The cover of Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present, with its photo of the massive walls of the Ark Fortress in Bukhara, is something of a bait and switch. The book flies through that period implied by picture: the “imperial conquests” of the subtitle are not those of Genghis Khan or Timur, but rather the later ones by China and Russia: conquests of Central Asia, not by.
Perhaps because Central Asia is still off the beaten track, it attracts its fair share of travel writers, maybe more than its fair share, from the venerable Colin Thurbon (who has two, The Lost Heart of Asia and Shadow of the Silk Road), two by horse (The Last Secrets of the Silk Road by Alexandra Tolstoy and On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads by Tim Cope) and the cleverly-entitled Out of Steppe by Daniel Metcalfe and Postcards from Stanland by David Mould. Fortunately for Erika Fatland, the region is changing so quickly that no one, not even Thurbon, remains definitive for long: there’s always room for a new entry.
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.
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.
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.