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.