Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

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Jamilia Translated from the Russian by James Riordan

Five words from the blurb: husband, newcomer, village, letters, love

I knew nothing about this book, but accepted a review copy because the author was said to be “Kyrgyzstan’s best known literary figure”  and it was described as “the greatest love story ever told”.  I’d never read a book from Kyrgyztan before, but whilst it was interesting to learn about village life in this country, Jamilia was too sparse for my taste.

The book is set during WWII at a time when all the men from the village have gone away to fight; leaving the women and the elderly to run the farms by themselves. Jamilia is a spirited young woman who has little interest in the letters she receives from her husband on the front line, but the arrival of Daniyar, a stranger who has been injured on the battlefield, changes everything and they soon find themselves falling in love.  

The writing was beautiful and there were lots of vivid scenes, but I found the emotional connection to the characters wasn’t there – it was all too passive for me.

He took no notice of my presence; he just sat there, hugging his knees and gazing into the distance with a pensive, yet unclouded look. And once again I felt he was listening intently to sounds I could not hear. Now and again he would shudder and freeze, his eyes open wide. Something was bothering him and I fancied he would get up at any moment and unburden his soul, but not to me – he didn’t even notice me – rather to something vast, unbounded, unfathomable.

At just 96 pages long this novella can be read in a single sitting and I think this brevity also increased my frustration with it. I prefer a more complex plot, especially when looking for “the greatest love story ever told”. It probably didn’t help that the best love story I’ve ever read is  The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami, an 850 page epic in which I came to understand everything there was to know about the couple in love. In comparison Jamilia barely scratched the surface and I didn’t fully understand their culture or ambitions. 

I’d also warn readers who dislike spoilers to avoid reading the blurb, or most reviews for this book. Every plot point for this short story is given away, with no surprises at the end.

Overall it is worth reading this book – simply because little other literature from Kyrgyzstan is available in translation, but I’m sure there are many better love stories out there in the world.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a truly lovely story, that was a joy read. Bart’s Bookshelf

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. The Stardust Reader

…a book that will linger with you long after you have put it down. Winstonsdad’s Blog


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  1. Caroline says:

    It is one of my Top 20 favourite books of all time. I absolutely loved it but I can see what you mean only I liked it, I thought it was more mysterious this short.
    I think to call a book the greatest love story ever told is risky and for many people that will ruin the book. Because you immediately start to compare.
    Many of his books are available in German but I never dared reading another. I don’t even dare reading this again. I’ve got Schami’s book….If only it wasn’t so long. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Caroline, The strength of Schami’s book is the length. I know it will take a while to read, but it is all worth it. I fell in love with the couple and loved the way it described a time and place I wasn’t familiar with. The things they do to be together made my heart melt. I hope you decide to read it one day.

  2. stujallen says:

    like caroline this is a firm favourite but I am a huge romantic a heart Jackie but maybe your right be nice some other literature from here ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I think we just have a different taste in books. I can see why you and Caroline love it, but it was all a bit simple for me.

  3. Ifi says:

    I love lit in translation, especially from far away places (had to google Kyrgyzsta!!) but will definitely give this a miss. I’m not really into uninspiring love stories.

    1. Jackie says:

      Ifi, I’ve got some great books in translation coming up – hopefully I’ll be able to tempt you with a few of those!

  4. markbooks says:

    Hi Jackie. I really liked Jamilia, but I have to emphatically agree – it pales compared to the mighty ‘The Dark Side Of Love’ – which I’ll always be grateful to you for steering me towards. Like you, I consider it the greatest love story I’ve ever read (I’m not sure Tom Sawyer’s pursuit of Becky Thatcher can really count?!) – and can there be a better time to read it than right now? Every time I see Syria on the news I think back to Schami’s stories such as the day sugar-coated fennel seeds fell upon Damascus from the skies, and it makes it all the more unbearably pertinent. Worth every page. Sigh – I could talk about it all day!

    1. Jackie says:

      Mark, It is so lovely to see someone else being so passionate about ‘The Dark Side of Love’. It is such a shame that its size puts off a lot of people because it really is worth the effort and does indeed make the news about Syria all the more sad. Hopefully we’ll be able to persuade a few more people to give it a try if we mention it enough ;-)

  5. Charlie says:

    Whilst I’m not planning to read the book, at least not yet, I like that you’ve given the warning about the blurb. There are so many books where you read the blurb, and over halfway through you’ve still not reached the point at which the blurb ended its tale. The story sounds good, though at the length it is I think I can see why you found issues with it. It does sound as though it could have done with being longer.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, I’m very blurb sensitive, so it did annoy me to discover that the entire plot was given away. At least you’ve been warned :-)

  6. Joanna says:

    How interesting to have the opportunity to read something from Kyrgyzstan! It must be worth reading just to learn about that part of the world, as you say.

    1. Jackie says:

      Joanna, Yes. I’m sure it is a country not many people have read about. I hope I get the chance to read more one day.

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