The article was originally published on Wordswithoutborders.org
By Katherine E. Young
Akram Aylisli’s Farewell, Aylis: A Non-Traditional Novel in Three Works was recently published by Academic Studies Press. Katherine E. Young, who translated the novel from the Russian, explores the origins of Farewell, Aylis; the social and political context of and response to Aylisli’s work; and his experience, as a writer who has faced persecution for the last six years, of being a stranger in the land he calls “home.” You can read an excerpt from Farewell, Aylis on WWB.
In January of 2004, twenty-six-year-old Azerbaijani army officer Ramil Safarov traveled to Hungary to take part in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. In Budapest he met Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan. There was—and remains—extreme ill will between the neighboring countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose forces have been fighting one another since before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Atrocities, including pogroms and large-scale ethnic cleansing, have been committed by both sides. When the two men met in Budapest, it is unclear how well they got to know one another, but in February of 2004, Safarov hacked Margaryan to death with an ax as the Armenian lay sleeping in his bed. Though a Hungarian court sentenced Safarov to life in prison, in 2012 he was transferred to Azerbaijan, where he was immediately pardoned and received a hero’s welcome.
The official Azerbaijani embrace of Safarov goaded Akram Aylisli—one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent writers and a former member of the country’s national assembly—to action. Within a few months of Safarov’s return, Aylisli published a novella in the Russian literary journal Druzhba narodov. The novella, Stone Dreams, which he’d written five years earlier, depicts friendship, betrayal, ethnic cleansing, and a little-known episode of the Armenian genocide witnessed in real life by the writer’s own mother in his home village of Aylis, where both Armenians and Azerbaijanis have deep roots. Although Stone Dreams had never been published in the original Azeri (and to this day it remains unpublished in its original form), its publication in Russian landed like a bomb in Aylisli’s homeland of Azerbaijan. Aylisli’s books were burned, he watched his own symbolic coffin paraded beneath his windows, a $13,000 bounty was offered to whomever would cut off his ear (the offer was later rescinded under international pressure), his honors and pension were curtailed, and his wife and son were fired from their jobs. Aylisli’s case has been championed by PEN International, Human Rights Watch, and many others, and in 2014 he was nominated by an international group of supporters for the Nobel Peace Prize. He continues to live under virtual house arrest in Baku.
Like Yemen and A Fantastical Traffic Jam—the other two novellas with which it forms a trilogy—Stone Dreams is a fascinating cultural artifact of a civilization that disappeared forever in 1991. The novella was originally written in Azeri (a language closely related to Turkish) by an ethnic Azeri Muslim born in 1937 during the height of Stalin’s purges in an ancient Armenian town that was then part of the Soviet Union. Like many promising “national writers” of his generation, Aylisli studied at Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute, traveled abroad during the Soviet period, and translated literary giants such as Anton Chekhov, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salman Rushdie (all of whom ghost through his own writing) into Azeri. Throughout his career, his work has generally been published first in Russian, from which it has been translated into some twenty other languages and has sold millions of copies. While the first novella of the trilogy, Yemen, was published in the early 1990s and has appeared in both Azeri and Russian, the much later A Fantastical Traffic Jam (written in 2010 and published only in a private, fifty-copy Russian-language edition in 2011) has never appeared publicly in either Azeri or Russian. This fact is not surprising: A Fantastical Traffic Jam explores corruption, authoritarianism, and spiritual despair—sprinkled with unexpected dashes of humor and magical realism—in a fictional, oil-rich country that bears more than a passing resemblance to contemporary Azerbaijan.
His work raises fascinating questions about what home and place mean for writers like him, including how to navigate and contextualize the multiple languages and overlapping cultures of his writing.
While Aylisli grounds much of his writing in themes specific to the Caucasus region, particularly Azerbaijan and Armenia, he in many ways represents the ideal “Soviet” writer—multinational and multilingual, with a strong Russian orientation. His work raises fascinating questions about what home and place mean for writers like him, including how to navigate and contextualize the multiple languages and overlapping cultures of his writing and how best to define his intended audience. For the translator, working with this material means acquiring at least a superficial knowledge of Azeri, Armenian, and Persian language, history, culture, and contemporary geopolitics, as well as a firm grounding in the Soviet period and its lingua franca, Russian. Russian is obviously more than a “gateway” language for a writer whose formal literary education and wider literary community—including his first publishers, reviewers, readers, and some of his most ardent current supporters—are all Russian. Aylisli himself translated two of the three novellas in the trilogy and its lengthy nonfiction afterword into Russian, and all of the author-translator correspondence relating to Farewell, Aylis was and continues to be conducted in Russian. But despite being publicly vilified as a traitor to Azerbaijan and having his life severely contrained by the current Azerbaijani regime, Aylisli remains outspoked about being firmly rooted in his native soil and his Azeri identity.
All of this multilingualism and multiculturalism presents a conundrum for publishers and booksellers: is the book best classified as Azerbaijani literature? As post-Soviet Russian literature? Does it belong with other books related to the Caucasus? The Turkic-speaking world? The Armenian diaspora? (In Armenia itself, Stone Dreams continues to be a best seller in unauthorized translations into Armenian.) Should it be marketed as a human rights story? A political story? Are these historical novellas? What paratextual material is necessary to give context and meaning to the work? Who is best suited to review this work? And perhaps most urgent: who is the English-language audience for this work?
This last question may be the easiest to answer: anyone who loves good literature! At various times over the course of this project, which began in earnest for me in 2016, I have been grant applicant, de facto author’s agent, translator, copyeditor, proofreader, book ambassador, and now human rights campaigner on behalf of the author. I read and reread every word of the manuscript so often that I had to keep changing the font to distinguish the actual words from remembered versions of them. But not once have I regretted the three years spent translating them and advocating for their author. And while it is unquestionably a rare and unique honor to work with an author who has literally put his art and his life on the line to call for tolerance, empathy, and understanding, what keeps me going is the beauty of the work, the humanity of the characters, and the joy of discovery on each and every reading. American readers will particularly appreciate the cameo appearances here of a sphinx-like William Faulkner and a puckish Neil Armstrong.
Sadly, it does not seem likely that Aylisli’s literary and spiritual wanderings will bring him safely home to his own Ithaca. One of the through lines of the trilogy is the author’s understanding that change is both inevitable and irrevocable. Aylisli concludes his nonfiction afterword to the trilogy with an appeal to his hometown of Aylis, which functions as both moral touchstone and muse in the novellas and, indeed, in all his writing. Addressing his hometown, disfigured now by genocide and ethnic cleansing, Aylisli says: “Farewell, Aylis. Don’t call me. I won’t come.” He himself seems to be at peace with his situation and even guardedly optimistic about a future rapprochement betwen Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In a speech that he was invited to deliver in Venice in 2016 to mark the Italian publication of Stone Dreams—a speech the seventy-nine-year-old writer was unable to give because he was arrested by Azerbaijani authorities at the Baku airport on the pretext of having assaulted a young security guard—he writes:
There are episodes in life that are worth more than many lifetimes. In this episode of my life I was a hero for some and a traitor for others. I myself didn’t doubt for a minute that I was neither a hero nor a traitor but simply a normal writer and humanist with the ability to feel pity for another’s pain . . .
I’ve been deprived of peace and prosperity for the sake of a small step towards bringing together two peoples [Armenians and Azerbaijanis] connected not only by geographic proximity but also by centuries-old historical fate. And my most cherished dream is to see them together again once more.
And I very much want to live until that joyous day.