Monday, November 15, 2004

I've just finished reading Chingiz Aitmatov's The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years - a wonderful novel.

It's a story of a man who lives and works at a God-forgotten railway junction in Kazakhstan's region of Sary-Ozek, in the Stalin years and afterwards - a story of how one man's sense of honor and dignity can make a difference at a time when the individual is worthless, sacrificed for the sake of the faceless collective.

The novel was published in 1980 - except for one chapter, detailing torture and the subsequent death of one of the characters in 1953, an innocent victim of the monstrous regime. Such a straightforward approach to the subject was unlikely to please the censors, and Aitmatov kept the chapter in the drawer until 1990. I'm not sure whether the English translation includes this chapter - my 1989 Russian-language edition doesn't.

There was one thing that almost forced me to quit reading: I was really enjoying the story set in rural Kazakhstan when, all of a sudden, it was interrupted with science fiction. The inserts about the peaceful, perfect aliens coming into contact with the warring, imperfect humans read more like a variation of socialist realism than science fiction: scientific realism or socialist science fiction, a pamphlet about the evils of the Cold War, very out of place and annoying. But, knowing the extent to which everyone was fed up with the insipid socialist realism content and style at the time this novel (about a working-class man) was written, mixing genres like this and spicing it up with a silly alien story shouldn't seem too unreasonable. In any case, this absurd distraction is tiny and can be easily ignored.

The best-known part of the book is the one that retells a Turkic legend about mankurts: slaves who were tortured with extreme cruelty until they lost their memory, turning into mindlessly obedient human robots. Although I myself did not know the term mankurt before I read the book, I've been told that it was very popular during perestroika - and is still used in Central Asia, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, to define a person who doesn't remember his roots and history. (In Ukraine, you'd hear the word janissaries a lot more often than mankurts, though.)

The novel has provided me with an almost physical understanding of how it was possible for the majority of the Soviet citizens NOT to know the horrifying scale of the atrocities taking place in the name of Stalin: fighting for your life on a daily basis in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, doesn't leave you any time to try to learn about what's going on elsewhere, makes you content with the lies you're being fed, makes you believe those lies with very few reservations.

The novel has also confirmed to me the fact that, in a way, Stalin was merely a portrait on the wall, and that most of the millions of the atrocities done in his name started in a very mundane way, with someone telling on someone else - neighbors telling on neighbors, co-workers on co-workers, relatives on relatives, etc. Ourselves vs. ourselves. (My favorite explanation of how this mechanism worked is Yuri Dombrovsky's The Keeper of Antiquities and The Faculty of Useless Knowledge: the best writing about the horrors of 1937.)

Aitmatov's novel is unforgettable, and I'll probably translate a few of my favorite passages and post them here later. Also, I look forward to starting his other novel tomorrow, The Place of the Skull.

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