Aitmatov’s Long, Long Day.

Almost exactly a decade ago I got Chingiz Aitmatov’s И дольше века длится день… (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years), as described in this post; now I’ve finally read it, and I’m afraid it turned out to be another disappointment, following my sad experience with Bitov’s Pushkin House (see this post). The disappointment was not as disappointing, though, since I had been expecting great things from Bitov; after my experience with Aitmatov’s earlier Белый пароход (The White Steamship) — as I said here, I found it almost unreadable and gave up after fifty pages — I was pleased simply to be able to read it with some enjoyment. It’s got good things in it, but as a novel, it’s a mess. Warning: what follows will contain spoilers.

I’ll start with the good stuff. One of Aitmatov’s favorite themes was the natural world, and he has some great descriptions here, especially of animals: the novel starts with a passage about a hungry fox searching along railroad tracks for food that might have been tossed from a passing train, and towards the end there’s a bravura description of a kite flying over the area where the action is taking place, eyeing from high above a camel, a bulldozer and tractor, some people, and especially a dog who has tagged along on the expedition (happily, he does not swoop down and attack the dog, which I had been expecting). There’s even a bit seen from the point of view of a rare sturgeon the protagonist, Edigei, has caught in the Aral Sea (and one of the themes of the book is the diminishment of the sea, caused by human action). There are very well written episodes like the train ride of a prisoner passing through the village he has been living in, looking eagerly through the barred window in hopes of seeing his wife and children. And above all there are the mankurts, Aitmatov’s brilliant creation (I just had to change the Wikipedia article, which claimed it was an actual Central Asian tradition); nobody who reads the novel ever forgets the image of people turned by torture into slaves deprived of memory. Dmitry Bykov, in his article on the book, calls it a metaphor for the suppression of the horrors of the Soviet past; referring to that scene at the end, when Edigei leads a small group to the traditional cemetery to bury an old friend and is turned away because the burial site is part of the secret cosmodrome area (based on Baikonur), Bykov writes:

The cemetery surrounded by barbed wire was one of the most frightful symbols of the late Soviet empire. Memory was behind barbed wire, one was not allowed to remember what was frightening, the main thing. A generation of mankurts grew up.

Обнесённое колючей проволокой кладбище было одним из самых страшных символов поздней советской империи. Память была за колючей проволокой, нельзя было упоминать о страшном, о главном. Выросло поколение манкуртов.

And for the linguistically oriented, there are some bits of a Turkic language (I don’t know whether it’s Kazakh or Aitmatov’s native Kirghiz).

But besides the mankurts, there’s another ongoing subplot, and it’s a disaster. It involves alien contact, but Aitmatov sets it up so they can only contact two astronauts, one Soviet and one American, on a space station; they ask the astronauts to visit them on their world in a distant galaxy, they say “Sure!”… and the aliens whisk them there in a few hours. Apparently Aitmatov thought the speed of light was infinite for practical purposes. The aliens turn out to be peaceful and loving, showing deep concern for the ecological future of their planet, and they want to help humanity. Alas, humanity (in the shape of secret and apparently all-powerful committees of Soviets and Americans) not only rejects the idea but forbids the astronauts to return, changing the orbit of the space station so that it can no longer receive communications from the aliens (!) and sending up a bunch of rockets to prevent any alien ships from approaching Earth (!). The scientific illiteracy is so extreme I can’t believe editors didn’t make him change or eliminate the sections, especially since their relation to the main plot is tenuous to nonexistent (the rockets take off from the cosmodrome near the station where the main story takes place). In a novel that’s already juggling plots set in the 1970s, 1952-3, and the medieval past, it’s too much anyway (Bykov says “as with most first novels, the author crams in far too much”).

And the prose! Aitmatov is basically a storyteller, not a writer in the sense of carefully crafting prose (like, say, Bunin and Nabokov), and his manner of storytelling is based (I assume) on traditional folkways, with endless repetition and clause inversion (with verbs and modifiers placed at the beginning for extra impressiveness). This is my pastiche, but it accurately represents what large swaths of the novel sound like:

Wide was the steppe, and dry, and hard was it for any creatures that crossed it, hard to find food and hard to find water. Hungry was the marmot that crawled along the ravine, and hungry was the kite that flew above. And through this endless steppe came the caravan, first a camel, then an excavator, and then a bulldozer. And alongside ran the faithful dog, first on one side, then the other, sometimes running ahead, sometimes falling back. Endless was the steppe! And Edigei remembered earlier times when he rode his camel Karanar across the steppe, but then he had been alone, and now there was an excavator behind him, and behind that a bulldozer. And always the dog, weaving in and out…

I’m sure there are people who like that sort of thing, but it makes me want to throw the book at the wall. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more Aitmatov. It’s just not my thing.


  1. Oh, Languagehat! A sliver of solidarity here: I’ve tried a couple times in recent months to read The Day Lasts but it just hasn’t struck me. At all. It came to me as a gift (it’s a very nice edition) and I’ve heard multiple recommendations over the years. But endless felt the first pages, as if for days they lasted! Oddly, I’m a bit more interested now that I know about the aliens. (Somehow, I’d never heard much about the novel’s plot(s)…) Even odder, the positives you mentioned make me want to at least skim through to look for the good parts, though if Bykov says Aitmatov crams in too much, well, I’m pretty convinced that’s a problem.

  2. Oh, it’s well worth reading for the good parts — just be prepared to zip through the longueurs. I look forward to a post!

  3. Trond Engen says

    I have fond memories of it, but it’s been 30 years. It’s on a shelf of gaudy-coloured cheap hardback editions I bought and read while I was at university. Paperback editions of “serious” novels hadn’t hit the market in Norway yet.

    On the regular shelf I have the shorter follow-up “tale”, Dsjengis Khans hvite sky (The White Cloud of Genghis Khan (?)), starting with the Leitmotif of trains crossing the endless plain. This is a real hardback I probably bought on sale a few years later. I have fond memories of that too.

    I also thought I’d read Tidlige Traner (Cranes Fly Early), which sits right next to it, but neither the opening paragraphs nor the plot summary look familiar.

  4. That’s not a follow-up, it’s an integral part of the novel that was omitted from its original publication for reasons of censorship (it involves NKVD persecution of a blameless man). In my edition of the novel, it’s included in its rightful place in the text.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I’m sure I must have known that but forgot.

  6. SFReader says

    While I agree that the entire SF plot in the novel is failure, he did come up with some ingenious stuff.

    The Soviet-American space station “Parity” is manned by “Parity-Cosmonaut 1-2” and “Parity-Cosmonaut 2-1”.

    And they do everything equally to maintain parity which appears to have become almost a new religion in Aitmatov’s world.

    In fact, the world itself seems to have acquired a kind of world government – Soviet-American bilateral committee which is also set up on the principle of parity between two sides. This committee decides the fate of the alien contact.

    Granted, this is not original idea, many people thought in 1970s that the Soviet-American Condominium (or convergence as Sakharov called it) is the future.

    But I’ve never read such detailed (and kind of silly in retrospect) description of this alternative future before.

    “Parity-Cosmonaut 1-2” and “Parity-Cosmonaut 2-1” is a great metaphor for it.

  7. Yes, I enjoyed that while not believing it for a second.

  8. I forgot to comment on this:
    And for the linguistically oriented, there are some bits of a Turkic language (I don’t know whether it’s Kazakh or Aitmatov’s native Kirghiz).
    They’re relatively easy to distinguish – if there are geminated vowels like “aa, ee, oo”, it’s Kyrghyz.

  9. John Cowan says

    Jerry Pournelle’s future history begins with the Earth controlled a Soviet-American Co-Dominium, which is a word that makes me wince, but I suppose Pournelle was afraid his readers would confuse it with a building whose units are owned severally by their occupants and the common areas (stairs, elevators, open ground around the building, etc.) are owned jointly by all the occupants, who typically delegate this to a homeowner’s association.

  10. Тансыкбаев seems to be a curious choice of surname.
    Almost the first Tansykbaev to come to mind is Ural Tansykbaev the artist:

  11. Тансыкбаев seems to be a curious choice of surname.

    I wondered about that, but Edigei says “Тансыкбаевых у нас, как у вас Ивановых,” which implies it’s very common.

  12. Yes, it’s clumsy and far from solid, but I wouldn’t say the sci-fi parts are that disconnected from the main plot. It all comes back to the idea of the hoop that appears at every level of the plot: the mankurt myth, the Soviet mankurtization, the space hoop enclosing Earth from the rest of the galaxy.

  13. Sure, but the “space hoop” is just silly (as are various other elements), and as an old sf fan, brought up in the school of hard science, I just can’t accept the rules of the universe being broken at every turn to support a metaphor.

  14. Fair enough! I guess when there’s a talking bird and other folkloric elements, I’m just willing to run with this not being a hard science sort of world. On a related note, my students loved this book when I taught it in the fall. Reading it alongside Between Dog and Wolf was a trip.

  15. I’ll bet — I’m just starting Between Dog and Wolf now!

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