On the whole, Western publishing has not been favorably disposed toward Soviet writings of the post “thaw” period, on the assumption that censorial restrictions render that literature unworthy of translation. Nevertheless, for the past fifteen years, a small but persistent and influential group of authors has managed to get pieces into print which defy or at least considerably modify the concept of Socialist Realism, the official guideline for Soviet literature. Because these works have appeared with censorial approval, they reflect an evolutionary process in current Soviet writing which gives unusually wide scope of theme and style to authors, and which is as remarkable as it is diverse. Chingiz Aitmatov is both a prominent and unlikely member of this literary trend. While other innovative writers keep their political involvements to a required minimum, Aitmatov is an accepted and politically active member of the governing establishment, serving as delegate to national Communist Party congresses and to the Supreme Soviet, the country’s legislative chamber. He also functions as occasional correspondent for the Communist Party organ Pravda. His literary qualifications likewise find official application. He serves on the editorial board of several journals, participates in the affairs of diverse cultural institutions, and heads the film producer’s union of his region. The Soviet Union has honored Aitmatov with many awards and privileges, among them the Lenin Prize for Literature in 1963 for the collection Povesti gor i stepei (1962; Tales of the Mountains and Steppes, 1973). In addition, the author often appears as the Soviet Union’s emissary at international, predominantly Third World, cultural conferences. None of these allegiances and activities has affected the high quality of his literary output.
As a native of the small Central Asian republic of Kirghizia, Aitmatov represents the literature of the non-Russian national minorities who make up almost half of the Soviet population. While much of Soviet ethnic literature remains regional, Aitmatov’s work transcends native boundaries, because he writes in Russian as well as Kirghiz and often aims at national and international audiences. The setting of his works, however, is firmly fixed in Central Asia, and his plots give generous space to the people, customs, and traditions of that region.
I dol’she veka dlitsya den’ (1980; The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, 1983) is in many ways a continuation and recombination of earlier Aitmatov themes. These themes center on unsophisticated laborers and peasants who cope poorly, both physically and psychologically, with intruding technology, modernization, and bureaucracy. They cling firmly and stubbornly to their cultural heritage, rich in legend, folklore, and poetry; they indulge their love for animals and natural surroundings and attempt to neutralize foreign influences by preserving their native mythology. Aitmatov usually places them in confrontation with alien Soviet life-styles. Though he permits them to emerge as moral superiors, they are seldom the victors. Tragedy, defeat, or simply a strong feeling of loss inevitably await Aitmatov’s bewildered heroes. The author does not express an overt anti-Soviet bias, yet certain recurrent notions, transmitted subtly and metaphorically through clever use of literary devices, leave the impression of a modern Soviet governing structure slowly eradicating Kirghizia’s cultural heritage and rendering the surviving bearers of that culture superfluous if not ridiculous.
The extent to which The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is linked to Aitmatov’s earlier work is easily apparent when one recalls the ethical touchstone of his most important pieces. Proshchai Gul’sary! (1966; Farewell, Gulsary!, 1973) weaves a delicate parallel between an abused Kirghiz peasant and his mistreated horse, both victims of Stalinist excesses. After receiving the 1968 State Prize for Literature for this work, Aitmatov stressed the destruction of Kirghiz mythology in his next major story, Bely parakhod (1970; The White Steamship, 1972). This poetic tragedy, which associates the senseless killing of a sacred deer with the death of a sensitive native boy, provoked an outcry among Soviet citizens against cavalier treatment of ethnic sensibilities. Despite the attending ideological controversy, this tale too was honored with the State Prize for Literature in 1977. Aitmatov’s drama Voskhozdenie na Fudziyamu (1973; The Ascent of Mount Fuji, 1975), coauthored with fellow Central Asian Kaltai Mukhamedzhanov and staged at the Moscow Sovre-mennik Theater, as well as in English at the Washington, D.C. Arena Stage Theater in 1975, likewise buries politically delicate statements in generous doses of native lore. In this powerful play, Aitmatov indirectly but unmistakably suggests that Stalin-era informers are still politically prominent without having changed their ethical orientation. The Ascent of Mount Fuji did not receive the wide critical acclaim normally lavished on an Aitmatov work in the Soviet Union, and there were suggestions that he had gone too far.
Not surprisingly, then, the appearance of The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years created a literary sensation. It became clear that the author had not only retained his influential position but also had been singled out...
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