Sunday 27 April 2014

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (by Chingiz Aitmatov) - A review

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years

Location: Kazakhstan
Author: Chingiz Aitmatov
Publisher/Year: Indiana University Press/1983 (Novy Mir/1980 in Russian)
Genre: Sci-fi
Theme: The story of a man burying a dear friend, juxtaposed with a tale of cosmonauts/astronauts experiencing first contact with extraterrestrials

Not very well known outside the former Soviet Union, this novel by Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov is a fascinating (if occasionally bizarre) work. Calling it 'science fiction' alone does not do it justice, as that relates solely to a barely linked subplot, while the primary narrative is a retelling of the protagonist's life and the events and people surrounding him.

The primary plot revolves around railman Burranyi Yedigei as he goes to bury his late friend, Kazangap, in a particular cemetery. As he treks in that direction, he recounts his life growing up in the Sary-Ozek steppes and tales from Kazakh folklore, his brief time as a soldier in World War II and the subsequent phase in which he was working at a railway station with Kazangap and other key characters.

The subplot is launched (literally and figuratively) from a site near the railway station, with a rocket taking off for a joint USA-USSR space station with two cosmonauts/astronauts not long before Yedigei gets the news of Kazangap's death. The two cosmonauts arrive at the space station to replace their predecessors and also to investigate their sudden disappearance, only to find a message from them explaining that they had been contacted by an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation, on a world with no war, no differences, and complete unity under one world government. On relaying this message of a utopian planet making contact with Earth (rather, that one space station), the USA and USSR governments temporarily toss their differences aside... to destroy the satellite and cosmonauts and any chance of letting the world know that it's possible to have a peaceful planet without artificial conflict.

It's an intriguing work, in effect two utterly different tales splitting out from one specific location. The Yedigei plot is a very real look at life in those parts over a long period of time. The characters are interesting and well-defined, with emotions and experiences coming through clearly. The Kazakh setting also plays an important part, coming into its own through Yedigei's trek and his tales of life in the steppes. The space subplot, on the other hand, occasionally wanders into surreal and bizarre territory, but also manages to be a satirical look at how we on Earth operate in terms of how the saga ends. It does not seem to add to the primary narrative in any way, but works as a completely different tale. The writing style, while having the same basis, conveys the two different stories with different undertones, which is certainly quite fascinating.

On the whole, an interesting but occasionally bizarre read, and worth a go if one wants to look at lesser known Soviet literature that has been appreciated.

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