A very short novel by Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aïtmatov. Billed as a “love story”, which it most definitely is, it isn’t quite a romance. If anything, it’s a love story about Kyrgyzstan through the eyes of an artist looking back at his childhood during World War II.
Seit is an artist looking back over his teenage years when most of the men in his village were off at the front, leaving the young and the women to take up the jobs that the men normally do. It is the beginning of the Soviet “collective farming” and Seit is employed transporting grain that is to be used for food for soldiers at the front. While Seit describes Kyrgyz life in the village he is more of an observer to the story being told more than he is a participant. Seit’s brother is off at the front, wounded and in a hospital leaving him to work with and look after his sister-in-law Jamilia, who is the main focus of the narrative. Jamilia is an independent spirit: spurning the other village men’s advances, ordering Seit around, and driving the cart which transports the grain for the soldiers. Seit adores Jamilia and in some ways is secretly in love with her. Jamilia, however, feels spurned herself, by her husband, who, in his letters home from the front, relegates any communication with his wife to the post-script. Lonely and frustrated, she keeps to herself, focuses on the work that needs to be done.
Then one day a soldier appears in the village - Daniyar. He is wounded and lives the life of a tramp, keeping to himself, living by the river. Jamilia puts him to work, helping them transport grain to the station. There is a connection between both the Daniyar and Jamilia, a connection that young Seit isn’t quite mature enough to figure out. Little by little the connection between Jamilia and Daniyar grows more complicated and she’s forced to make a moral choice. Will she remain and wait for her husband to return from the front or will she leave her husband and run off with the man she truly loves? There is an interesting subtext to this short tale. At the time of its release, Aïtmatov was criticized for the novel’s “unpatriotic themes” and perhaps those criticisms (if you could actually call it that) had some merit. Beneath the love story is a message of freedom, to think for oneself, to be independent, to break away from tribal customs and societal mores; and perhaps the author was actually trying to make a statement about the Soviet system which dominated this ancient culture for most of the Twentieth Century.
The writing is very old school literary, akin to the nineteenth century Russian novelists, but at the same time, sparse, but also written with an artist’s eye. The Kyrgyz landscape is described in almost painterly detail and there are a lot of interesting tidbits about Kyrgyz culture and mores, some dating back to the time when the invading Mongols had introduced them. All in all, a good read. A simple yet warm, human story which will give the reader a glimpse of a culture in which many Western readers rarely get to see. Recommended.