By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.
Song of Solomon 3:1
I wish i could travel to Central Asia again… not that something big stops me from doing so, but with time i became less enthusiastic about distant travels – and even not so-distant ones. As the time goes by, most of us are blessed with the realization that whatever we are looking for in those far off lands, usually is already there, in our own homes, in our own hearts. Still, from time to time, i get smitten by the flashbacks of the wonderlust…
Recently, in Pest, a friend who is originally from those parts reminded me of a writer whom i loved while a teenager, his prose being the main reason i headed off to Asia as soon as i turned 18 and was (barely) legal to travel on my own…
In the West, Chinghiz Aitmatov is probably best known for his coming of age story Jamila , which Louis Aragon called “the most beautiful love story in the world…”
In the same way the Song of Songs’ verses on the first level are a tale of a woman and a man in love – yet deeper down the text is the story of Shabbat’s passage and the covenant with Israel – Aitmatov’s novelette is only apparently a WWII love story, staged in Caucasus. As Jamila, whose husband is in the war, drags the sacks of grain to the train station, accompanied by wounded newcomer to the village – there is another story being told, that of the love for one’s own nation and culture, forcibly assimilated by the Soviet machine.
The story appeared in the literary magazine Novyi Mir (New World) in 1958, moving force behind it being Aleksandr Tvardovsky, famous for publishing Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. It was not Aitmatov’s first published work, but “Jamila” was the first in row of the sensational works which shook and broke the walls of the permissible in the Communist Party censored Soviet literature.
In an article on Aitmatov (1), Sian Glaessner describes the Soviet conquest of Central Asia as difficult and “in many ways more problematic than that by the Tsarist army that had preceded it. Soviet rule in Central Asia sought to marry the USSR’s highly centralized, top-heavy bureaucracy with diverse, formerly nomadic cultures characterized in part by their complex and highly localized hierarchies. Living in what, for over 100 years, the Russians had seen as essentially frontier towns on the very edge of their mighty empire, in Central Asia people had a sense not only of their distant rules in St. Petersburg and later Moscow but also of the regional power base. The importance of the Silk Road had waned, but still lingered. In any of these regions, the sense of living on the periphery of an empire was in many ways dwarfed not just by the mountains and river valleys but also by the understanding that they lived in a strategic hub that had been as important for Alexander the Great as it would be again.”
Regardless the usual trappings of Central Asian traditions and despite the male dominated, patriarchal culture – Jamila had everything, house and family and a promising future, until Daniyar started singing…
(The following is an excerpt from the English translation: )
“Daniyar, I’ve come, I came of my own accord,” she said softly.
All was silence. A bold of lightening slid down the sky noiselessly.
“Are you cross? Are you very angry?”
Silence again, then the faint splash of a clod of soil slipping into the water.
“It isn’t really my fault,” she whispered. “Nor yours.”
Thunder rumbled far over the hills. Jamila was plainly silhouetted in a flash of lightening. She glanced round and dropped down beside him, her shoulders heaving convulsively in his arms. She stretched out on the hay and pressed against him.
A broken wind rushed in from the steppe, whirled the straw about, buffeted a dilapidated tent that stood outside the shed and spun off like a crazy top down the road. Once again there came a dry crash of thunder breaking overhead and blue flashes piercing the storm clouds; it was both terrifying and exciting – the storm was bearing down on us, the last storm of the summer.
“Surely you didn’t think I would swap him for you?” she whispered hoarsely. “No, no, no. He never loved me, he even sent his regards as a postscript. I don’t need his tardy love and I don’t care what people say. My lonely darling, I’ll never let you go. I’ve loved you for so long. Even when I did not know I loved you, I was waiting for you, and you came as if you knew I was waiting.”
If you are drawn to Central Asia like Managua, my cyber darling, another must read by Aitmatov is the masterpiece The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years.
Some of the most compelling parts of the book are the legends of main character’s – Yedigei’s tribe – the legend of the creation of the Ana-Beiit cemetery and the love of the famous bard Raimaly-aga for the much younger Begimai; the legends were adapted by Aitmatov from classical Kirghiz epic poems “The Manas”.
Aitmatov doesn’t directly address Russian influence in Kazakhstan, yet the novel subtly paints tragic picture of Soviet ruled Central Asia.
The master plot is the story of Burannyi Yedigei’s journey to bury his friend, following his clan’s customs and traditions, which, by that time, to many have become irrelevant.
The story within story, where Aitmatov got me forever hooked on SF at first line (Yedigei works at a railway near a large rocket launch facility) is the discovery of a Utopian civilization by a joint US-Russian space crew. The utopia is ruled out to be overly dangerous by the two superpowers and any further contact with it is forbidden.
The day in which Yedigei has to bury his friend is measured and retold in “psychological time” which stretches from the distant past and legends of his people – far into the future, into the explorations of the outer space and human willingness to overcome the disunity of the humankind – hence the title and the hope that the latter is actually possible…
1. Sian Glaessner , “An Introduction to Aitmatov’s Work”;Steppe Five, p. 85
the front cover art for the book by Chinghiz Aitmatov, copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, Novy Mir; used under fair use rules