Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 17, 2017

The Tale of Aypi, by Ak Welsapar, translated by W.M. Coulson

Just a day or so when I wrote my review of Steven Lang’s Hinterland, I noted that his story of a battle over development in Queensland had universal themes because inappropriate development is an issue worldwide.  The Tale of Aypi has a similar theme, but set this time in a coastal village in Turkmenistan during the Soviet regime.  You won’t be surprised to hear that the Soviets have ways of making the villagers cooperate, or that the impending relocation fractures traditional ways of life that have been in place for centuries, or that the story features just one man standing up for what he believes in.  What makes this story different is that it features a mythic creature called Aypi, a woman hurled to her death off a cliff centuries ago because she had the effrontery to accept some beads in exchange for sharing information about the village with some passing travellers.

The other point of difference is that despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the issues of freedom and individual agency are still current in Turkmenistan today, and that its author has been exiled from his homeland since 1993.  You might have noticed that the book cover includes the logo of the PEN Writers Award.  Although he won an award in a Turkmen national literary competition for his novel The Melon Head (1984) Welsapar’s novels are mostly banned in Turkmenistan, which, Wikipedia tells me, is one of the most repressive in the world.  Turkmenistan naming him as a proscribed writer is a striking comparison to Russia where in 2012, The Union of Writers of Russia awarded him the Sergei Yesenin literary prize, and to Ukraine where in 2014 the Writers’ Union awarded him the Nikolai Gogol prize. Welsapar writes in Swedish, Russian and Turkmen, and but his articles are published internationally including in The Washington Post (presumably in translation). 

The Tale of Aypi, however, was first published in 1988 before Welsapar attracted official attention.  It begins in the home of Araz the fisherman and his wife Ay-Bebek, where their son Baljan is risking trouble by shouting out that they have sturgeon for sale. Fishing has been prohibited since the government has decided that their village is be turned into a health resort, but under cover of darkness Araz is still going out into the waters of the Caspian Sea, and his neighbours are still covertly buying sturgeon for their family celebrations.

There is dissension among the generations about the relocation.  The young like the idea of living in the city with modern conveniences and a modern lifestyle.  Their parents prefer traditional ways, but are resigned to the inevitable.  Arguing with Soviet State decrees from faraway Moscow only causes trouble, as Azar finds when he is hauled in for interrogation and told to think of himself as a Soviet citizen not as a parochial local.  (This passage put me in mind of the urban generation in Anatoli Rybakov’s The Children of the Arbat whose education and experiences in the capital meant that they did think of themselves as part of a great social improvement, but who found their theoretical understandings challenged when they were exiled to the countryside and had to confront the impact on individuals).

To reinforce the message of Soviet power, Azar is made to walk home afterwards across the desert.  Faint with thirst he is rescued by a passing driver, but when Azar reveals that a colonel in plainclothes had forbid him from riding in vehicles the man panics and – as fear trumps compassion – implores him to get out of the car:

‘Brother, get out of the car!’ begged the drover. ‘Out, if you don’t want to ruin my life! I know I’m a coward, but I just can’t carry you.  Have mercy on my children; I have no intention of going up against the government.  If that’s what you’re doing, then you’re a strong man who won’t need my help. You don’t have too much more to go, just keep going on as you have been, and you’ll be home.  The weather will start to cool down in a couple of hours.’

Araz left the car without a word.  What could he say?  The car sped away in a storm of dust, but after only a brief interval, went into reverse and came back.  The man stopped beside him and opened the window.  ‘Please, brother, bless your soul, just please don’t tell anyone that I gave you water and picked you up!  You’ll destroy me; I have babies at home, please have mercy on them!’ (p.86)

There is an authenticity about this exchange that suggests Welsapar had been subject to this sort of pressure not to rock the boat even before his troubles began.  The character of Mered Badaly is taken to task for caving in over the relocation, representing all those who might have made a difference but were too craven to do so, while the shallowness of the younger generation who have been bought by the promise of modernity is mocked in a magnificent set-piece of satire: the wedding-feast of Badaly’s son is held on the road outside the village because the young man is ashamed of his rustic home and doesn’t want his bride’s family to see it.

Aypi’s role in the story is to interrogate the decisions that the villagers make.  As she moves through the village, able to enter houses at whim, she observes that modernity has not brought them happiness.  She looks inside the wheezing boxes only to find them empty of fresh produce; she takes off the cover of a box with a square glass face but can’t comprehend what it’s for and dismisses it as a time-waster and lure of their attentions. 

As she wandered into some of the wealthier homes, she had to admit there was prosperity.  Yes, there were things here in quantities that couldn’t compare with her own age; and yet, she didn’t discern any particular happiness on the inhabitants’ faces.  If it had been there, she would have seen that on their sleeping faces instead of unease and discomfort.  Just then, the sleeper she had been observing made an anguished sound, as if to confirm her surmise, and the startled ghost immediately fled.

If she wasn’t mistaken, the people of this generation also seemed stunted.  What could the reason be? Once, these same people had unflinchingly sacrificed her for the sake of their own futures.  Had her life’s blood not brought them happiness?  Had they failed to protect themselves from subsequent hazards?  (p.49)

Aypi also challenges the men’s fear of independent women.  At times these passages are strident and overdone, but Aypi and Azar together show that it’s the passivity of others that is the greatest danger.

Stu has reviewed The Tale of Aypi at Winston’s Dad, and there are very good reviews at The Asian Review of Books and The Complete Review.

Author: Ak Welsapar
Title: The Tale of Aypi
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2016
ISBN: 9781784379834
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications


Responses

  1. Fantastic review, Lisa (and here I was simply seduced by that gorgeous cover).

    • It’s lovely, I agree. Glagoslav often have really nice covers:)

  2. I reviewed this a clever use of a folk tale almost to talk about recent past and present in his homeland

  3. #SeniorsMoment I’d forgotten that, Stu. I’ve added the link to your review now.

  4. Interesting that younger villagers were inclined to favour ‘modernisation, reflects the move to cities in all countries probably and anyway there are probably 8 billion too many of us for village life to be viable.

    • Of course, yes, there’s always nostalgia about change.. At the moment the ABC is running segments about village people in East Timor objecting to development which just leaves me dumbfounded because East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world and if they think that having a better deal over the oil and gas they’ve got means that they will get to sit back, relax and spend the money like mini tycoons while nothing else changes in their little bit of the world, someone is leading them badly astray.
      Parents always bemoan their children moving to the city and say it’s because there’s no jobs, but that isn’t all it is. Cities are great to live in, and they are not full of unhappy people living shallow consumerist lives. And one of the best things is that you can choose who you let into your life, rather than have every single person in the village know all about you.
      But change is hard on people who’ve lived a certain way for generations, and it’s especially hard when the change is foisted on them by an arbitrary power far away. The Many, by Wyl Menmuir, is the same story set in Cornwall, with the EU fishing regulations (to protect endangered fisheries) as the faraway power.


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