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Chingiz Aitmatov's "Jamilia"

Information and Questions for Reading

Chingiz Aitmatov was the best-known Kyrgyz writer in the Soviet era, born in 1928. There is information about his biography and career in Katerina Clark's introduction to our edition of The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, so I won't add more here - but let me know if you have questions. Do note that the name Chingiz is more or less the same name as Genghis (known now as Ghenghis Khan), who founded the Mongol Empire and thus was the person behind the invasions of Rus' about which we have read. As you will remember, Rusians at the time did not know that history - but by the 20th century Ghengis was famous everywhere.

"Jamila" (also translated, by James Riordan, as "Jamilia") was Aitmatov's first big success; Louis Aragon called it "The most beautiful love story in the world," and translated it into French.

Questions for Reading Aitmatov's "Jamila":

1.Here we have a story that is only about Kazakhs, though with references to Kyrgiz culture (brought in by the figure of Daniyar). How does the result compare to the multiethnic Dzhan whom we saw in Platonov's "Soul"? Which seems more impacted by Soviet ideology of international socialism and official atheism?

2. As befits a Soviet-era story, there is no mosque, no imam in this story, but our translation has several references to Allah, including the very important one where our narrator asks for Allah's blessing on his drawing, which becomes the foundation of his career as an artist, thus of his way of being in the world (especially in a society where one's job or profession was so central in determining biography and lifestyle). How does the reader see the place of Allah in this part of Soviet society, and in this story?

3. Moving on from the second question (in a direction that will also impact our reading of The Day Lasts More...): can religious traditions be "smuggled" into a work of fiction under the guise of local traditions?

4. What is the place of art (music, as well as visual art) in this story?

5. We should be sure to talk about the impact of the Second World War (which began in 1941 for the Soviet Union) on religious practices, as well as its long-lasting traces in the culture and general public discourse of later decades.

6. What is specific to the local setting in this story, and what is universal? How does the narrator's reaction to the main events of the story turn them to tell us something crucial about the narrator himself? (And how might that message, concentrated in the last few pages, make the story readable as a pro-Soviet work in spite of its non-Socialist-Realist features?)

7. How would you compare this story to other narratives of adultery (including, if you have read it, the number one Russian story of unfaithfulness, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina)?