Chinghiz Aitmatiov’s The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years is a timeless novel occurring at a very specific location and time – Kazakhstan in the late-to-mid period of the Soviet Union – and tells it in such a way that it speaks to everyone.
Aitmatov introduces us to Yedigei Burriani, a Kazakh worker on a Soviet railroad, who aims to bury his best friend in a historic Muslim graveyard. It’s hallowed ground because of Naiman-Ana, a long-suffering mother whose son was gruesomely transformed into a mankurt – an old Kazakh myth used here as a brilliant metaphor. In fact, as with any good Soviet novel, ambivalent metaphors abound: there’s even a science fictional subplot about our first contact with alien races that can be read as a prejudice of the unknown, as a critique of the Cold War, or even just as the impossibility of true communication between two sentient beings. And all of this occurs without feeling academic in the least – on the contrary, Aitmatov’s prose (translated by John French) is naturally beautiful, effortlessly flowing along from one story to another, always circling back to Burriani and his continual questioning about his purpose, and the conflict of the past with the modern. For example, the characters in the book honor the traditional Kazakh ways of living, (although Aitmatov doesn't whitewash out the harshness of this lifestyle) but also do not deny themselves the benefits of modern technology. On the contrary, Aitmatov seems genuinely excited about the possibilities of modernity – mainly the ability to quickly travel long distances and benefits of communications with other cultures that this engenders, but also smaller things. For instance, one great set piece involves Burriani’s famously powerful camel raging about in heat (powerfully symbolizing primal human emotions) but when it comes time to actually perform the burial, the hard work is done with a backhoe.
Overall, this may have been the most entertaining book I read in 2013. It came from an honest, true place and spoke to me on many levels. It was also a fascinating glimpse into a part of the world I know nothing about – just looking at some of the pictures of the Kazakh steppe quickly reveal how truly foreign this land is to me. Luckily we have fantastic books like The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years to give us a sense of what it's like.
Cross Posted at Thought Ambience.