Soviet Literature (2) Chingiz Aitmatov

August 27, 2013

51pIdTDltfL._AA160_Reflections in the previous post were prompted by my re-reading of Chingiz Aitmatov‘s The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years, after half a lifetime. I’d hung on to the tatty paperback, knowing I’d want to read it again, eventually, but having completely forgotten why. And, as last time, I suspect, it disturbed me greatly.

Aitmatov was a Kazakh writer, who was published in the Soviet Union. He had to change the original title for this novel. I know I initially bought it because of references to science fiction and alien contact and I had recently completed a master’s thesis on science fiction. Aitmatov weaves several plots together quite skilfully: a joint Soviet-American space station makes contact with, and then visits an intelligent alien race; the superpowers are completely thrown and their hegemony threatened by events taken out of their hands and refuse to have anything to do with the aliens…

This plot unfolds against the background of a small community isolated on the Kazakh steppes next to a major railway line. The difficulty of their existence, and their history and myths are explored, and characters created and developed so that we come to understand them and their motivation. One of them is occupied with the need to arrange the proper (according to tradition and religion) burial of a revered older member of the community. And, as the past history of the community is revealed, so are the tentacles of the Stalinist police state and its ability to go even into the desert wastes and devastate lives.

There is, of course, an allegorical dimension, with the history of the mankurt, a slave robbed of his mind and personality during the dark days of the Mongol invasions, a man who has no past, no personality, no future, and who would kill his mother if ordered to… how that got past the censors beats me, but then I have read many accounts of how intellectually limited censors often were.

Aitmatov makes the reader think, and this has always been my touchstone for an author worth reading. Would the human race really reject contact with other, alien, races because of a possible threat to the status quo? What happens to people when they are separated from their past, their traditions, their roots? Aitmatov’s answers are pessimistic, rooted in the Cold War era (the novel was first published in 1980), but I don’t see any different conclusion in our ‘free’ age. How much we are in fact mindless slaves to a greater power is open to discussion. A good novel from the days of the Soviet Union.

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