Trains in these parts went from East to West, and from West to East . . .
On either side of the railway lines lay the great wide spaces of the desert — Sary-Ozeki, the Middle lands of the yellow steppes.
In these parts any distance was measured in relation to the railway, as if from the Greenwich meridian . . .
And the trains went from East to West, and from West to East . . .
This is the recurring refrain in this novel about the Kazakh steppe. Yedigei has worked at the desolate railroad station for over 20 years, and his best friend Kazangap has just died. Yedigei is in charge of the funeral, and he insists that it be done properly and that Kazangap be buried at the traditional graveyard. A few tractors set out on the trip, and Yedigei leads the way on his giant camel, Burannyi Karanar. As he travels, he remembers his life--how he got to the station and what happened there. Most of the novel is long flashbacks, punctuated with interludes of the funeral trip.
We slowly get to know the world of the Saryozek steppe, the railroad, and the tiny groups of people strung out along it. Yedigei is a veteran of the war; he had severe shell shock afterwards and couldn't go back to his home on the Aral Sea, so wound up on the railroad with his loyal wife. Kazangap was like a father to him, and another friend, Abutalip, was like a brother. His arrest in Stalin's purges was a terrible ordeal for everyone at Boranli-Burranyi.
Aitmatov shows the enormous, shocking contrast between the traditional Central Asian tribal lifestyle and the new Soviet rules. Camels are still a major form of wealth out on the steppe and Karanar is Yedigei's pride; he is one of the last of the old breed of camels, and he is tremendously strong and difficult to control. Karanar is a central symbol in the novel as well as a central part of Yedigei's life, and Yedigei sees Karanar as both an extension of himself and as possessing ancient freedom no longer available to modern people.
This contrast is further highlighted by the nearby rocket installation. Yedigei actually lives fairly close to some kind of astronomical study site or rocket base (it might be both). I think it's supposed to be something like Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It's completely cut off from the ordinary world, so although Yedigei is nearby, he's never seen anyone from there. The rocket base is, however, expanding and will soon be disrupting more than he realizes.
In fact, there's an odd little secondary plot to this novel that is entirely about the space program. In a secret cooperative space station, Americans and Russians share a study space that is strictly even between the two powers--and the cosmonauts have contacted alien life. As they shoot off into an unimaginable future, officials on Earth scramble to deal with the situation.
Yedigei doesn't know any of this, though, and he spends a lot of thought on the importance of his traditions. In his memory, he tells important legends, remembers songs, and laments the shrinking of his beautiful Aral Sea home (which is now gone, victim of Soviet environmental destruction).
When this novel was published in the Brezhnev era, it was a pretty big hit with intellectuals who considered it a wonderful example of socialist realism. This is somewhat surprising to the modern reader, who sees a paean to Kazakh tribal life and one character unjustly arrested, but apparently it said something a bit different to the Soviet intellectual of the 1970s. (For one thing, Stalinist purges were out of fashion.) I guess it's both.
It's a really good novel. I liked it.
Wherever you go, you won't get away from your troubles; they'll be with you always. No, Yedigei, if you're a dzhigit, you'll try to master yourself here. To go away--there's no bravery in that. Any fool can run away. But not everyone can master himself.