Kyrgyzstani Classics: Jamilia

Fellow PCV and Central Asian culture enthusiast Mark, who blogs at Monday Bazaar, agreed to do an exchange of posts on the work of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, Chyngyz Aitmatov. His post about the classic novella Jamilia and the fantastic film adaptation is up first. Check out his blog on Facebook and follow on Instagram for more from Mark!

Louis Aragon called it “the most beautiful love story in the world.” He wasn’t talking about Romeo and Juliet; he’s talking about Jamila (also spelled Jamilia in some translations), the first significant work of Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov first published in 1958.

Jamila postage stamp

A postage stamp from 2009 featuring Jamila, Daniyar, and the cart they take to the station each day.

Jamila might best be described as a novelette, since the edition I have is less than 100 pages. But, it’s one of the most beloved pieces of literature in the entire Soviet Union. First published in Russian in 1958, this was the book that put Aitmatov on the map and led to him becoming the most beloved author in Kyrgyzstan and one of the most revered across the USSR.

Jamila tells the story of a family on a collective farm in northern Kyrgyzstan during the Great Patriotic War (for more info, check out my post about Victory Day in the former USSR). The story is that of Jamila, a young woman whose husband is at war, and Daniyar, a young soldier who has returned to the village from the front due to injury. Narrated by Jamila’s younger brother-in-law, Seit, the three of them together each day take loads of flour and grain down to the main town and its railway station to dispatch the food to the soldiers at the front in Europe.

Spending so much time together combined with the spirited nature of the characters drives the plot in a direction that is both expected and unheard-of for the time in which it was written. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it, but I highly recommend you take time to read the book and watch the movie. It provides such a nuanced look into the family relations and life in a small village during the era immediately after collectivization and forced settlement of the Kyrgyz nomads, exploring themes of family, devotion, true love, and the question of what is true happiness.

Once you’ve finished reading and watching, there’s a fantastic literary analysis of the book and its historical context here that I recommend you check out.

How to read and watch Jamila:

The book (which you MUST read!) is available at Amazon and other bookstores, and is also well worth the read. It’s on my list of my 10 favorite Central Asia books.

You can watch the video dubbed in English or with English subtitles over at Soviet Movies Online, a great website which hosts hundreds of important films from the Soviet era. Since they pay for hosting costs out of their own pockets, I’m not going to embed the movie here, but I hope you all get a chance to take a look at the film. There is also a 1994 version made in Germany, but that version has the character of Daniyar played by a blonde white guy (in the book, the character is clearly said to be Kyrgyz), and I’m not really a supporter of whitewashing in cinema.


2 thoughts on “Kyrgyzstani Classics: Jamilia

    • colleenewood says:

      I actually just finished it this week and am writing my own review of the book and the movie interpretation for a post next week! I loved it, though To Have and To Lose remains my favorite piece of writing by Aitmatov 🙂

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