bloggers observed that the vast genre differences between The Railway and The Day make comparisons difficult, but the common railway theme, not to mention the proximity of their place of composition, makes comparisons tempting. I found The Day more approachable for its realism (in spite of the science fiction thread) than the political satire and surrealism of The Railway. However, I sensed more artistic mastery in The Railway; when I finished I had the feeling that if I read it again, I would pick up many things I had missed the first time. (Click here to see our review of The Railway.)

My divergent reactions may be due, in part, to the respective translation style of each book. The Day, translated by John French, is more readable; the translation is clear and straightforward, while Robert Chandler’s translation of The Railway forced me to reread some sections in order to follow the author’s thought. I preferred the rendering of the latter, though; I sensed that it conveyed the stylistic essence of the original, and I rarely forgot I was reading a translation. I found the translation of The Day, while more transparent overall, uneven, with stylistic “hiccups” here and there that interrupted the linguistic flow.1

I enjoyed The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years and considered it worth reading for the story alone. Those interested in the literary history of the Soviet Union will also find The Day valuable for study and comparison with the works of Aitmatov’s Russian contemporaries.

1. It is also interesting to consider both The Day and The Railway alongside Andrey Platonov’s surrealistic novel about Central Asia, Soul, written several decades before The Day. Soul was also translated by Robert Chandler. (Click here for our discussion: Soul.)

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