Kyrgyzstan: a lonely road

I’ve written before about one-author countries: states from which the work of only one writer seems to have been translated into English and/or received recognition on the world-literature stage. But the landlocked country of Kyrgyzstan, which apparently enjoys the distinction of being farther from the ocean than any other state in the world, is certainly up there with the best of them. Anglophone readers wanting to sample Kyrgyz literature will run up against the work of the country’s most famous author Chingiz Aitmatov, whose 1957 novel Jamilia made his name – and not much else.

So far, all my efforts to find translated alternatives to Aitmatov’s books have run into dead ends. If you know of another Kyrgyz writer whose work has been translated (or you know of someone who should be translated and want to get the word out), please leave a comment and tell me about them. In the meantime, partly because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and partly – I’ll confess – because I really liked the picture on the 2007 Telegram edition, here’s what I thought of Jamilia.

Framed as an artist’s explanation of the story behind one of his paintings, the novel sets out the circumstances of a surprising love affair that springs up between the artist-narrator Seit’s sister-in-law Jamilia and disabled war veteran Daniyar back in Seit’s childhood. Charged with carting grain across the Kyrgyz plains to the railway station because the healthy men, including Jamilia’s husband, are away fighting on the front, Jamilia and Seit amuse themselves by teasing and tormenting the awkward Daniyar. But as time goes by, a deep bond springs up between the three of them that will make it impossible for them to stay in the traditional village that is their home.

A strong sense of obligation pervades the opening section of the book. Everything in the community, where ‘happiness[…] belongs to those who retain their honour and conscience’ and Seit’s father is ‘duty-bound to the spirits of his ancestors’, is codified and ranked, to the point where there are particular forms of address for each relative and even letters to and from the front must be written and read according to a set of rules.

Beneath this rigid and formal surface, however, strong currents surge. From the sinister sexuality of the lone men who eye Jamilia, to the horrors of war that ‘formed a hard clot deep in [Daniyar’s] heart’ and keep him silent, the books is full of unspoken intensity. Often sublimated into passionate outpourings on the beauty of the natural world and haunting singing from Daniyar, these hidden seams of feeling imbue tiny actions with huge significance. A look, a touch, a head rested on a shoulder reverberate like the blasts of the weapons being fired far away across the steppe in this hushed, restrained world.

And so it is that, by observing the silent drama playing out between the two young adults, Seit discovers his passion for expressing unspoken emotions through art. ‘Words were not necessary; besides, words can never quite express a person’s feelings’, he explains, going on to describe his desire to capture ‘the truth, the truth of life, the truth of those two people’, in what is surely one of the most subtle and touching depictions of the development of an artistic sense we have.

Now and then the flashbacks feel stilted. In addition, some of Aitmatov’s more hackneyed tropes wear a little thin. Personally I could have done without the storm the night Jamilia and Daniyar consummate their love.

Overall, though, this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. If this novel is at all indicative of the quality of Kyrgyz writing, it’s definitely time we English-language readers had access to some more.

Jamilia (Djamilia) by Chingiz Aitmatov, translated from the Russian by James Riordan (Telegram, 2007)

13 responses

  1. I just started following you the other day, but what you are doing is admirable and something that everyone should do. I think it is very important to know literature outside of the one culture you grow from. Honestly, you are brilliant.

    • Thanks. It’s 6am here and I’m just sitting down to write the next post before going to work – not feeling very brilliant at the moment so great to find such a lovely comment to start the day with.

  2. I also read Chingiz Aitmatov for Kyrgyzstan, but went with The Place of the Skull – it really made me think and gave me a new appreciation for russian literature

  3. Interesting perspective on Aitmatov’s Jamila. His genre is Soviet realism in Central Asian Kyrgyzstan (then Kirgizia). His other works are beautiful, despite Jamila is popularized in the West, there are other works in which he definitely brought different story telling techniques.

  4. Dear Ann,
    Pity that some of the parts felt stilted to you, perhaps it’s a quality of translation…Aitmatov’s stories are loved throughout former USSR. They are very sad usually and you don’t get a lot of happy-ends, but his writing is so beautiful and poignant that i return to his books over and over again. Personally, they make me cry every time, but i feel kind of cleansed after.
    I checked in wikipedia for his English translations.
    Please see the list below. Little note: The Day Lasts more than a Hundred Years takes place in Kazakhstan, so perhaps that would slightly redeem if not the Kazakh literature, but at least the country for inspiring this moving work.

    Short Novels, Progress Publishers (1964).
    Farewell Gul’sary, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (June 29, 1970). ISBN 978-0-340-12864-0
    White Steamship, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (August 14, 1972). ISBN 978-0-340-15996-5
    The White Ship, Crown Publishing Group; 1st Edition (November 1972). ISBN 978-0-517-50074-3
    Tales of the Mountains and the Steppes, Firebird Pubns; Second Printing edition (June 1973). ISBN 978-0-8285-0937-4
    Ascent of Mount Fuji, Noonday Press (June 1975). ISBN 978-0-374-51215-6
    Cranes Fly Early, Imported Pubn (June 1983). ISBN 978-0-8285-2639-5
    The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, Indiana University Press (February 1, 1988). ISBN 978-0-253-20482-0
    The Place of the Skull, Grove Pr; 1st edition (March 1989). ISBN 978-0-8021-1000-8
    The place of the skull: Novel, International Academy of Sciences, Industry, Education & Arts (USA) (2000). ISBN 978-5-7261-0062-3
    Time to Speak, International Publishers (May 1989). ISBN 978-0-7178-0669-0
    The time to speak out (Library of Russian and Soviet literary journalism), Progress Publishers (1988). ISBN 978-5-01-000495-8
    Mother Earth and Other Stories, Faber and Faber (January 8, 1990). ISBN 978-0-571-15237-7
    Jamila, Telegram Books (January 1, 2008). ISBN 978-1-84659-032-0

  5. Kyrgyzstan is not a one-author country. You do have a lot of literature that even has been translated in English. Hertfordshire Press in England has been publishing works by Begenas Sartov, Kazat Akmatov and others… But you need to do the effort to discover.

    • Thanks Peter. Great to hear of these authors now making it into English – as far I can tell, these editions were all published from 2013 onwards, some time after my quest. Back in 2012, there was very little else available in English, at least as far as I could discover. I’ll look forward to exploring them. Thanks for the tip off.

  6. Hi. Just got this message from Peter Wullen who were one of the first reader of Kyrgyz Sci- fi writer of 1960-70 th Begenas Sartov ” When the edelweiss flowers Flourish”
    I am his niece translator and upcoming novelist Kyrgyz born living in Edinburgh past 15 th years.
    Please punch YouTube and find out information about my first novel published by Hertfordshire publisher Mr Marat Akhmedjanov.
    They have been very busy and published few authors from Kyrgyzstan including Kazat Akhmatovs books.
    Hopefully soon my second novel will be out.
    ” Cold Shadows” contemporary spy thriller.
    Recently I made it into small film.
    Same, all information you could find out via internet.
    Wish you best of luck.
    There are many untranslated books.
    Like Alykyl Osmonov, Medin Alybaev. Etc. etc. Etc. Sadly of course.

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