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Ak Welsapar. Kobra.

Ak Welsapar. Kobra. Stockholm. Bokmaskin. 2003. x + 461 pages. ISBN 91-974397-1-1

A BITING SATIRICAL ALLEGORY on the reign of Sapurmurat Niyazov, president-dictator of the newly independent state of Turkmenistan, Ak Welsapar's Kobra (Cobra) examines the psychology of tyranny in respect to both the oppressed and the oppressors. The current Turkmen president, whose portrait looms everywhere in Ashgabat and elsewhere in the country, be it on the currency or on the facades of buildings, pronounced himself in 1993 Turkmenbashi (head of all Turkmen) after the demise of the Soviet Union and proceeded to create a cult of personality that would rival, if not surpass, that of Joseph Stalin. Dissidents have humorously labeled Turkmenbashi's regime as bashivistic, underlining thereby its indebtedness to Soviet bolshevism.

Still, nowhere in Ak Welpasar's novel is Niyazov's name mentioned directly, and the protagonist modeled after him also remains nameless, although his cumbersome title, gospodin tovarishch president (mister comrade president), resonates on every page like a drumbeat, bringing incessant attention to bear on the fact that the former "comrade"--communist first secretary--of the erstwhile Soviet republic has smoothly transitioned into a respectable "mister president." Kobra reveals that the transition is nothing more than "window dressing" and that little has changed for the people of Turkmenistan, who remain oppressed and impoverished, while the wealth of the now oil- and gas-rich country continues to flow into the hands of Niyazov and his clan. Although Turkmenbashi has proclaimed that revolution has been replaced by evolution, the implementation of the current ideology is no less hypocritical or repressive than the revolutionary doctrine of the Communist Party that brought him to power in the first place.

The plot of Kobra is based on a popular Turkmen legend about animals transforming into people and back again at will. Musa Choli, the main character in the novel, is a desert cobra bent on destroying the humans around him for poisoning his habitat with fertilizer, which for decades has been leaching into the soil from state-managed cotton fields. Turning into a wiry, slippery provincial upstart, he infiltrates the power structure through sycophancy and deceit. Soon he is delivering speeches as the mayor of Charva, an important provincial city, and later, after the capital moves to the city he governs, advances into the upper echelons of power--into the inner circle of mister comrade president. Here the serpent witnesses the hypocrisy and brutality of unbridled power and is eventually exposed as a traitor. The novel closes with Musa Choli's fight to the death in the gestalt of cobra, while the comrade president and his top aid suck the life from him in the hypostases of desert crocodile and giant praying mantis.

In his satirical allegory, Ak Welsapar poignantly reveals the hybrid nature of the democratic "postcommunist" republics of Central Asia, the majority of which are still governed by former communist functionaries who have repeatedly orchestrated their elections and reelections, running virtually unopposed, despite constitutional constraints on the executive branch of government. Still, Turkmenistan differs from other post-Soviet states because of the high degree of buffoonery in the megalomania of the president and his bloated cult of personality, which, in turn, makes the very real repression of dissidents all the more hideous. The Orwellian portrayal of the Institute of Linguistics in Kobra captures well that specificity of the Niyazov regime. Any criticism of the authorities is classified as a grammatical abnormality, and the perpetrators of such linguistic errors are incarcerated and tortured until they "improve their grammar." Even the questions of Western journalists are subjected to stringent grammatical analysis. The long-winded speeches of mister comrade president and his minions celebrating the nonexistent reforms and achievements of his administration further highlight the element of buffoonery in the novel--words follow words endlessly, with "failure" meaning "success" and "chaos" meaning "order," and culminate ala Brezhnev into nothingness, like the smoky sky after a festive display of fireworks. Despite promises, reforms are never implemented, perhaps, as mister comrade president admits in a vulnerable moment, because "the people smell bad." In one of his better moods he optimistically proclaims that his government's grandiose reforms and projects must inevitably culminate in success because "we have conquered reason." Indeed, substance everywhere is replaced by style and empty form. Critical questions are often answered with insipid proverbs, and all social activities are completely supplanted by folkloric song and dance performances.

The novel also delves into the psychology of the enslaved people, however. Ak Welsapar portrays them as childlike and naive, forever being duped by promises of grandeur and so demoralized that they are willing to eat the scraps from the table of the powerful. In their schools they are subjected to a mandatory reading of the comrade president's book of do's and don'ts for all Turkmen, RU--a transparent allusion to Sapurmurat Niyazov's own book of doctrine, Rukhnama (The spirit of the nation), which serves as a sort of state Koran. The common people in the novel are depicted as brainwashed to the point of mass hypnosis, and the desert cobra, quite adept at mesmerizing his victims before killing them, knows that people in such a state are easy prey for any predator.

Ak Welsapar, who has intimate knowledge of the workings of the Turkmen power structure, has created a satirical tour de force reminiscent of the works of Fazil Iskander and Vladimir Voinovich, two contemporary masters of political satire under the Soviet regime. Kobra is a must for all specialists of Central Asia and a great read for anyone interested in the psychology of despots. The novel assures that Welsapar will have to continue his exile in Sweden until the eventual fall of Turkmenbashi, yet his book is destined to become and remain a literary monument to the folly of bashivism long after Niyazov's portraits and statues are torn down. And that time may not be far off, for the mighty Turkmen potentate is becoming increasingly isolated, and the widespread fear of him in Turkmenistan is slowly eroding because of the populace's mounting frustrations over dashed hopes and expectations. Ak Welsapar knows well that the best remedy for his nation's current paralysis is ridicule and laughter, and Kobra treats Turkmen readers to a very healthy serving of both.

Joseph P. Mozur

University of South Alabama
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Author:Mozur, Joseph P.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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