Kyrgyzstani Classics: The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years

Did you get a chance to read Mark’s guest post about Chyngyz Aitmatov’s novella Jamilia? If not, check it out, and while you’re on his site, check out a few other gems of his — in addition to knowing all about Central Asian pop stars, he’s better than me at blogging about the nuts and bolts of Peace Corps service here.

Kyrgyz people are often confused when I can’t list off the national clothes, national drink, or national food of the United States (though, to be honest, I just always say that hot dish is our national meal). The idea of a national “everything” is very important here, and these symbols of Kyrgyz(stani) culture are fairly fixed: kymyz is the national beverage, kara jorgo the national dance, and besh barmak the national food (though, as a resident of southern Kyrgyzstan, I’d make a case for ash).

When it comes to Kyrgyzstan’s “national writer,” arguments could be made for various poets and authors, but it would be pretty hard to beat Chyngyz Aitmatov. His short stories and novellas have been a joy to read, but nothing so far compares to his 1980 novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years.

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The book takes place in the course of a single day: villagers of the Boranly-Burannyi rail station learn of the passing of a respected elder, Kazangap, and go on a journey to bury him. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years gets its name from the weaving together of several stories: some intense magical realism involving a pair of Soviet and American astronauts who make contact with an alien planet, the fallout of Stalin-era purges on a man and his family, the main character’s relationship with his feisty Bactrian camel, and two Kazakh folk tales (3, if you’re reading the original Russian).

The fate of Central Asian traditions and identity is a focal point of the novel, highlighted by the efforts of Yedigei, an old man who made his home at the rail station, to bury his beloved friend and fellow railworker Kazangap. Yedigei is determined to bury Kazangap in the Ana-Beiit cemetery, but is frustrated with the perceived lack of dedication and care on the part of the other, younger men in the burial party:

“Looking at his young companions on the tractor, Burannyi Yedigei was genuinely distressed and sorry to think that none of them knew a single prayer. How then could they bury one another? With what words, covering the beginning and end of a life, would they sum up the departure of a man into the unknown, into non-existence? ‘Farewell, comrade, we will remember you.’ Or with some other sort of nonsense?” (97)

The Ana-Beiit cemetery is off limits to the villagers, who decide to bury Kazangap in a random patch of the steppe instead. Ana-Beiit, which means “mother’s grave” in Kazakh, appears in the landscape of another fairytale told throughout the novel, that of the “mankurt.” According to Central Asian legend, mankurts were prisoners of war, tortured by roaming Chinese tribes, and turned into zombie slaves with no memory of their former village, family, or identity.

The movie adaptation of The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years focuses solely on this sub-plot, entirely ignoring the more magical threads of the novel’s narrative structure. Shot in 1990 in Turkmenistan, the movie (aptly called Mankurt) follows the fate of a young soldier, Yolaman. Yolaman is captured by Chinese bandits and is tortured with a piece of camel flesh tied around his head; as other captives die of starvation and dehydration, Yolaman slowly loses his mind and all his memories.

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Yolaman, still taken from the 1990 film Mankurt

Yolaman’s mother, Naiman, is waiting impatiently with in the canyons; on a hunch, she decides to head out to the steppe to fine her son and bring him home. Naiman is devastated that her son can’t remember who he is; as she shouts “Dorunbai! Dorunbai!”, the name of Yolaman’s father, a bird picks up the call and repeats the name over and over as the encounter turns tragic.

This same bird circles overhead as Yedigei tries to gain entry to Ana-Beiit, the final resting place of Naiman herself, calling out Dorunbaiiii, dorunbaiiii. Here, the bird doesn’t speak to recall a forgotten father, but instead forgotten traditions. Aitmatov uses the novel to make a statement about this generation of people, fully transformed Homo sovieticus, who are disconnected from the language and cultural staples of their ancestors.

In a eulogy for Aitmatov published in Harper’s, Scott Horton writes, “One of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage.”

It’s fitting, then, that Aitmatov, a Kyrgyz man, wrote this book that takes place on the Kazakh steppe, and a team of Turkmen filmmakers picked up the mankurt tale. The struggle to protect and pass on traditional ways of life persisted in many areas of the Soviet Union, and Chyngyz Aitmatov was able to give voice to the way that played out not only in Kyrgyzstan, but all across Soviet Central Asia.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder at how these works – The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years and Mankurt – were produced and distributed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film portrays the danger of losing grasp on traditional mores, and the book advocates individualism, wariness of state authority, and Islamic rites. Somehow by the grace of glasnost, it made it through, and thank goodness for that.

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