Louis Aragon swore that it was the most beautiful love story in the world. Dshamilja is beautiful, and it is a love story, among other things, but I am not sure I would go as far as Aragon. On the other hand, Aragon was a committed Communist, and Dshamilja is a story of love among the heroic workers providing food for the front during the Great Patriotic War, so there is perhaps an additional motive for his exorbitant praise.
Dshamilja is set in Kyrgyzstan, where the mountains give way to the steppes, and at a time when the traditional ways had not completely gone over to Soviet methods. Said, the first-person narrator, is likewise on the border, childhood giving way to adult concerns. The characters all live in a traditional settlement, an aul as Said calls it throughout the book, but they work on a collective farm, a kolkhoz. All of the men of military age have gone away to the war, leaving the farm work to women, youngsters, old men, and returned soldiers whose wounds prevent them from fighting. Several of Said’s older brothers are at the front, and one of them has left behind his young bride, the eponymous Dshamilja.
She is a free spirit, but also a model daughter-in-law. She is strong, and fierce, beautiful, and full of laughter and mischief. If that all sounds too good to be true, well, the reader sees her through Said’s eyes, and will have guessed how he feels about her long before he knows it himself.
And then one day a stranger comes to the aul. Danijar, a soldier returned from the fighting with a limp, and a thousand-yard stare, and a brooding silence. At first, Said and Dshamilja make fun of him. The village boys ask him to tell them about the war, but all he will say is that they should pray to God they never experience it. They are unexpectedly abashed, and thereafter leave him in peace on that question. After a particularly cruel trick that Said and Dshamilja play on him, Danijar opens up, not by talking to anyone, but by singing on nightly trips back to the aul from where they have delivered grain by horse-drawn wagon. He sings old songs, revealing his love of the land, suggesting to Said and Dshamilja that this clanless wanderer has unknown depths in his soul.
There aren’t any surprises in the plot. The book is vividly written, conjuring the valleys of Kyrgyzstan tumbling out onto the Kazakh steppe, showing the dust and hard work of a collective farm during the war. And it’s a love story, so I suppose it would be unfair of me to note all of the things from Soviet collective farms during that era that aren’t portrayed in the book: violence, near-starvation, drunkenness, denunciations to the secret police, and more. Even the act of noting those absences probably marks me as too versed in the history to appreciate the book as just a love story and a coming-of-age tale. It’s slight, beautiful, and translated into English as Jamila, with the author’s name transliterated as Chingiz Aytmatov. In 2009, Kyrgyzstan issued a stamp commemorating the work with motifs from the story.