Death of the Snake Catcher: Short Stories

Written by Ak Welsapar
Review by Mandy Jenkinson

This recent translation into English of some of Ak Welsapar’s short stories is a rare and welcome opportunity to read a work of fiction from Turkmenistan. Welsapar was born in what was then the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan in 1956 but fell afoul of the authorities in the 1990s and was condemned as a “public enemy”. He has lived in Sweden since 1994 where he has continued to write, although his work is still banned in Turkmenistan.

The stories collected here were composed over decades and the subject matter is very different in each one, yet all demonstrate a concern for tradition and modernity, totalitarianism, and the powerlessness of individuals. Some stories are very down-to-earth whilst others have a fable-like quality to them. Most of them are set in Turkmenistan but although firmly rooted in a specific time and place nevertheless have a universal resonance, especially those which deal with state repression.

My personal favourite is ‘Love in Lilac’, in which a young Soviet university student falls in love with a visiting Swedish girl and is hauled in for a chilling interview with the NKVD. In another a group of harvesters encounter a NKVD patrol which has been tasked with rounding up ten “enemies of the people”. They need one more, and guilt is not an issue. Only the quota counts. A magic realist element comes to play in ‘Love Story’ in which a young man’s beloved demands he prove his love by bringing the still beating heart of his mother. Welsapar’s style is measured and low-key, but his deceptively straightforward language admirably conveys a profound sense of menace and dislocation, underpinned by great humanity and compassion. It’s a powerful collection, very well translated, and one which offers the reader a window into another world.