Sunday 29 July 2012

Jamilia, by Chingiz Aitmatov

JamiliaThis is a story about a world unimaginably different from my own. Set on the wild steppe of Kyrgyzstan, it is told by Seit, the youngest son of the family clan. His older brothers have gone away to war and he must help his family work the land and bring in the harvest. He sleeps in the threshing shed, listening to the river splash its way to the sea, and spends his day hauling grain across the tameless land, delivering it the weighing station in town care of horse and cart.

This is as down to earth as life can probably get. Through Seit’s eyes, Aitmatov paints a picture of the wild Kyrgyz landscape, of hard work taken for granted and unquestioned, and of the ties and tradition bound up in extended families. He is joined in his toil by his sister-in-law Jamilia and by Daniyar, a former villager returned from the war, and as the days go by Seit watches Jamilia and Daniyar form a secret and almost imperceptible bond.

Billed as a love story, at first glance (and from the blurb), one would think Jamilia is about the blossoming relationship between Jamilia and Daniyar. The reality of the book is quite different; more than anything else, it is a love story for the land. As Seit’s tale unwinds, it becomes a love song for his homeland, through the descriptions of his surroundings, through his family values, and accompanied and brought to life in Seit’s mind by the songs that Daniyar sings as they ride  across the steppe. The moment Daniyar starts to sing, late one evening as they trek back from the town, is the moment Seit begins to come alive, the moment everything changes, the moment he will never be able to turn back from.

The Waterstones chief, M.D. James Daunt, has selected Jamilia for the August book of the month. It’s an unusual, atypical choice because it is not a new book, and its far from the typical commercial affair. Its a brave choice, and I’m sure there are many different reasons for its selection, but one of these is presumably because he feels it’s a very special book that deserves to be read on a wider scale. It is, after all, a book that has been raved about for its beauty and for what it seeks to say about the world - “The most beautiful love story in the world,” claims a quote on the front cover.

Does it live up to expectation? It is certainly well written, full of descriptive language, conjuring a rural lifestyle on an unforgiving land and in an unforgiving culture. It has a timeless quality, and has certainly got me thinking. But... But I wasn’t blown away; I wasn’t unerringly transported. I am tempted and intrigued by the mental image of the steppe that Aitmatov’s words have given me, but I am not in love. I have an idea of Seit’s soul, of what he values, but I am lost when it comes to Jamilia and Daniyar. Daniyar is blocked off by his silence, by Seit’s prejudice against him, by the assumptions he has made. These begin to be broken down when Daniyar begins to sing. Seit writes of how he is transported by the songs, but somehow they did not transport me. Daniyar remains locked away - we do not hear from Daniyar himself, only the reaction to the songs that Seit experiences. The consequence of this is that I could not feel for Daniyar and Jamilia what Seit felt for them; a relationship that is so pivotal for Seit was relatively meaningless for me.

This does not mean the book shouldn’t be read: it should. I am not as in love with Jamilia as others have been, but I am in love with Seit's idea of being in love. At only 96 pages long, Jamilia evokes a time and a place and a voice that is different from anything else you are likely to read this year. It steps outside normal boundaries and, whilst being about song, is a song in itself.

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