This is exactly the sort of book I was hoping to find when I started my world fiction challenge: a truly excellent and accessible novel that deserves to be much more widely read. Fiction in translation covers a wide spectrum, sometimes feeling very foreign and bizarre, but there’s something wonderful and life-affirming about finding a book like this, that’s perfectly relatable and understandable despite (for most English-speaking readers) an enormous cultural gap.
The book is about an old man named Yedigei, who works at a tiny railway junction out in the empty steppe of Kazakhstan. His oldest friend, Kazangap, dies at the beginning of the book, and Yedigei leads the other men of the junction out to an ancient cemetery for the burial. On their trip to the cemetery, he reminisces about his life, particularly about an ill-fated family he grew close to in the 1950s. There are also a couple of folk tales included, as well as a science fiction subplot about a first contact with an alien civilization. Which may sound like a lot, but it all comes together very well--even the sci-fi bit, which seemed clumsy until its thematic reason for being in the story became clear.
Overall, this is simply an excellent book. It’s a compelling story, featuring interesting, three-dimensional characters. The evocative writing brings to life a remote corner of the world, and the translation, including the dialogue, is very readable without being dumbed-down. The author incorporates a lot of 20th century Soviet history while still keeping the focus on the characters. It’s also definitely a “big ideas” kind of book, with a lot to say about cultural memory, international relations, and the Soviet system (among other things), but again, Aitmatov manages this in a subtle, nondidactic way, keeping the primary focus on the characters and their story.
I regret that my Russian isn’t nearly up to reading novels, because had I read this in the original, it likely would have gotten 5 stars. As is, the language is quite good, and so it’s a very solid 4.5. It would have been nice had the foreword been more about providing the reader with helpful background information (like where in Kazakhstan this actually takes place!) and less about its writer showing off, but as for the novel itself, I have no complaints. Definitely recommended--if you can get your hands on a copy.