Jamilia: Chingiz Aïtmatov

★★★½

One thing I wanted to do this year, which I haven’t really managed, is to read more novels from other cultures. Perhaps that’s something I can pick up again in the New Year. I want to use fiction as a way to understand how people from other parts of the world think; the principles they live by; and the challenges they face. And, more than that, I hope to find further proof for my belief that we are all, fundamentally, much the same, no matter where we come from. No matter the language we speak, the faith we follow or the colour of our skin, there are certain common experiences that affect us all. Hope, ambition, fear, loss, and love above all. This novella by the celebrated Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aïtmatov, who died in 2008, focuses in on this last, for a brief but beautiful story of star-crossed lovers in the shadow of the steppes.

The date of Aïtmatov’s story isn’t entirely clear, but I presumed it was around 1940. The young men of Seit’s Kyrgyz village have gone away to war to fight, and the community does the best it can to adapt to their loss. Old men, women, boys and soldiers who have been invalided out of the war try to take up the slack. The adolescent Seit thinks himself a man in the absence of his four elder brothers, but he’s still child enough to be devoted to his sister-in-law Jamilia, whom he adores. They work together during the course of this long, hot summer, as the villagers labour to bring in the hay and thresh out the grain, and soon brother and sister are roped into a new task. Their team of drivers needs help delivering sacks of grain to the railway station (to be sent off for the war effort), and so Seit and Jamilia find themselves making the long journey down through the steppe, alongside the taciturn and reserved Daniyar.

Compared to many novels, not much happens in Aïtmatov’s. It isn’t what happens that’s important, but how it happens, and Seit’s gentle, unjudgemental acceptance of the growing bond between his beloved Jamilia and the ex-soldier Daniyar. It’s about the way that souls can speak to one another, and the strange moment of ignition that can change a relationship from one kind to another. Here that catalyst is a tiny thing: Daniyar finally gives in to Jamilia’s teasing and agrees to sing during their return journey from the station. The songs he chooses, from his blended Kyrgyz and Kazakh youth, are haunting and strange and ancient, awakening Seit to the beauty of the world around him, and awakening Jamilia to the possibility of a connection deeper and more profound than that she shares with her absent, detached husband. And yet, even as she realises what she feels for Daniyar, she realises how impossible such feelings are. Through Seit’s shrewd observation, Aïtmatov captures her internal struggle with great tenderness: how, in the middle of her work, she sometimes suddenly ‘just stand[s] there, gripped by an inexplicable timidity, as if facing a raging torrent, not knowing whether to cross it or not’.

While the love story is understated and poignant and fragile, part of the book’s appeal is in bringing to life a culture of which I know nothing. Seit’s world is picked out with little details, like the touches of red an artist uses to enliven a picture. Here are tantalising foreign words: aksakals (village elders); jenei (sister-in-law); jigit (breadwinner); kichine bala (little brother). Seit’s offhand commands show us a world only a few generations removed from the nomadic life of the steppes: a world in which women rule, and Seit’s own mother dominates the two households of his family, including that of his father’s second wife (Seit’s ‘younger mother’). This is a Muslim world, but also one deeply attached to a more ancient practice of ancestor-worship. At times, one can’t help feeling that the drumbeat of hooves on the steppes are just a blink away.

Seit’s world is one in transition, both socially and culturally. His village is traditional and bound by custom, but the outside world is breaking through: the young men who come back from the wars have been changed; and Seit himself finds his heart leaning towards a future beyond that of the threshing-floor and the hayfield. His own journey of self-discovery is no less important than Jamilia’s. Despite its brevity, this little book is more than the sum of its parts: it’s a gateway into a world that’s very foreign in some ways, but in others perfectly relatable. The translation by James Riordan makes it very readable (indeed, perhaps sometimes too colloquial: someone tries to ‘get fresh’ with Jamilia; ‘I was dead beat’) and the simple prose makes the content, in a way, more affecting.

Kyrgyzstan, along with its neighbours, is a part of the world that I commonly overlook (skipping from Turkey and Iran to India and Russia in my mind), so Aïtmatov’s writing shone a welcome beam of light into this particular terra incognita. Are there any other books which offer a picture of life in these former steppe cultures? Does anyone else have any literature from any of the ‘stans’ that they would recommend?

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