FAREWELL, AYLIS: A NON-TRADITIONAL NOVEL IN THREE WORKS
by Akram Aylisli
translated by Katherine E. Young
Academic Studies Press, 316 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
We don’t often read literature from Azerbaijan, for many reasons. It’s a small post-Soviet country that is hard to find on the map, with a Turkic language that makes finding translators difficult, and a government that still censors its writers Soviet-style. We don’t generally stroll down the aisle at a bookstore and discover the “Azeri” section. The only thing harder to find might be Georgian, and I’ll only say “might.” Probably most of us have no idea what novelists in Azerbaijan write about, what kind of social justice concerns they have, or what kind of risks those writers take to address those concerns.
The publication of Farewell, Aylis: A Non-Traditional Novel in Three Parts, by Academic Studies Press in November 2018, addresses these gaps in our literary exposure in several ways. For the first time we have Aylisli’s powerful and Nobel-worthy novel in English (he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014). Because Farewell, Aylis depicts ethnic violence against Armenians in Azerbaijan in the 1990s, Aylisli has been the target of censorship and currently lives under de facto house arrest in Baku. The publication of Farewell, Aylis could open up the Western canon to a powerful literary work, and open up Western writers’ understanding of Azeri writers’ political context. Part of our luck in receiving Farewell, Aylis is that Aylisli transposed much of it into Russian himself, making it accessible to more translators. This translation is by the poet Katherine E. Young, who was a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellow for Farewell, Aylis, and has received several awards for her work translating contemporary Russian women poets.
We don’t often read literature from Azerbaijan, for many reasons. It’s a small post-Soviet country that is hard to find on the map, with a Turkic language that makes finding translators difficult, and a government that still censors its writers Soviet-style.
Farewell, Aylis is actually three novellas that cover several decades of social transition in Azerbaijan under authoritarianism. The historical circumstances depicted in the novellas are important context for the characters, but none of these novellas are “about” history or Azerbaijan per se. Each one is about an individual who is trying to understand morality and humaneness in a society where humane distinctions have ceased to exist.
The first novella is Yemen, and it is the only one that was published widely in Azerbaijan, in 1994. Yemen takes place during the Gorbachev years and follows Safaly, a teacher who goes on a trip to avoid the visit of some pesky relatives from Moscow. On the trip, he encounters Ali Ziya, an old friend whom he once accompanied on a pseudo-religious pilgrimage to Yemen.
Past and present begin to bleed together as both men relive memories of the Yemen trip. On that trip, Safaly had gone on a walk one afternoon, and, finding Safaly missing from his room, Ali Ziya had reported to the Soviet embassy that Safaly was on his way to defect to America. This event seems comical to a Western reader, but in Soviet society denunciations and being reported to the Soviet authorities were not a small thing. For Safaly it is a revelation of the ways that the Soviet system has created a new type of individual, and that new individual has created a new society: “He suddenly understood: that which was called Soviet authority was also Ali Ziya—and so what if he drank tea, pouring it into the saucer and blowing on it.”
Yemen asks timeless questions about the ideological collusion between the individual and autocracy, and how it is that a society comprised of individuals can lose its moral bearing. When Safaly visits his home village, his uncle points out to him that the individual has to decide whether he will stand with or against his own society: “And are infidels really found only among Russians or Armenians? A kafir, nephew, isn’t distinguished by nationality, it comes from the essence of a person.” Society loses its moral bearing one person at a time, one Ali Ziya at a time.
The story can seem dream-like at moments, with Safaly’s most dramatic insights arriving during a fantastical whiskey-fueled conversation with astronaut Neil Armstrong, who passionately debates Safaly on whether national leaders are “far-sighted” or not. The writing reminded me of Moscow to the End of the Line by Yerofeyev, but Safaly’s philosophical trajectory is more cohesive and unfolds naturally and compellingly.
The second and most well-known novella in the trilogy is Stone Dreams. It was the publication of this story in a Moscow magazine in 2012 that Russian journalist Shura Burtin described as having “the effect of a bomb exploding,” and resulted in Aylisli’s being censored, the public burning of his books, and the revoking of his travel privileges.
The protagonist of Stone Dreams is Sadai Sadygly, a well-known Azerbaijani actor who goes for a walk one morning and comes across a group of boys kicking an elderly Armenian to death. When he intervenes to save the Armenian, the boys beat him so badly that he winds up in the hospital. Unconscious in the hospital, Sadai relives several scenes from his childhood in the village of Aylis, as well as several scenes from his professional life in the city of Baku. Both strands of memory reveal the disintegration of relationships between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians that he has known, and the moral frustration that Sadai has experienced as friendships and relationships have responded to ethnic and religious tension.
In the hospital, Sadai is attended by two men whose stories become interlaced with his. One is Dr. Farzani, haunted by his attempts to live a moral Muslim life, which resulted sadly in the break up of his family. The other is Dr. Abasaliev, a retired psychiatrist who has been slowly translating an ancient text related to the founding of the town of Aylis, and has discovered that, contrary to the popularly disseminated narrative, Aylis has Armenian roots. “If a single candle were lit for every Armenian killed violently, the radiance of those candles would be brighter than the light of the moon,” Dr. Abasaliev claims, while reading the history of Aylis to the unconscious Sadai and the attendant Dr. Farzani.
Stone Dreams is about the role of the “average” individual in a time of moral and spiritual confusion. None of the characters are perfect, but they struggle to understand how to honor their conscience in a time where the conflicts run so deep that it is almost impossible to live a truly moral life, before one’s family, one’s nation, one’s God. All of them ask fundamental questions about what their actions mean, and what they can do versus what they are powerless to do. Like most good writing that poses pressing questions about human nature, the story does not offer any neat answers or conclusions, but shows us what it means to grapple with these questions.
It is no surprise that after the reaction to the publication of Stone Dreams, the third novella never made it into print in Azerbaijan. A Fantastical Traffic Jam is magical realism in the style of Gabriel García Márquez, and takes place in a fictional country called Allahabad, ruled by a corrupt dictator. The protagonist is Elbey, a government worker who has known the dictator for most of his life—the two of them come from the same rural area, and their families are intertwined in surprising ways. In the tradition of Orwell or Bradbury, Elbey works for the Operations Headquarters for the Restoration of Fountains and Waterfalls in the Name of Progress and Pluralism, an “enigmatic organization” whose name “gave off the aroma of a splendid bouquet of lies.” Elbey is facing several professional and personal crises which cause him to scheme, manipulate, and try to out-think his dictator employer (something which isn’t easy to do) in an effort to avoid being killed…or avoid being induced to kill himself. The story moves back and forth between Elbey’s current day relationship with “the Master” (as the dictator is often referred to), Elbey’s childhood, and the Master’s childhood and rise to power. Unlike the other novellas, this one has a few epigraph-style lines from Aylisli at the beginning of each section, that point out certain important aspects of the text: It’s not meant to be a tale where each fictitious person has a real-life counterpart, but the story is meant to illustrate the way that “glutinous regimes devour themselves.” Like the other novellas, A Fantastical Traffic Jam explores relationships as a way of showing how greed and manipulation on a national level reproduce themselves in the lives of the people who serve the regime.
Farewell, Aylis holds many gifts for its reader. The novellas are each stylistically unique but have a historical and philosophical sequence that both unfold and dialogue with each other powerfully.
A Fantastical Traffic Jam was probably my favorite of the three for its stylistic inventiveness and use of irony. One day I’ll teach a class on tiny magical novels that blow up when read, and I can add Aylisli to my syllabus alongside Bulgakov and Zoschenko.
Farewell, Aylis holds many gifts for its reader. The novellas are each stylistically unique but have a historical and philosophical sequence that both unfold and dialogue with each other powerfully. The characters are realistic: not ideologues, not angels or rogues. The translation is smooth and rhythmic, and the stories maintain their internal thematic consistency in complex ways that speak to the chemistry between the novel and the translator. A reader doesn’t need to know anything about Azerbaijan in order to contact the world of the novels, because the characters are relatable and they capture what we need to know in their stories.
So often, academic presentations of literature create a false partition between the artistic and the academic: the reader can only encounter the art after wading through 800 essays, which tell the reader what to think and how to be appropriately impressed by the writing, and each of the essays cites 400 sources. This volume doesn’t do that.
While this non-traditional work is wonderful reading, the volume that Academic Studies Press has put together is unique in a few other ways. Because I’m an academic, I should be able to say this without offending too many people: It’s so nice to see an academic press present a powerful piece of art in a way that honors both its artistic value and its academic value. So often, academic presentations of literature create a false partition between the artistic and the academic: the reader can only encounter the art after wading through 800 essays, which tell the reader what to think and how to be appropriately impressed by the writing, and each of the essays cites 400 sources. This volume doesn’t do that. There is an introduction written by journalist Joshua Kucera that is helpful and readable, intelligent without being abstruse, and it doesn’t give away everything that happens. The novellas come next. A reflective essay by Aylisli ,which I’ll pair with a Solzhenitsyn essay when I teach writing next year, follows. It is a powerful—and somewhat magical (Márquez again)—piece. Aylisli reflects on his experiences as a writer, dealing with censorship, what it’s like to watch people burn his books, and his poignant relationship with his hometown of Aylis, from which he draws his pen name (his real last name is Naibov). There is a copy of a speech that Aylisli was supposed to give in Italy in 2016 but could not because his travel privileges had been revoked. And there is an afterward by Andrew Wachtel that considers how Aylisli fits in the larger tradition of Soviet literature and explains his relevance to our world today far better than I ever could.
The volume is unique because the novel is given adequate context, including the writer’s reflections, but the reader is also allowed adequate intellectual room to encounter the writing as a novel, as a story, without being overwhelmed with historical context or theoretical significance. I personally hope this starts a trend for publishing non-Western text in translation in volumes like this. Why shouldn’t we see more significant non-Western writing, and why shouldn’t we enjoy both responding to the stories that come from other parts of the world and learning some of the relevant context, without being overwhelmed by the context?
In a 2014 article, Dr. Mikhail Mamedov of George Mason University pointed out that when it comes to historical moments of conflict and oppression, “literary works are often more important” than historical monographs “because they reach a broader audience.” Stone Dreams, he argues, is the “most important novel to emerge so far” in the literary response to the conflict between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians. He describes it as “a novel of repentance—and perhaps a gesture towards reconciliation,” a lovely description that is also challenging for all writers. Farewell, Aylis is not a reactive novel intended to prove any ideology right or wrong. Ultimately, it is a work of the heart and a work of love and acceptance for other people, no matter their history. Aylisli is setting a timely example for how to be a writer and what kind of literary offering to make, in a time of cultural strain.
Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, an M.A.T. from Clayton State University, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Georgia State University. She writes about post-Soviet writers, qualitative research methods, and writing pedagogy. She lives south of Atlanta with her husband and two kids, where she gets to read, write, and teach every day.