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Chinghiz Aitmatov: Джамиля (Jamila; Jamilia)

Aitmatov’s first story is really just that, a story not a novel but it is his first and it is charming and it is available in English. It is set during World War II. In the village, most of the adult males have gone off to fight. The work is now done by the older men, the boys, the women and the injured men. The narrator, Seit, is fifteen. At the start of the story we see that he has a painting that he starts to describe. We will only learn about the painting at the end of the story. Seit lives with his parents but, in the house next door, his sister-in-law, Jamilia, lives. She is married to Seit’s half brother, Sadyk, who is now a soldier. We soon learn that she is one of those larger than life women – think Mérimée/Bizet’s Carmen – who is pretty but also has no fear of expressing her opinion, is strong and quite capable of dealing with those men who make unwanted approaches to her. Indeed, some people in the village feel that she does not conform to the stereotype women of that era and culture that women were meant to conform to.

The harvest season has arrived and everyone is working hard to harvest the grain and then take it to the central granary, where it can be used for feeding the soldiers.. Given the importance of this work, everyone, old and young and, unusually, women, are called on to help. When it is suggested that Jamilia helps, Seit’s mother is against it but when it is suggested that Seit can accompany her, she reluctantly agrees. What they have to do is to carry the grain in sacks by cart to the granary, carry the sacks to the top of the feeder and empty them in, which is quite hard work. The granary is also busy because everyone for miles around is doing the same thing. Daniyar used to live in the village as a child but was an orphan. He had drifted around the region before joining the army. He had been injured and had returned to the village of his birth. He had remained something of a loner. However, he is required to help with the grain transport.

The three make regular trips to the granary, with Daniyar generally keeping to himself, while Jamilia and Seit ride together. It is clear to us, though not to Seit till much later, that he is in love with Jamilia. One day, Jamilia and Seti play a trick on Daniyar. They put an extra large bag at the bottom of his cart, so he does not notice. When he has offloaded all the other bags, he sees this bag. He is at first puzzled but then, with difficulty, he picks it up. They feel sure that he will ask for help but he does not and struggles with it to the top of the granary. It is clear that his injured leg is hurting but he carries on. Jamilia shouts to him to drop it and even the tough granary manager does so but he carries on. Seit tries to help him but cannot get through the crowd to do so. Finally the bag is offloaded. On the way home, it is clear that he is in pain but, to the surprise of Jamilia and Seit, he starts singing. He has a beautiful voice and sings some lovely songs. Jamilia is clearly taken with his singing. From then on, it becomes apparent that the pair are falling in love. Initially, Seit is very annoyed (and somewhat jealous), not least because he considers himself in some way Jamilia’s protector. But then he gradually becomes supportive of the couple. He manages to draw a picture of them (which his brother will later tear up) and it is this that inspires him to become an artist. He will later study as an artist and become an artist, painting the picture mentioned at the beginning.

It is a very sweet story of a growing love and a colourful woman and one that has been very successful, translated into several languages and helping Aitmatov make his name in the Soviet Union. It also shows us the culture of the people of the area and life in the Soviet Union for the civilian population during the war. Aitmatov will go on to write better works but this one will remain known for its charm.

Publishing history

First published by Pravda in 1958
First English translation by Foreign Languages Publishing House in 1964
Translated by Fainna Solasko (Foreign Languages Publishing House edition), R.F. Lukner (Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture ediiton)