Set in the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan during the final years of the USSR, The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar focuses on the lives of the inhabitants of a small Turkmen village on the banks of the Caspian Sea. As the story begins, the sleepy fishing village has recently been informed by the central government that everyone is to be relocated to a nearby urban center so that their land can be used for the construction of a new hospice.
A ban has been placed on fishing, the village’s main livelihood, and preparations have already begun for the imminent desertion of the village. However, while most of the villagers have accepted their fate, one man—stubborn local fishermen Araz—is not so willing to give up his home and heritage. For Araz, the fight is about more than just his right to decide where he should live, but also about the very nature of freedom:
“If you just sit there and say, ‘Yes sir’ to any command from on high, who’ll ever know that you exist? Who’ll care about your situation, or listen to you? How can you be a man if you don’t demand your rights?”
However, in the face of increasing government persecution, his resistance seems increasingly futile. The community advises him to keep his head down and accept his fate, so as to avoid further reprisals. Even his supportive wife Ay-Bebek counsels pragmatism,
“We’re no longer living in the ancient times … now we’ve got the State, government and the laws – where can you escape from them?”
Araz’s story is interwoven with the fable of Aypi, from which the novel derives its title, a famed beauty from the same village who met her untimely end as punishment for her vanity and curiosity some three centuries before. The character of Aypi haunts the novel, both literally and figuratively, and her presence assumes a greater importance as the story evolves.
While the events of the novel take place during the country’s Soviet past, Welsapar’s tale of Soviet authority could just as easily be a depiction of modern Turkmenistan. Despite being one of Turkmenistan’s most internationally-lauded authors, Welsapar and his work has been black-listed in the country since 1990. Following a year under house-arrest in the early 90s, Welsapar was declared a “public enemy” by the state—an action that ultimately saw him flee the country. Most of his novels remain banned in his homeland, including The Tale of Aypi which was originally published in 2012. The novel has now been chosen as one of the first from Turkmenistan to be translated into English for the international market.
One of the themes the novel addresses is that of identity and nationalism within the modern-state. At one point in the novel, a government official chastises Araz for his parochial attachment to his local identity. He advises Araz to instead think more broadly and see himself as an international Soviet citizen. However, Araz and his fellow villagers fear the dilution of identity that the modern state has brought. Their children have moved to the city, adopted foreign dialects and become dislocated from their history and culture. One village elder voices his concerns that,
the traditions of our ancestors will slip away into the sands, and our children will lose their native language. How else can they be brought up with education and learning, and, as it were, humanity?
While the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan is long gone, it is likely that in modern-day Turkmenistan this uneasy tension between local and national identities remain.
Much of the novel is expressed through the lively conversations and inner thoughts of the characters that populate the village. This makes the novel engaging and accessible. However, the reliance upon the colloquial occasionally causes problems. This is particularly so where English idioms have been used as substitutes for Turkmen ones. The use of a distinctly English or American turn of phrase can be jarring to read, and does momentarily take the reader out of the moment. The novel also relies upon numerous cultural and historical references which, while adding color and a sense of place to the novel, may confuse or distract the reader unfamiliar with the context.
Ultimately though, it is this rich description and use of imagery that is the novel’s greatest strength. There is a vivid sense of time and place, as the author captures the vanishing lifestyle and values of his fellow countrymen with a sense of nostalgia and loss. By the conclusion of the novel, Welsapar has created more than just a modern update of a classic good-versus-evil fairy-tale, but rather a lyrical meditation on the nature of the modern state.