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The Mutability of the Canon: Socialist Realism and Chingiz Aitmatov's I dol'she veka dlitsia den'

  • Katerina Clark


Chingiz Aitmatov's recent novel I dol'she veka dlitsia den’ provides an excellent case study of the way the socialist realist canon can generate new paradigms out of itself. At a time when it is widely assumed in the West that all reputable Soviet authors have gone “beyond” socialist realism, the appearance of this novel is particularly instructive.

Aitmatov's book has had greater impact in the Soviet Union than any other novel published there in recent years. It covers subjects that are both highly topical and sensitive politically. Yet it does so by using the conventions of socialist realism to a greater extent than has been seen in the major Soviet writing of the past fifteen years. Indeed, Aitmatov has somehow contrived to weave into the fabric of his text patterns reminiscent of every period in the development of socialist realism.



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1. Originally published in Novyi mir, no. 11 (1980). The novel was renamed Burannyi polustanok when republished in book form in 1981. English edition: The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983).

2. See Clark, Katerina, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

3. “Sovetskaia literatura v bor'be za kommunizm i ee zadachi v svete resenii XXVI s “ezdaKPSS.” Doklad pervogo sekretaria pravleniia Soiuza pisatelei SSSR G. M. Markova, Literaturnaia gazeta, no. 27 (July 1, 1981): 2.

4. Bocharov, A., “Ekzamenuet zhizn',” Novyi mir, 1982, no. 8: 228 .

5. References include a series of articles in Literaturnaia gazeta of 1979 published under the rubric “'Derevenskaia proza': Bol'shaki i proselki” (especially the opening article in the series,Aleksandr Prokhanov, “Metafora sovremennosti,” in no. 37: 4); “V tsentral'nom komitete KPSS.O postanovlenii ‘O tvorcheskikh sviaziakh literaturno–khudozhestvennykh zhurnalov s praktikoi koramunisticheskogo stroitel'stva,” Pravda, July 30, 1982, and, for the Russian nationalist school incriticism, Iurii Surovtsev. “Polemicheskie marginalii, iii koe-chto o metodologii literaturno–kriticheskogo svoevoliia,” Znamia, 1981, no. 9: 221–36.

6. Bocharov, , “Rozhdeno sovremennost'iu,” Novyi mir, 1981, no. 8: 237.

7. Markov, “Sovetskaia literature. “

8. Several critics have praised this novel for being akin to one of the new Latin American novels. See Lev Ospovat, “Oboianie mifa, besstrashie smekha. Zametki o novom latinoamerikanskom romane (70'kh godov),” Literaturnoe obozrenie, 1981, no. 12: 24. Incidentally, Aitmatov was himself one of the first Soviet writers to talk of the possibilities offered for their literature by the new Latin American novel (Vera Kuteishchikova and Ospovat, Novyi latinoamerikanskii roman 50–e–60–e gody (Moscow, 1976), p. 33.

9. Lakshin, Vladimir, “O dome i o mire,” Literaturnoe obozrenie, 1981, no. 10: 38.

10. Glinkin, P. E., Chingiz Aitmatov (Leningrad, 1968), pp. 4041.

11. In particular, the plot line concerning Edigei, Kazangap, and Abutalip reads in many of itsaspects like a reworking of the plot of Aitmatov's Proshchai Gul'sary of 1966.

12. Several Soviet critics cite as the source for the “legends” in this novel the Kirghiz epic “Manas” (see Aleksandr Ovcharenko, “Novyi uroven’ khudozhestvennogo myshlenia,” Novyi mir. 1981, no. 1: 239). Having checked both primary and secondary sources on the “Manas” and other Central Asian epics, and having consulted with John Krueger, Ruth Meserve, and Michael Drompp of the Uralic and Altaic department of Indiana University, I have come to the tentative conclusion that the Ana–Beiit legend is not based directly on any Central Asian epic. In particular, I can findno precedent for the form of torture which is so crucial to the legend but seems closer to American Indian than Central Asian lore. Many other elements of the legend more or less correspond to standard moments in Central Asian epic, but just as Aitmatov has used standard moments from the conventional socialist realist plot but reversed them in some way, so too has he played with the clichés in this “legend.” For instance, in the Central Asian epic the hero's mother often risks her life to seek him out when he has been captured and enslaved by the enemies, but she invariably succeeds in freeing him, and he then goes on to free his people or to avenge his father's death at the hands of these enemies. The naming of the heroic son is also an important moment in Central Asian epic,but this event is usually followed by his performing a heroic deed.

13. The Zhuan'zhuan were a tribe who ruled what is now Mongolia around 400 to 500 A.D.They were the dominant tribe in Inner Asia, and while it is not known whether they subjugated the Kirghiz, the Kirghiz were at the time located near Mongolia. The identity of the tribe is not known,although some have speculated they might be the Avars. Both the name Zhuan'zhuan and informationon the tribe originate in Chinese sources.

14. Some Soviet critics have prophesied that this word will become part of the Russian language,like Gogol “s Manilov. It has Turkic roots. The primary meaning of kurt in most Turkic languages is “worm.” Radlov, V. V., Opyt slovaria (iurkskikh narechii, vol. 2 (St. Petersburg, 1899), p. 944 . Man can mean bad or evil, but not in the Kirghiz or Kazakh Turkic language.

15. In Ukhaby the request is, however, directed at saving a man's life rather than burying him.

16. Markov, “Sovetskaia literatura,” p. 2.

17. Sidorov, Evgenii, “Zvezda nad step'iu. O romane Chingiza Aitmatova ‘I dol'she veka dlitsiaden”,” Literaturnaia gazeta, no. 3 (January 14, 1981): 4 .

18. Mel'vil', Iu., “Trud, gumanizm, kosmos. Roman Ch. Aitmatova—podlinnyi gimn trudu,“ Voprosy literatury, 1981, no. 9: 26 .

19. Rasputin, Valentin, Povesti (Moscow, 1976), p. 203.

20. Novyi mir, 1963, no. 1: 43.

21. Mkrtchian, Levon, “Ptitsa Donenbai,” Literaturnoe obozrenie, 1981, no. 10: 38.

22. Novyi mir, 1980, no. 11: 39.

23. Bocharov, “Ekzamenuet zhizn',” pp. 228–29.

24. For more on this and a discussion of the phenomenon in Aitmatov's book, see my forthcoming article “Political History and Literary Chronotope: Some Soviet Case Studies” in Morson, C. S., ed., Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies (Stanford University Press).

The Mutability of the Canon: Socialist Realism and Chingiz Aitmatov's I dol'she veka dlitsia den'

  • Katerina Clark


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