“The Revenge of the Foxes” by Ak Welsapar

(Wikimedia Commons) (Wikimedia Commons)

Although Ak Welsapar is Turkmen, and one of the few Central Asian writers to have any international presence, The Revenge of the Foxes—his latest novel (or, given its length, perhaps novella) to appear in English—was written in, and translated from, Russian. It shows: Russian influence is very clear and, the nationality of the protagonist and some flashbacks aside, the book might be Russian, set in a decaying Moscow hospital at the fag end of the Soviet Union.

The (apparently very real) Institute of Cardiovascular Surgery seems to specialize in heart problems of young people; certainly, most of the patients, including Nazarli, the Turkmen narrator, are young—teens and twenties, it seems. They are there for an indefinite period, weeks and months rather than days, with operations scheduled and cancelled as much according to bureaucratic whim as medical necessity.

Nazarli, who speaks some English, is upgraded to a better ward to help the communications with a foreign patient, a young, good-looking Greek socialist who is taking advantage, via some paternal string-pulling, of the perceived better care of the Soviet medical system.

Nazarli (as does the Greek) has a thing for the girls, becoming involved with two, with the first, the divorcée Olga, sliding away with a shake of her head to make room for the “enchanting blonde” Mary. Kisses are stolen in corners, changing rooms and deserted wards, as far away as possible from prying eyes of the authoritarian matron Babka Nastya.

 

The Revenge of the Foxes, Ak Welsapar, Richard Govett (trans) (Glagoslav, November 2018)
The Revenge of the Foxes, Ak Welsapar, Richard Govett (trans) (Glagoslav, November 2018)

Nazarli is driven mostly by fear of death; he attributes his final release from the institution not to the skill or his doctors, but to his desire to survive and continue living. His nightmares and delirium are of near-death experiences; his flashbacks often regretful of past experiences left unfulfilled. His dalliances are as much driven by a desire to partake of life while he can as the result of any profound feeling.

This short novel, which clocks in at just about 100 pages, is experiential and philosophical—there is no small amount of musing—rather than plot-driven: not a great deal happens. Somewhat reminiscent of prison literature, characters come and go, freedom is restricted, everyone subject to petty rules and regulations, lives controlled by others, the fickleness of fate, the ever-present threat of death, despair that can turn suicidal, the desire just to make it through to come out alive on the other side. But the prison this time is a hospital, and the sentence is one set by genetics rather than a judge.

 

The Revenge of the Foxes is unfortunately somewhat ill-served by its translation which can be stiff and, as far as the English goes, somewhat uncolloquial. One can read past that, but it’s unfortunate that one has to.

Anyone hoping to get a grasp on Central Asian literature has very little to go on; given that it was written in Russian, set in Moscow and likely written in a Russian literary milieu, one could even debate whether The Revenge of the Foxes even qualifies. Nevertheless, examples of works by Central Asian writers in English are so rare, that one should gladly accept whatever publishers like Glagoslav are willing to put out.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.