Literature from Central Asia in English is rare; it may even be rare in the original, untranslated, given the relatively small populations and some seven decades of Soviet linguistic, literary and cultural oppression. In any event, it appears that there are just two works of Turkmen fiction available in English, both by the dissident, and exiled, writer Ak Welsapar: the novel The Tale of Aypi and this recently published collection of short stories.
A caveat is warranted here: it does not appear that Turkmen literature necessarily means literature in Turkmen, since not all of the three translators of these stories have evident credentials in the language. Welsapar also writes in Russian and Swedish; one suspects that some stories may have been translated from, for example, Russian, a detail curiously omitted from the otherwise informative Introduction by Ann Morgan.
It is not entirely clear from this collection why Welsapar should be proscribed in his own country. The majority of the stories in The Death of the Snakecatcher are set in and comment on various decades of the now-defunct Soviet era; these are bookended by stories that read like fables from a misty traditional past and the lead story “On the Emerald Shore”, which begins with a quote from the Greek philosopher Pittacus and which is a sort of philosophical musing on the human condition with few references to a particular place or time. While anything can be read as having political overtones, perhaps it is just that overweening states don’t like independent thinkers.
It appears that there are just two works of Turkmen fiction available in English.
One comes to writers from far-off, unknown places in the hope that one will discover some new gem or, failing that, stories in a different idiom and setting that ipso facto illuminate.
On both accounts, The Death of the Snakecatcher entices but does not entirely meet its promise. The stories themselves are accomplished, yet not all stand out as striking or sui generis. At least in translation. That caveat is necessary because the three different translators yield quite disparate results. Either Turkmen scholar Youssef Azemoun got a better choice of stories or he was able, in his two, to give a particularly good sense of what the original must have been like. In “One of the Seven is a Scoundrel” a group of harvesters run in into a NKVD secret police officer looking for an “enemy of the people”. One way or another, they must come up with one; the team leader is told:
Why have you no enemy of the people? They can be found in every village but you don’t have one! That is podozritelno, suspicious! … If you cannot find an enemy of the people …, then you become an enemy of the people!
The Turkmen harvesters must communicate with the Russian officer in a sort of pidgin, rendered by spraying Russian words into their speech—“znachit tak” (“so…), “eight malenki children” (“small”), “pomogay” (“help”)—not always translated when the meaning is (almost) clear. This linguistic trick provides a syncopated atmosphere to the exchange.
Azemoun’s second, disingenuously titled “Love Story”, is told as a fable from a time of steeds, daggers and robes with sashes. The young man of the story has no interest in the village girls “biting their sleeves and sighing” as he rides by, until of course he meets one, “near a mountain stream”, and falls instantly in love. The girl won’t share him with any other woman, even the youth’s sainted mother; the twist in the tale is worthy of Roald Dahl or Edgar Allen Poe.
The title story, translated by Lois Kapila, also evokes a traditional, fable-like form. An anthropomorphized cobra is being stalked in the desert by a old man who wishes to milk its venom. Their lives play out in parallel, intertwined tracks. In this story, more than any other, Welsapar creates a new world with its own rules, philosophies and destinies. Here, as in several other stories, fate plays out in unexpected, almost random ways.
Welsapar’s basic humanity shines forth.
The other stories, however, don’t always reach this level of distinctiveness. The first two in the collection are well-constructed, yet the magic realism that infuses “On the Emerald Shore” might have come from elsewhere, while the Soviet-era difficulties in “Love in Lilac” resulting from a romantic relationship between a university student and a visiting Swede is relatively well-trodden ground.
Welsapar’s basic humanity, however, shines forth throughout the collection. His characters, warts and all, are treated with compassion. The publisher Glagoslav has done well to bring this volume out, lifting as it does a corner of the veil which still shrouds this still largely unknown part of the world.