Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov
Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus, accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield. Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband. Meanwhile, undeterred by Jamilia’s teasing, Daniyar sings as they return each evening from the fields. Soon Jamilia is in love, and she and Daniyar elope just as her husband returns.
Despite this book being published in 1957 and translated into English in 2007, I had never heard of it until a little buzz started surrounding it at work! It may be small at a mere 97 pages, but sometimes there’s nothing better than sitting down one evening and being able to read a book from cover to cover at a nice leisurely pace, and that’s exactly what I did!
Set in a small countryside village in the Caucasus during World War II, Jamilia is told from the perspective of her brother-in-law, Seit. He observes Jamilia as she deals with the absence of her husband at war, and her reactions to the arrival of newcomer, Daniyar who has been wounded on the battlefield. Jamilia’s relationship with Daniyar is a quiet one, to say the least, and one that seems to take them both by surprise. It’s not a sex-fuelled passion that leads them arranging secret rendezvous at night, and neither is it love at first sight. It’s merely love in its purest form. A love that forms quietly over time, as they slowly begin to realise they have found something in one another that they’ve never been able to find anywhere else before.
First of all, I’m not going to lie – this isn’t the greatest love story I’ve ever read, like it proclaims itself to be on the front cover. But I can tell you it an absolute pleasure to read, and a beautiful piece of fiction. What I loved most of all about Jamilia is the way Aitmatov uses very few words to create such a vivid and powerful portrayal of love, in all its forms. It is an exceptionally easy read, but there is something wonderful in the sheer simplicity and sparseness of the prose that makes you fall in love with it a little, though, in truth, perhaps not as much as I wanted to. If I could criticise it I would have to say it lacks the same emotional depth that I feel other short translated works of fiction were able to create, particularly Monsiur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel comes to mind here. For what it is, Jamilia is a lovely book that may stay with you a few days and leave you reminiscing over a love that swept two people up in its midst, but I still cannot help but feel that for it to be the world’s greatest love story, it needed just a little more. I can tell you now, that I know this novel won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’m sure you will know from this review already whether it is for you or not, but if you’re dangling on the borderline, then just remember that it’s only 97 pages, and in my opinion, well-worth the time to find out!
I’d definitely recommend Jamilia to anyone with a love for translated and foreign fiction, or for anyone who loves great love stories such as Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.
Jamilia is out now, published by Telegram Books, and a big thank you goes to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.