Friday, 12 December 2014

Hero of Kyrgyz Literature: Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov

published in Russian 1957

this translation by James Riordan, published 2007








She loved to sing, she was always humming some tune, not shy of people hearing. This was not the village way of how a daughter-in-law should conduct herself…

Jamilia was quite pretty. Tall and graceful, with straight, coarse hair tied in two tight, heavy plaits. She used to wear her white headscarf at an angle on her brow. It was very becoming and accentuated her dark skin and smooth features. Whenever she laughed, her bluish-black, almond-shaped eityes would light up mischievously, and whenever she sang a saucy village ditty, a knowing twinkle would appear in her beautiful eyes.

I often noticed that the young men, especially those home on leave, were much taken with her….

Daniyar, the unknown soldier, was originally from our village. Orphaned at an early age, he was passed from house to house before going to the Chakmak steppe.. He had been like a rolling stone, moving from one place to another… worked on the new cotton farms and in Tashkent…





observations: Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008) is the best known figure in Kyrgyzstan's literature, but for me, as for probably most people reading this, that’s not saying much. He was a diplomat, and a friend of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Kyrgyzstan is a land-locked mountainous country in Central Asia, a former Soviet republic. This story takes place during the Second World War, when many of the local men have gone off to fight, and the women are taking over their roles. Collectivization of agriculture has been enforced over the preceding decade or so.

The story is a simple one, and the book is very short. The narrator is remembering events from his boyhood: Jamilia is married to his half-brother Sadyk. That’s far too simple an explanation: they aren’t half-brothers by blood, they are more like fourth cousins and simultaneously step-brothers – one of the nice things about the book is that it explains ways of life very different from those in the West. The narrator’s father has married (as a second wife) Sadyk’s mother, in order to protect her.

Anyway. Jamilia’s husband, whom she scarcely knows, is away at the front. The working arrangements throw her in with the injured soldier Daniyar. As the young boy watches, they fall in love and try to snatch some time together. Then they hear that Sadyk has been injured, and will be coming home. What happens now?

The story is a familiar one from every culture and time, wherever men go away to war (or to sea, or to the big city) leaving the women behind. But that doesn’t matter: the writing (and translation) make the book mesmerizing, immensely affecting. There are wonderful but simple descriptions of Jamilia and Daniyar together, and some memorable images. The French writer Louis Aragon said this book was ‘the most beautiful love story in the world’, and while I might not go that far, it is a perfect short read.

My edition calls her Jamilia: there seems to be another faction which calls her Jamila. I asked two Russian-speakers, and they sent different and esoteric answers: but it seems that the name would be pronounced Jameela. I have stuck with the spelling on my copy of the book.

It is bizarrely difficult to find out if the book was first written in Russian or Kyrgyz – Aitmatov wrote in both languages. He is a great hero in Kyrgyzstan, and December 12, the author’s birthday, is celebrated nationwide as Chinghiz Aitmatov Day. You can read more about him here.

Top picture is just what it looks like: a Kyrgyz postage stamp issued to commemorate the book. The lower picture is a nomadic Kyrgyz family in Uzbekistan, ie one of the places where Daniyar worked.

12 comments:

  1. Moira - What a find! I know absolutely nothing about Kyrgyz literature, and the story itself sounds like a really interesting insight into the culture and the people. I like the smooth writing style in the bit you've shared, too.

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    1. You and me both Margot. But also I think enjoying to read about something outside our own experience, and this is a great example.

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  2. Moira, I agree with Ms. Kinberg. This is an excellent choice for a book. I have read nothing from that part of the world. What I need is multiplicity.

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    1. Prashant, I feel the same too. There was something so compelling about reading about a culture completely unfamiliar to me.

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  3. Interesting post. Very informative, but I think I'll pass. I'm nearly tempted - but on balance no I don't need to.

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    1. It's probably at the bottom of a tub somewhere. But anyway, this is one I read so you don't have to....

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  4. This is definitely a find. How intriguing to find a book about Kyrzyg culture. I may read it, maybe not, just too much to read on these lists and piles.

    How absolutely stunning is the woman in the stamp. I have a book with photos of women in their Native clothing from several Soviet republics. They are absolutely gorgeous, yet proud of their cultures and show it.

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    1. Thanks Kathy, and I agree - there is something very beautiful and very intriguing about Central Asian women.

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  5. I will have to get a copy of this. At one point I had a goal to read books from as many different countries as I could... although the real goal was for them all to be mystery novels. This is definitely a country I haven't run into literature from before, although I have done no serious searching. This is sort of just a very long term goal based on serendipitous discoveries.

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    1. Well I would definitely recommend this one then, Tracy - it is short and very readable and will make a nice addition to your list. And you might be hard-pressed to find a Kyrgyz crime story....

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  6. A wonderful book which I have read a long time ago. Aitmatov was a very prolific author and also his other works are worth to be discovered. (Almost all his books are available in German translation; I am not sure what is the situation regading English translations) Maybe the exotic setting and the deep insight into the Kyrgyz culture, together with the love story itself was the main reason for my enchantment, but also Aitmatov's language and the way how he develops his story shows that he was a great writer. Those who like Aitmatov will most probably also enjoy the books by Yuri Rythkeu, an Soviet author who wrote in Chukchi and Russian, and of Galsan Tschinag, a Tuvan-Mongolian author that writes in German. Both describe Central Asian traditional cultures in a period of difficult transformation and how it affects people to whom we can relate easily, thanks to the storyteller's gift of these authors.

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    1. Thanks - very interesting additions. I think many non-specialist readers, like me, are nervous of reading great works of foreign literature. It is always a delight to find something like this (or the Kadare we were discussing) which most certainly ARE great classics, but are accessible and understandable and dealing with the most universal human emotions.

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