One of the best books I’ve read in recent months, and certainly one of the best I’ve read from Central Asian writers, is this great work from Cold War era Soviet Union, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov. An alternative translation [more literal, anyway] of the Russian title И дольше века длится день is More than an Age, a Day Lasts. The title comes from a line from a Boris Pasternak poem. Mr. Pasternak was the genius responsible for writing one of the arguably most well-known Russian novels, at least in America, Dr. Zhivago. The title refers to the fact that the story takes place over the course of one day, when one man is traveling across the steppes of Kazakhstan to give his friend a traditional burial.
The original title of this novel was to be Обруч, or “The Hoop,” named after an orbital missile defense system featured in the novel… more on that later. By any title, the book was just amazing. I think the translator not only did an excellent job, but the meat of the story would probably be just excellent in most translations. It’s a crazy mix of legend, wisdom, circumstance, and rural life in the backwaters [back-deserts, more like] of the Soviet Union. The main plot seesaws between a man trying to bury his best friend in the traditional but forgotten steppe cemetery near their train-junction-cum-home and the discovery of a new planet and civilization by the international team aboard the space station. It’s definitely good at explaining how the average Soviet citizen related to their Space Program – something that has boggled my mind ever since I learned about the ridiculous dichotomy of a country that hides its rocket launches with the same thoroughness of its nuclear tests. However, I think it’s less out of shame than just crowd control. People might have started to wonder why rockets travel to space while they are plowing their fields with horses and plows.
In any event, it was the legends of the steppe that really sold it to me. There are a couple stories related by the narrator that really sing. I’m going to be thinking about this book for some time to come. Burranyi Yedigei, the man traveling on his great Bactrian camel across the steppe to bury his friend, is clearly a natural born storyteller, though he never considers himself anything more than simple man. He is the epitome of the Central Asian character of paradoxes. He was a fisherman on the Aral Sea before being called off to the fronts of WWII, after which he lived the rest of his life in the desert-like steppes of central Kazakhstan. He was laid low by shell shock and a general all-body weakness after the war only to recover to the point where he was able to survive extreme hardships, heat, and frost working on the railroad in the middle of nowhere. The people in his life, his family and friends, range from the saintly and all-wise to the self-important and cynical. To my mind, every character in this story was wholly believable, and more than a few reminded me of people I’ve known when living in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
I especially enjoyed the role language played. The characters are all very aware that Kazakh and Russian have very different positions in society. The reader is usually left to themselves to decide which language is being spoken at any given time, though there are some strong clues given, and at times the narrator specifies it to prove a point. There is one touching scene where the narrator appeals to a young official, a Kazakh man, and tries to appeal to his sense of honor and decency. The official blushes and orders the man to speak in Russian, to not make a scene, to get things taken care of. I noticed similar issues when Uzbeks were told to speak in Kazakh in Sayram, or in Russian. Another example is the constant switching of spellings and pronunciations, which was all too familiar to me. The setting of the novel is the very real steppe/desert called Sarozak – it was called Sary-ozek, the original two-word name, almost as often – similar to other places with more than one accepted name [Shymkent/Chimkent, Frunze/Bishkek, Krasnovodsk/Turkmenbashy]. My Kazakh isn’t as good as my Uzbek, but I’ll wager a guess that it might be related to the phrase “Sariq o’zak,” which could mean Yellow Point, or Origin of Yellow. I’m no Kazakh scholar, however, and I shouldn’t base a translation on a similarity to another language, even one as closely related as Uzbek. I’d love to see a better translation in the comments below.
One interesting thing that I noticed is that this book seems to accurately predict the Star Wars Missile Defense Program. Consider that the book was first published in 1980, and SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative, as Star Wars is officially known] wasn’t even proposed until 1983. I can’t imagine that there might be a connection – I seriously doubt that US Weapons Intelligence might do their research by reading Novy Mir, where Aitmatov first published this novel in serial form. In any event, Star Wars was more of a series of lasers, while the book’s SDI system was just a bunch of rockets with nuclear warheads on standby.
I also really liked the play on words once I learned that the original title was “the Hoop.” In the story, Yedigei relates the folk tale of the mankurts, a specific kind of slave that is created through intense torture. A man’s head is closely shaved, and then a fresh camel skin [a piece of the cow’s udder, in Aitmatov’s version] is placed like a skull cap on the man’s head. The mankurt is restrained so that he can’t remove the skin, and then left to himself in the desert for several days. Most died from exposure, pain, or insanity. Those that survived had no knowledge of their origins; name, life, parents all forgotten. The way that the story related it, the skin formed a kind of constrictive hoop around the man’s skull, making it so that he couldn’t even remember his own mother. Where this really gets interesting is that “the Hoop” was the name of the Missile Defense System meant to protect the Earth from the ultra-advanced and inherently peaceful inhabitants of a newly discovered intergalactic civilization. It led me to believe that Aitmatov was trying to say that, just as the slave-owners wanted the perfect slave who couldn’t even remember his own mother, the governments of the world wanted the perfect slave population that wasn’t even aware that civilization could exist without war, famine, and every form of privation totally unknown to the extraterrestrials.
There are countless enjoyable subplots in this novel. Of course, there’s a saucy love triangle at one point – but in the more traditional fashion, it’s the unrequited sort. There’s a version of the Goethe story, where in a man past his prime is revitalized by the love awakened by a young woman. That subplot is bolstered by a piece of Kazakh folklore regarding an old bard who is actually tied to a tree to prevent him from running off with a beautiful young woman that has agreed to marry him. There’s also the story of oppression under Stalin, which is told in a very searing “Always Darkest Before the Dawn” fashion, for the worst consequences happen on the eve of Stalin’s own death. Then there’s the family intrigue involving Yedigei’s relationship with his dead friend’s son, a man he feels is shaming the memory of his father. And throughout the story I found a real sense of pride in the many unsung achievements of the Soviet Union, all the while wondering whether or not they were worth the costs.
I imagine the most important thing to take away from this novel is understanding the ‘mankurt’ concept. I had previously noticed the sense of unbearable shame for those that forget their motherland, their mother tongue, and their customs. The mankurt story gives real and tangible consequences – in Yedigei’ related folktale, one mankurt goes far as to kill his own mother. It’s a very real issue among the Central Asian people that were more heavily influenced by the Russians, like the Kazakhs and Kirghiz [Kyrgyz, if you prefer]. And, according to Wikipedia at least, Mankurt is still a powerful insult among Turkic people from Istanbul to Baku and beyond. Especially in Turkey, where it used to those who would blindly follow every custom brought from the West at the cost of forgetting their Turkic roots. I have been told a thousand times, living in Kazakhstan, that a true Kazakh knows his father’s line going back seven generations. I never really understood the crazy sense of pride, but this story goes a little way to helping me understand the connection with family history. It’s apparently not just Central Asian, but a very Turkic tradition as well.
All in all, it was an excellent novel, and I would suggest it to anyone interested in Central Asia, Soviet History, or just learning about everyday life in a small village in the middle of Nowhereistan. I would also comfortably recommend it to anyone on the street for the touching human sides of the story that really require no foreknowledge of the area. The love and respect that is paid over and over again to the Aral Sea and the way of life for the fishermen there brings the whole disaster home to people who otherwise might not be moved. I’ve been more than a little annoyed with Al Gore in the past several years, but never so much as when he dragged the Aral Sea into his Oscar-winning travesty, An Inconvenient Truth. It’s quite a stretch of imagination that ties successful environmentally damaging Soviet Planning with the Global Warming Problem. But any excuse to show pictures of ships rusting in the desert by camels and blame it on “Corporations” is a good excuse, I guess. However, my anger with Al Gore has zero to do with Central Asia — my apologies for bringing it up!