February 21, 2012 by markstani
At just ninety-six broad-spaced pages, Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamilia wisps by at the speed of a Kyrgyz breeze. But for all its brevity, Aitmatov’s narrative is so soaked in the richness of both his beloved homeland and the lives of the characters he has crafted within it, that it lingers longer than most novels twice or three times its size.
Sometimes, plot synopses cannot do a book justice, however hard you try. Suffice to say ‘Jamelia’ is an almost impossibly delicate tale of a love affair set amid the distant, echoing steppes of Kyrgyzstan.
Frankly, its narrative describes this book better than any review could ever hope:
In the evening, as we rode through the ravine, I felt I was being transported to a different world. I listened to Daniyar with my eyes half closed, and before me flashed strangely familiar scenes from childhood. First the delicate, smokey-blue, migratory spring clouds floating at crane’s height above the yurtas; then herds of horses racing across the ringing earth, neighing and pounding to their summer pastures, the young stallions with streaming forelocks and wild, black fire in their eyes proudly overtaking their mares, then flocks of sheep slowly spreading like lava over the foothills; now a waterfall gushing from the rocks with blinding, creamy-white, foaming water, the sun setting calmly in the thicket of needle-grass beyond the river, and the solitary distant rider on the horizon’s fiery margin dashing in pursuit – surely all he had to do was stretch out his hand and touch the sun and he too would vanish into the thickets and twilight.
‘Jamelia’ was first published in 1957, and translated into English by James Riordan for Telegram Books in 2007. It is one of just a handful existing English language examples of Aitmatov’s work.
Aitmatov, who died in 2008 at the age of 79, was one of the most reknowned figures in his homeland, a mountainous former Soviet republic crammed between Kazakhstan and China. His books, the majority written first in Kyrgyz, have been translated into over one hundred languages. Aitmatov’s father was killed in the Stalinist purges but he became an advocate first for the pre-perestroika of Nikita Khruschchev, and later the reforms instigated by Mikhail Gorbachev. Although he broadly embraced the Soviet system, he remained most passionate about his homeland, for whom he later became ambassador to the European Union. You can read his full obituary in The Guardian here.