It is an unfortunate truth of writing that a story of love must be told at a remove from the emotion itself. A protagonist in love can say merely, ?I love you?, or he can leave a little note, or she can stroke his arm while he sleeps. Granted, there are ways to show love, and great authors have done so, but by and large the duty of describing love falls to a third party, an observer who happens to see both the difficult times and the pleasant and, without fail, is there when love is shown to conquer all. Chingiz A?tmatov's novella, Jamilia, is one such story. A?tmatov succeeds at the goals he sets himself, which is admirable enough, I suppose, but the novella never really carries enough weight, though it tries.
Jamilia is a beautiful young girl in a Soviet village where most of the men have gone to fight at the front. Those that remain are the old and the weak, or the young. Jamilia is a flower among nothing at all, which allows her to be beautiful in the way a single rose in a vase of water is beautiful ? neatly so, but somewhat coldly, and lacking in the true vitality of passion. Far better, surely, is the vibrant rose bush studded with thorns and flowers, surrounded by the efflorescence of nature. But never mind. Jamilia is beautiful and knows it, and the men around her (disabled by war, too young or too old, or family), know it because there isn't any else around with whom to compare.
Seit is the narrator, and is an established painter looking back at a childhood long vanished. He may be a good painter, but A?tmatov makes him an occasionally awkward writer; by the third paragraph, we've read the line, ?It all happened when I was still a young lad?, which is never a good sign. But again, never mind. Seit observes and observes, because he is the narrator and because his is not part of the lovers-to-come. Jamilia is, we know, because she is the only female described with any real passion, and because Seit, of course, loves her with the intensity, confusion, and aimlessness of an early teenage crush. Seit's role is to explain the world around him enough that we understand the beauty of Jamilia and her attraction to her lover, and to evoke the sensation of love, of loss, of heartache, sadness and joy.
Lastly we have Daniyar, the wounded soldier returned from the front. He works, along with everyone else, very hard, shifting sacks of goods about to best serve the troops still fighting. He is a loner, though not by choice, and he becomes the butt of Jamilia and Seit's cruels jokes. He is man about whom the following can be written:
If this review sounds overly cynical then it should be admitted that it is with intention. The problem with Jamilia is that we are told and told things, but never, ever, do we see them. Jamilia and Daniyar declare their love around four fifths of the way through the novel (though of course they love wistfully before that), and this love is shown progressing in two major scenes. The first is when Daniyar sings while they work, and the second is during a storm when Seit realises he wants to be a painter, and wants to paint the two of them in love. Both of these scenes utilise sensations which we, the reader, are not privy, and which we, the reader, must rely on Seit's, and thus A?tmatov's, capacity for expression. A song cannot be heard in text, of course, and so we must read this:Daniyar's thin lips with their hard lines at the corners were always shut tight, his eyes were sad and wistful, and only his lively, mobile eyebrows gave life to his drawn, world-weary face.
Very well, but that helps the reader little. It's all telling, without any showing. Jamiliar shudders with sensual delight, and Seit is suitably bewildered by the whole experience, but ? so what? The reader cannot engage, and thus the love story, which is clearly experiencing a crescendo within the novel, becomes removed from us. We know it's true, but we don't ever read it as true.I was astounded at the passion and fire of the melody itself. I could not describe it then, nor can I now. Was it just his voice or something more tangible emerging from his very soul that could arouse such emotion in another person, and bring one's innermost thoughts to life?
If only I could recreate his song. It contained few words, yet even without words it revealed a great human soul. I have never heard such singing before or since...
If we forget the love story a moment (and in a ninety-six page novel, this is rather difficult, I'll admit), it must be said that A?tmatov's subtle descriptions of Soviet village life is fascinating. A?tmatov takes care to use specific Kyrgyz terminology, defines it within the text, and then consistently applies it amongst his characters. By tradition Seit must call Jamilia jenei, and she calls him kichine bala, which means little boy. We learn that elders are called aksakals, and that respected craftsmen are referred to as ustaka. Beyond simply words, Seit is sensitive enough to the rhythm and flow of masculine and feminine ? he knows where gender roles have broken down because of the war, and notices when males take on jobs normally reserved for females, and vice versa. Generational issues, too, flavour the text, the problem of not enough strong men and women of a certain age forcing the old and the young to perform duties to which they are not accustomed, providing the spicy seasoning to the main love story's bland stew. A lot can be gleaned, intentionally or not, of poor village life during war time, and this is to A?tmatov's credit.
It should be noted by now, and hasn't been, that Jamilia is married to Seit's older brother, Sadyk. This should be a massive focal point of the novella, but it only really comes up at the start and near the end, and both times without any undue concern from Seit (and by extension, us). The push that sends Jamilia rolling away from the family are Sadyk's letters home. Seit comments that,
Jamilia feels like an afterthought (and of course she is, both socially and culturally; this is expected behaviour, though it hurts her), and wants to be someone's all. But that's it. At the very end of the novella, after love has won the day, Sadyk returns and everyone in the family except for Seit roundly accuses the absent Jamilia of whorish behaviour and worse, and then Seit reflects on his happy painter's life. It very much seems as though Jamilia was married purely so that she had a narrative-based reason to leave the village by the end of the book, and not because the author actually wished to pursue the inherent friction of such a situation.he would greet the rest of us in strict sequence, starting with my mother, then his mother. After that would follow questions about the health and well-being of the village aksakals, the honoured elders of our clan and close relatives, and only right at the end, as if in afterthought, he would add, 'and give my regards to my wife Jamilia'.
Jamilia is, in the end, a pleasant enough novel, but it's not the great love story it wishes to be. Too much is told, and not enough is shown. We don't really understand Jamilia's affection for Daniyar or vice versa, which means we are left cold during most of the high-flown sequences. It sounds strange, perhaps, but A?tmatov would have better served both his primary characters and the novella itself if he had relaxed his pen, stepped back a little, and devoted significant space to the exhalations of the little village with its back broken by the war. Now there is a story worth telling.