Kyrgyz author Chinghiz Aitmatov courted notoriety in 1963 with his cornerstone compilation Tales of the Mountains and Steppes. Helena Cuss investigates this influential writer through looking at his first novel, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, and analyzes the writer’s fascination with the steppes, the animal kingdom, and his country’s traditions in the face of modernization.
Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928-2008) is arguably Kyrgyzstan’s greatest writer. and has played an essential role in giving a voice to the people of his country. The author lived at a time when Kyrgyzstan was being transformed from a remote wasteland of the Russian Empire into a part of the USSR, and therefore his writings are imbued with post-war Soviet communism. This is particularly visible in his first novel, The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years, in which he explores the motifs to do with tradition, rituals, legends and myths; man’s closeness to animals and the Central-Asian landscape.
Kyrgyzstan is completely landlocked, with 80% mountainous areas and breathtaking views accounting for the eerie presence of the ‘steppes’ in Aitmatov’s work. Less than 8% of the land is cultivated; in his book the author meticulously describes the barren topography of Kyrgyzstan’s snow-capped mountains and steppes, which he presents as an inhospitable presence greater than man that neither hinders nor helps his survival but merely tolerates it.This ancient and insurmountable presence is juxtaposed with the imposition of a railway developed by the Soviets, which brings forth metaphors of travel and transferability, drawing attention to the country’s dual Kyrgyz and Soviet cultural heritage.
Through the repeated attempts of the central protagonist Burranyi Yedigei to bury his friend Kazangap, the writer demonstrates the importance of ritual and tradition in the face of modernization. As the next generation, with the excitement of the Space Age, has grown to disregard the importance of death and the resonance of prayers and faith. Aitmatov’s writing is also characterized by a respect for the animal kingdom, whom he considered to be very close to mankind. Indeed, the novel opens from the perspective of a vixen attempting to live in the steppes. This is perhaps an analogy for human life: the vixen is mentioned firstly when Yedigei envisages the possibility that his dead friend was reincarnated as her, and secondly during the rail man’s musings with the cosmonaut near the village, at which point he compares his feeling to that of the animal. This scene was perhaps a commentary on the fact that man’s technological progress might have gone too far.
The novel is a combination of local mythology and folklore with modernization. The ancient lifestyle in this lunar landscape, where camels are the main means of transport, is conflated with the onslaught of the 20th century that brought the violence of railways and rockets. What is perhaps most poignant, and what Aitmatov could not have foreseen, is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union these railways and air fields would become largely disused, which ultimately asserts the triumph of the steppes over mankind’s attempt to conquer them.
Aitmatov’s powerful and moving prose was recognized in 1963 when he was awarded the Lenin Prize for Tales of the Mountains and Steppes, a compilation including what is generally considered his greatest novel Jamilia. Today, Aitmatov is still celebrated as one of the most talented writers to have emerged from the Soviet Union.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.