Set in Kazakhstan in the latter half of the 20th century, this novel centers around Yedigei, a railway worker at the isolated Boranly-Burannyi train station in the middle of the steppe. He has lived with his wife and daughters in the tiny community by this train station for many years, and the other families who live there are practically his family also. When his neighbor and friend Kazangap dies, Yedigei takes responsibility for burying him properly at the ancient Kazakh cemetery of Ana-Beiit, even though it is a long journey from Boranly-Burannyi. Yedigei is able to arrange a small funeral procession that includes several men from the village, a camel, and even a tractor. As the procession makes its way through the steppe, Yedigei reflects on his relationship with Kazangap and on several other significant events in his life. Eventually, his quest collides with a momentous scientific discovery involving contact with intelligent life on another planet.
For me, this book was very put-down-able; I never felt like I simply had to know what was going to happen next. Nonetheless, I was surprised by how much I ultimately enjoyed the story. It certainly took me to an entirely different place and time — I’ve barely read any Soviet literature, and I definitely haven’t read anything set in Kazakhstan before. I think the book wonderfully describes Yedigei’s way of life in a way that is both very specific and somehow accessible to contemporary Western readers. I also loved the meditative quality of the prose, which is enhanced by the frequent repetition of certain phrases and paragraphs throughout the book. The bulk of the novel is told in flashback as Yedigei recalls various incidents, and these flashbacks provide most of the plot. In the book’s present, not much actually happens, but I never felt like things were moving too slowly. The sci-fi aspect of the plot seemed pretty disposable to me, but I was certainly curious while reading to see how it would connect with Yedigei’s story! Overall, even though this book wasn’t a page-turner, I’m really glad I stuck with it.