A Day lasts how long?

June 10th, 2014 Sections: Cutural Life, Soviet Union, Who's Who
the day lasts more than a hundred years

Cover of the English translation

It was on 10th June, 2008, that Kyrgyzstan lost one of its favourite sons and cultural icon, Chingiz Aitmatov.

He was a man of many of many talents.  Born in 1928 in the the village of Sheker in the Talas region of Kyrgyzstan, near the border with Uzbekistan, he began working at the age of 14, as the assistant to the secretary of the local Soviet when he was just 14 … and he was later to hold a variety of jobs including as a tax collector, a loader, and an engineer’s assistant.

When he was 18 he began training as a veterinarian in Frunze, but later studied Literary Studies at the Maxim Gorky Institute in Moscow.  It was as a writer that he was to make his mark – working for several years for the newspaper Pravda and publishing a variety of short stories and novellas, which earned him recognition in the form of a Lenin Prize and other State Awards.  He was later to work in the Film industry and later entered politics – becoming a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, becoming the Soviet Ambassador to Belgium and, after independence, being appointed as the Kyrgyz Ambassador to Belgium and the European Union, based in Brussels.


His first significant novella was Jamilia – written from the point of view of Seit, (a painter), reminisces about the love affair which he saw develop between Jamila, (his sister in law), and Daniyar, (a cripple who comes to work on the local collective farm), whilst her husband, (Sadyk, Seit’s brother), is away serving at the front during the Second World War.  As well as being a touching and moving love story, (“the world’s most beautiful love story” according to the French poet and novelist Louis Aragon), it also explored a number of themes including the adaption of traditional culture and attitudes to women in the modern world.   

These were to be techniques and themes which recur throughout his later writings – along with with a tendency to offer criticisms of the Soviet system … “without going too far” … as well as presenting a Central Asian ethnicity, an affinity with nature and animals, local folklore (virtually all his novels include a reference to s legend – indeed some commentators describe his stories as folklore tales set in a modern environment), and even Islam – for example in Farewell Gulsary, the White Ship and what was to become one of his best known novels in the West, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years.


Originally published in the magazine Novy Mir, in 1980, it was originally to be called Obruch – The Hoop – but for some reason this title was rejected by the censors.  Instead, Aitmatov chose a phrase taken from a poem  – Unique days – by Boris Pasternack and another published version was called Buranny Polystanok – Buranny Railway Station … around which the story unfolds.  The main character in the story, Yedigei, is a former Second World War soldier who has settled and works as a railway man based at this remote railway junction in the Kazakh steppes.

The main plot of the novel takes place over the course of a day but flashbacks, reminiscences  and recollections cover  a period of many years from before the Second World War – and concerns the burial of Yedigei’s friend, Kazangap, in the Ana Beyit cemetry, (Mother’s Grave) on this, the long day in the title.

Just outside Bishkek in the village of Chon Tash we have the Ata Beyit cemetery – the Fathers’ Cemetery – where members of the party elite were executed as victims of the Stalinist repression and were secretly buried in 1937 … including Aimatov’s own father … and he was instrumental in creating the memorial  … and where a memorial to him now stands.

 Kazangap’s relatives, having been warned of his impending demise gather and when the time comes decide to set off and bury him the next day … and the party duly gathers and sets off early the next day.  As they travel to the cemetery, the details of the stories of the individual characters, (including Karanar – a somewhat randy camel who earns himself a reputation across the steppe for his strength and vitality), the intertwining relationships between them … and their views on life, religion, society and the universe – and in particular, what happens if people forget their motherland, language and history.


Among the themes in the novel is the tension that exists between different groups and cultures: east and west; religious and secular; tradition and contemporary … earth and extra terrestrial.

This raises the concept of the Mankurt, an image for which the novel is particularly well known.    He tells of a Turkic legend about how a fresh camel hide would be placed as a cap on the freshly shaven head of a captive … who is then bound and left in the desert.  As the cap dries it shrinks and binds itself to the person’s skin  creating a painful sensation which drives the captive insane, but if they survive – and recover – then they basically forget all but basic activities … their previous history and even their name … and thus becoming an ideal slave.  Sometimes the camel hide cap cannot be removed and the slave takes to wearing another cap at all times to hide their shame and predicament.  

In contemporary society, the term has come to be used as an insult to describe someone who has assimilated into the dominant culture – in particular this case, that of the former Soviet Union – and thus “forgotten” their cultural identity, language – for example speaking only Russian, and culture.       


Although Aitmatov has been translated into many languages around the world and is said to be well known, liked and admired in France and Germany, I first came across him, and the novel, when I came here in the mid 1990’s.  I managed to find a few books translated into English and quite enjoyed them.

On one of my trips back to the UK I decided to see if I could find any more.  I visited most of the bookshops along the Tottenham Court Road in Central London … but drew a blank everywhere I went – even in the shop which specialized in Eastern Europe and its languages.  I remember in particular, in one shop I asked if they could get me a copy of The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years and the assistant looked at me with wide eyes, confessing, “That sounds like a day in here!”  In another shop an assistant tried looking up some of the books on the list I had given him in the Books in Print catalogue … only to tell me that he couldn’t find any of them … not one.

At the time, I wondered if this meant that the translations might have been small run prints, for example published by the Communist Party … a sort of token or propaganda measure.  Later, however, I decided that it probably reflected the fact my titles may have been the result of mis-translations, (after all, the Russian title EE Bolshshe Veka Dlitsa Dehn can also be translated as And Longer than a Century Lasts a Day … I am sure you will agree that is basically the same – but it might come on a totally page in the catalogue), and later still, I occurred that it might also reflect the fact that the translations are published in the States rather than in England.  The standard English edition, for example, is/was published by the Indiana University Press.

Eventually, after searching on the internet, I found a copy of the Indiana Press edition for sale and ordered a copy on-line … but that wasn’t the end of the story because  it simply never arrived.  After waiting for several weeks, I contacted the booksellers to ask if they had any news of its whereabouts and they happily agreed to send me another copy – which very soon arrived.  To this day, I am still not sure if the originally simply “got lost in the post” or is some official somewhere got suspicious and confiscated it.

I would be exaggerating if I said that I opened the parcel and started reading … but after an initiol flick through the almost 400 pages, I put it on the pole of books waiting to be read and it was some time before I actually delved into the almost 400 pages.

It would also be an exaggeration to say that I took an instant liking to the book.  It was a lot longer than the others that I had read and keeping track of some all the plots and subplots proved to be a little challenging – Jamilia and even Farewell Gulsary had proved to be an easier read – mainly. I think, because they were by a younger author and were telling a story which were easier to identify with whereas this this was more of a philosophical novel of an older writer reflecting on man’s place in the universe … albeit an atheistic universe.

One of the subplots of this work, for example, involved a couple of astronauts, (one American and the other Russian … although at that time, I suppose, it would have been a Soviet cosmonaut),  serving on an orbiting space station run by those two countries, and how they are “abducted” from the spacecraft that served as their home, by a group of extra terrestrials … who took to their home planet, (Lesnaya Grud – The Bosom of the Forest).  Now, although I do enjoy science fiction and fantasy, they are not exactly among my favourite genres – especially when intermingled with other genres.

Having said that, it is a very good book and one that stimulates thought – and even if it does not typical of the sort of books that you do read, I would recommend it.  The more I read, the deeper I delved into those 400 pages, the more I began to understand and appreciate the story, the person who wrote it … and various aspects of the former Soviet system.

On one occasion, My Russian teacher asked me what sort of books I enjoyed reading … and was somewhat surprised when I said that I was reading Aitmatov … albeit in English and not the original Russian.  When she asked why I liked it, I had to formulate my opinions more firmly … and muttered something about how I was surprised that a successful Soviet writer could be so critical of the system  and yet, apparently, remain free … and at large in society … and even revered … eventually taking up an official post abroad and becoming a friend, confident and inspiration for the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.  She didn’t see it the same way – but she grew up in a different milieu.



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