A teenage boy and his sister-in-law hold little regard for their workmate, a wounded soldier, until he surprises them with his fortitude and spirit.
Country Focus: Kyrgyzstan
By Chingiz Aïtmatov
Translated by James Riordan
Originally published in Russian as Djamilia, 1957.
My edition: Telegram, 2007
Time period: 1942
About the author: Aïtmatov’s short stories, plays and novels have been translated into over 150 languages. His global reach extends beyond literature. Before his death in 2008 at the age of 79, he had served as the Krygyzstani ambassador to the European Union, NATO, UNESCO, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Seit, a teenage boy, and his sister-in-law Jamilia are good friends. Jamilia, married only four days before her husband Sadyk left to fight in World War II, can’t hide her disappointment when his letters to the family barely acknowledge her. Since most of the men of their remote village are at war, Seit, Jamilia, and a stranger – a wounded soldier named Daniyar – are tasked with the day-long job of carting grain to the train station. Not knowing what to make of their silent and aloof companion, Seit and Jamilia poke fun at him. After a joke at Daniyar’s expense goes wrong, he earns their admiration. On an unforgettable ride back home, he breaks into a song that wins their hearts. He and Jamilia fall in love, but Sadyk’s return threatens their happiness.
This story about a Muslim family in the Soviet Union has a universality and timelessness to it that makes it fit for a Broadway musical (singing characters don’t hurt either). There’s not a trace of satire or irony to be found in this touching novel, whose three main characters radiate dignity and the strength of love. Aïtmatov’s beautiful, understated Jamilia deserves more recognition.
[Jamilia] grabbed Daniyar’s hand and the poor fellow blushed from embarrassment as they hoisted a sack on crossed hands. And every time they carried a sack, grasping each other’s wrists tightly, their heads nearly touching , I saw how terribly ill at ease he was, how nervously he bit his lip, how he tried to avoid Jamilia’s face. Jamilia, though, was not the least concerned, hardly noticing her helper, exchanging jokes with the woman at the scales. Then, when the carts were loaded and we had taken up the reins, she turned to him, winking slyly and chuckling, “Hey you, what’s your name, Daniyar is it? Since you look like a man you might as well lead the way.”
Daniyar jerked the reins, silent all the while, and we were off.
You poor soul, I thought. To cap it all, your’re bashful too.
Kyrgyzstani writers need to be translated! The following two nonfiction books were written by westerners.