Chingiz Aitmatov, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years
Information and Questions for Reading
If Platonov encountered terrible problems both in trying to make his writing fit the evolving standards for publication in the Soviet Union (in short: it was not sufficient to be from a working-class background; a writer had to follow the evolving standards of acceptable form and content), Aitmatov was born later and started to write just before Stalin's death. Although you never know how counter-factual history would have gone, it's unlikely that a writer whose father had been purged would have met success in a literary system that was ultimately ruled by Stalin. The introduction to our edition is by Katerina Clark, a specialist in the Soviet Novel (and in Soviet culture in general) - though you may be interested to see the traces of the era when it was composed: the late era of "Stagnation," when a Western scholar was forced to speculate about things that in most literary systems would come out in interviews or book reviews - or in our days on the author's blog. It was one thing to make clear in a novel that Stalinism with its purges (of Kazangap's father) and low-level but nonetheless tremendously destructive denunciations caused terrible damage in human and cultural terms - but another thing to utter critical opinions in one's own voice in an interview. Aitmatov was a successful writer who knew how to play the game in order to say most of what he wanted to say. (He died in 2008.)
Another reason for his success was the Soviet project of encouraging writers from other nationalities within the Soviet Union. If the Kyrgyz nation had no tradition of prose novels, then all the more reason to admit this promising young writer to the very prestigious Literary Institute in Moscow. (Remember that without a diploma from that sort of institute it was difficult for a writer to be published - whereas coming out of that system, in a planned economy, meant that a writer did have access to all the perks, as well as to publishers.) The Soviet period also saw a strong, ongoing program of translations both into and out of Russian, so that the existing great works of other nationalities (epic and lyric poetry, for example) became available in the local lingua franca and world language of Russian, while Russian classics were translated into the local language to serve as examples for readers and writers.
Questions for Reading The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years:
1. What's the effect of a narrative that opens with a fox - even if the introduction has already mentioned the human characters we'll soon see?
2. How do the very positive evocations of Kazakh traditions (initially, Yedigei's insistence on giving his friend a proper traditional burial) compare with the more ambiguous attitude toward traditions in "Jamila"?
3. If the novel as a genre was the showpiece of Soviet literature, does it make sense that Islam (both as a relic of the "opiate of the people" and as something suspicious in its non-Russian, non-atheist contents and power) is less present here even as a verbal presence than it is in "Jamila" (a short story that might not come under so much ideological scrutiny - and that didn't cost as much to edit and publish)?
4. What echoes of Socialist Realism or Soviet literary cliché do you notice in this work? What is tendentious about the traits assigned to the positive and negative characters?
5. What is the role of sex in this work?
6. And a fascinating element here that we won't otherwise be discussing much in this course: what is the place of science fiction in the plot, and in the message the reader might take away from the novel? (Note that Central Asia was used for a lot of Soviet nuclear testing - and the landscape we see depicted here might make sense as a location for testing bombs, since it was sparsely populated and not good for agriculture: it's mainly land that has to be crossed in order to get from one place to another.)
7. What does the novel convey about environmental issues, and how might that be another place to convey Muslim values to the reader? How can we read the message about the rocket complex blocking access to a traditional cemetery - or the ways a culture that moves more lightly or occasionally over the land would thereby lose access to its important sites?
8. Here and in "Soul" there's a renewed presence of wild and domestic (mostly wild) animals; tortoise, and then fox, camel, seagull golden sturgeon, and then eagle. How do the animals here compare to those we saw in earlier readings? What is the effect of depicting parts of the action through the eyes and consciousness of an animal?