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Merle

Merle

Jamilia - Chingiz Aitmatov At just 96 pages, or around 18,600 words, Jamilia isn’t even safely in novella territory; many would consider it a “novelette.” I was impressed to see the author fit what felt like a complete story into such a short work.

During World War II, most Kyrgyz men are off at the front. Meanwhile, fifteen-year-old Seit hauls grain to the nearest train station to aid in the war effort, accompanied by his sister-in-law, Jamilia, and a wounded soldier, Daniyar. Jamilia and Daniyar fall in love, and Seit is inspired to paint by their love and by the beauty of his homeland. That’s about all there is to this book, but there’s something admirable in an author using only as many words as he needs to tell a story, and each scene is more meaningful when there are fewer of them.

So despite its brevity, it’s a lovely little story. The writing is evocative and the translation fluid, although it has a British tinge that can be a bit jarring for an American reader. The biggest downside to the book’s length is that we don’t get to know the characters as well as we would in a full-length novel; Jamilia takes center stage and Seit tells us a lot about her, but we don’t quite get a fully rounded picture of her as a person. (That could be intentional though, since we’re seeing her through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy, and one who’s attracted to her.) I also would have liked more information about Kyrgyz life, but there’s a decent amount here for the length of the book.

Overall, an excellent novelette, and fortunately the author wrote at least one full-length novel that has been translated to English. Sometimes foreign books can seem forbidding, to Americans at least, but this one tells a universal human story that readers from many cultures should be able to enjoy.

(And yes, it feels a bit like cheating to count this as my World Fiction Challenge book for Kyrgyzstan, but I have no idea where I'll find another novel set in that country!)