Saturday 26 March 2016


So much of what I read is written by western authors so when I came across a book in the charity shop by a writer from Kyrgyzstan I was interested, so I bought 'Jamilia' by Chingiz Aitmatov. It was first published in 1958 and was only translated into english in 2007. Interestingly you can read the entire story, which is less than 100 pages, online here, and also some interesting analysis of the political significance of his writing here.

Although named for the unconventional young woman the story it is really about her young brother-in-law Seit. Set during the Second World War the village is populated with women, the elderly and children, all the men are away serving in the army, so the teenage Seit finds himself working with Jamilia transporting grain to the train station for feeding the troops. They are joined by an injured former soldier Daniyar, a withdrawn and reticent man, but over the days of working together a bond formed between the three of them. It is really a coming of age story for Seit, who is at first protective and jealous of his sister-in-law, but gradually as he watches as Jamilia and Daniyar fall in love, and even though they are going against all the conventions of their community, he finds himself understanding their passion and sympathising with them. 

Here they are travelling back to the village at night, wagons in convoy, listening to Daniyar singing:

"When you thought the last note had died away, out burst fresh haunting song that seemed to rouse and press the sleeping steppe with tunes it held dear and, in return, gratefully invigorated the singer. The ripened dove-grey wheat awaiting harvest rippled like a lake surface and the first shadows of dawn flitted across the field. At the mill a mighty throng of old willows rustled their leaves; on the other side of the rive the campfires of field-workers were fading, and a shadowy rider galloped noiselessly towards the village along the top of the bank, dipping and bobbing among the orchards. The wind was heady with the fragrance of apples, the aroma of honeyed, flowering corn and the warm smell of drying dung bricks." (p.58-9)

Much of the descriptions are quiet and lyrical, but the interactions between the characters are purely practical, no one says what they feel, much is implied by lingering looks and unspoken gestures. There is a stark contrast between the reactions of the villagers, who cannot comprehend anyone giving up respectability and security for mere 'love', and the way Seit has come to view their relationship.

"I was probably the only one who did not condemn Jamilia, my one time jenei. Maybe Daniyar did have an old greatcoat and tattered boots, but I for one knew his soul was richer than all of ours. I did not believe Jamilia would be unhappy with him, though I did feel sorry for my mother. It seemed that when Jamilia left, my mother's former strength left her. She became stooped and haggard. Now I realise she could not accept someone breaking with tradition. If a storm uproots a mighty tree, the tree will never grow again. Earlier, my mother would never ask anyone to thread a needle for her, her pride would not allow it. One day after school I came home and saw her weeping: her hands were trembling so badly that she could not thread the needle." (p.90-1)

It was a very interesting little story, an intimate picture of a small rural community, who's way of life and traditions were being disrupted by the collectivisation enforced by the Soviet Union and the impact of the war. I like the way that you can learn a little about the way of life in a completely different part of the world, but at the same time find that their concerns are never so far from your own.

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