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Chinghiz Aitmatov: И дольше века длится день (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years)

This novel tells two stories – a fairly conventional Soviet Central Asian story and a science fiction story. We start with Burannyi Yedigei, a Kazakh (not a Kirghiz, like Aitmatov). Burannyi is a railway signalman on a remote stretch of railway in Soviet Kazakhstan. Though remote, the line is fairly busy and he and his colleagues have to make sure that the trains get through. At the start of the novel he is on duty late at night when he sees his wife approaching. She has come to announce the death of Kazangap. Kazangap had worked there for forty years and he and Buryanni had been close. Kazangap was a widower who lived on his own, his children having moved out. Burannyi wants to pray over the body and gets permission from his reluctant supervisor (who considers such activities as being anti-Soviet) to go home and be replaced by some else. The early part of the novel has Burannyi reminiscing about how he met Kazangap and both their stories. Kazangap’s father had been accused of being a kulak and had been sent to a camp. However, he was not a kulak and when this was realised, he was allowed to return home but he died on the way back. Kazangap was subsequently harassed for being the son of a kulak, so he left his home town and ended up on the railway. Buryannyi had fought in the war and had sufferd shell-shock. He never really recovered and found it difficult to get employment, till he met Kazangap in a nearby town. Kazangap offered him the job and he had stayed. Buryanni recounts some of the problems the pair faced in the early days. He also arranges for Kazangap to be buried in a cemetery thirty kilometers away. When he is returning home after he has been relieved after his wife told him of Kazangap’s death, he sees a flash in the sky. He assumes it is coming from the nearby joint Soviet-US space base, which is secret. However, he is surprised not to have read about the launch of a rocket.

The Soviet-US joint programme was for exploring planets and, specifically to exploit the huge mineral resources of the planet Ex. The command was on an aircraft carrier called Convention, anchored equidistant between San Francisco and Vladivostok. There was a space station called Parity, manned by one Soviet and one US cosmonaut. Convention had been in touch with Parity but, suddenly, there had been no contact with the station. The flash that Buryanni had seen was a rocket sent up to Parity to investigate. When they got there, they found a message from the two cosmonauts (in both Russian and English). They had detected a regular signal from a remote planet and had eventually responded. The people of the planet had got in touch and seemed to be an advanced civilisation. They had managed to learn some Russian and some English. They had said that they were interested in travelling to Earth but would only do so by invitation. Meanwhile, they had invited the two cosmonauts to visit their planet – called Lesnaya Grud (Forest Breast) – and could travel to the space station at the speed of light in twenty-five Earth hours. The cosmonauts accepted and had been picked up and taken to the planet, planning only to spend a couple of days there. The cosmonauts communicated from the planet, telling of their journey, of the people of the planet and of their problems, specifically some strange force that was gradually destroying the planet.

Much of the novel is Burannyi’s reminiscences on the way to the cemetery. This cemetery is called Ana-Beiit, named after a legendary woman who had hunted down her son, enslaved by an early immigrant tribe, and the problems she faced when she found him. As well as thinking of this story, Buryanni also reminisces about the legendary singer Ramaily-Aga. However, he particularly remembers two other stories, in which he was involved. The first was about one of his fellow railway workers, Abutalip. Abutalip had been taken a prisoner of war during the war. Instructions had been given to soldiers taken prisoner of war to kill themselves and those who had returned were persecuted afterwards. Abutalip had escaped with some colleagues and they had joined the Yugoslav partisans and fought with them. Initially, this had been considered in his favour but, when the Soviet Union broke off with Yugoslavia, this had gone against him. Abutalip was a teacher but, when his past was found out, he was hounded from place to place, ending up on the railway. But even there his past will catch up with him. The other story Buryanni reminisces about concerns his very frisky camel, Karanar, who gives Buryanni a lot of trouble though, despite advice to the contrary, Buryanni will not have him castrated or tamed. Meanwhile, on the Convention, things are not going well and politics, inevitably, creep in.

It is not a bad story, as Buryanni tells us of the hardships of life out in the wilds and the generally stoical nature of all concerned. The science fiction story does, at times, seem incongruous and certainly secondary to the main plot of Buryanni and his comrades, even if it is clear that Aitmatov’s intention is to show that, with the best will in the world, peace between the then two superpowers is not going to be easy, even when the fate of the planet is at stake. It is the character and story of Buryanni that makes this novel interesting.

Publishing history

First published by Kyrgyzstan Publishers, Frunze (Bishkek) in 1980
First English translation by Indiana University Press, Bloomington in 1983
Translated by John French