The following is excerpted from Stone Dreams, one of the three novellas that make up Akram Aylisli’s Farewell, Aylis, translated by Katherine E. Young and out now with Academic Studies Press. In Stone Dreams, an actor explores the limits of one man’s ability to live a moral life amid conditions of sociopolitical upheaval, ethnic cleansing, and petty professional intrigue.
Dedicated to the memory of my fellow countrymen, who left us their unwept pain
Chapter One: The Curious Death of an Old Coat Check Girl, the Deadly Dangerous Joke of a Famous Artist, and the Party Card-Pistol
The condition of the patient just delivered to the trauma department of one of the major Baku hospitals was very serious.
They took the patient, who was lying unconscious on the gurney, along the very middle of the half-lit hospital corridor that stretched the length of the whole floor to the operating room, which was located in the other wing of the building. There were two women in white lab coats and two men, also in lab coats. The surgeon himself walked beside the gurney, a spare, silver-haired man of middling height, distinguished from his colleagues by his reserve, the compelling sternness of his face, and the particular cleanliness of his lab coat.
If there was anything unusual or seemingly incongruous in this ordinary scene of hospital life, it was the tragic humor in the appearance and behavior of the person who’d brought the patient to the clinic. That small, fidgety man of fifty-five to sixty whose small face was not at all in harmony with his enormous, round belly ran around the doctor constantly repeating the same thing over and over.
“Doctor, my dear Doctor, they killed him! Such a man, in broad daylight, they beat him, destroyed him. It’s those yerazy, Doctor, yerazy. Five or six of those yerazy-boys who fled from Armenia! Those sons of bitches, those refugees simply don’t respect people, Doctor, my dear Doctor. They don’t recognize artists or poets or writers. Just call someone an Armenian—and that’s it! Then they slam him to the ground and trample him like wild animals. They tear him to pieces, and no one dares get involved. I told them: ‘Don’t beat him,’ I said, ‘That man’s not Armenian, he’s one of us, a son of our people, the pride and conscience of the nation.’ But who listens? They didn’t even let me tell them my name. They kicked me so hard in the side that I almost died there, too. Right here, Doctor, in the right side. It still hurts badly now.”
The doctor didn’t really understand what the man who’d brought the patient was saying. Maybe he didn’t want to understand. Maybe he wasn’t even listening to what that fussy, funny man who’d knotted a yellow tie over a brown checked shirt was babbling without pause. However, an observant person might have noticed that the doctor from time to time smiled into his moustache. And not because every word, every gesture of the man who’d brought the patient rose to comedy. But, rather, because the light-haired man lying on the gurney was slender and remarkably tall. And it’s possible that the contrast in appearance between these two reminded the doctor of the very saddest pages of the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
When they reached the doors of the operating room, one of the men wearing a white lab coat blocked the path of the funny man in the yellow tie.
“Let him in,” said the doctor. “It seems he has something to say. Let him have his say.”
Although the operating room was considerably smaller than the corridor, all the same it turned out to be a spacious room with a high ceiling and gigantic windows. The operating table standing directly in the center resembled the linen-covered gurney on which they conveyed the patient. The two men in white lab coats delivering the gurney that bore the patient lifted him, laid him on the table, glanced at the doctor for permission, and silently left the operating room.
“Peroxide!” said the surgeon loudly to the nurses, rolling up the sleeves of his lab coat. “Bring it here, wipe off his face.” Looking at the patient covered in blood, he muttered an oath, and turning to the man’s companion, he asked, “Who did this to him?”
“I already told you, Doctor: yerazy. Those bastard refugees arriving from Armenia. It wasn’t enough to smash his face. They also knocked him to the ground like wild animals and began beating him in the stomach. It’s a good thing, Doctor, that I arrived in time. I went out this morning to get some air in the city. I’m coming down from that cursed place they call the Parapet when I see five or six mustachioed scoundrels beating up a man at the edge of the fountain. And people just standing by and watching in silence . . .” Then he suddenly hesitated. His lips continued to move, but the words, it seems, died in his throat.
“There’s no more peroxide, Doctor,” said one of the nurses in an apologetic voice, as quietly as possible. (One of them was elderly, the other quite young.)
“There should be some alcohol,” said the surgeon without hope.
“No, Doctor. Everything we had was used up yesterday.”
“Fine, clean him with water. Don’t use too much manganese.” The doctor washed his hands with soap at the sink standing in the corner of the room and then went up and stood in front of the operating table. “Take everything off of him. Leave only his underwear.”
The patient—his face, nose, chin, the collar of his orange wool shirt, the lapels of his bluish jacket covered in scarlet blood—was lying so calmly on the operating table that it was as if his most evil enemy rather than he himself had been beaten up in the aforementioned Parapet Square. He was sleeping deeply, although frequent, harsh moans escaped from his chest. Not only did he sleep but, apparently, also dreamed, and it seemed that his dreams gave him great satisfaction.
While the women washed the dried blood off the patient’s face, the doctor checked his pulse. When the nurses had stripped the patient, he began to examine him attentively, as if compiling a report for himself or dictating to someone.
“Put two stitches in his lower lip. No fractures noted in the area of the jaw. Two dislocations in the left hand at the elbow and wrist. Two fingers dislocated on the right hand: the thumb and middle finger. Severe muscle trauma in the left leg. A fractured kneecap in the right leg. No serious anomalies noted in the back, rib cage, or spine. No skull fractures observed.” The doctor fell silent and again cursed angrily. “A concussion!” He said this loudly for some reason and in Russian, then pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his trousers, slowly wiped the sweat from his brow, and added in Russian, “A brutal beating!”
After every word the doctor said, the face of the man who’d brought the patient reflected all his feelings, all his pain and suffering. With difficulty, he held himself together, so as not to burst out sobbing. When the doctor had finished his exam, the man’s self-possession was also at an end. He wept violently, like an aggrieved child.
The eyes of one of the women in the white lab coats standing beside the operating table (the younger one) filled with tears. The elderly nurse was also upset and shook her head woefully. And the doctor was very sorry for the man. He began to calm him.
“There, there, this isn’t good . . . It’s nothing terrible. In fifteen days your friend will be like new, I’ll make a beauty out of him.” Lowering his head, he thought a bit and then again lifted his head and asked cautiously, “So, you say this man is Armenian?”
The eyes of our comic hero bulged in surprise.
“Really, you don’t know him?! You don’t know Sadai Sadygly? The pride of Azerbaijani theater! Our number one artist! You really don’t know this great master, Doctor? You haven’t even seen him on television? You’ve even seen me on television more than once, Doctor. Maybe you just don’t remember—Nuvarish Karabakhly, a well-known actor of comic roles. Maybe you don’t know me. I’m not offended by that. But there’s no one who doesn’t know Sadai Sadygly. You see, no one else in the world has played Hamlet, Othello, Aidyn, and Kefli Iskender like he has.”
“I recognized you immediately,” said the young nurse with unconcealed pride.
“I’ve often seen the two of you on television,” said her elderly colleague, for some reason a bit coquettishly. “But Dr. Farzani isn’t to blame. He lived more than thirty years in Moscow, and it hasn’t been three years since he returned to Baku.”
Understanding now why the doctor didn’t recognize him or Sadai Sadygly, the artist calmed down at once. And that the nurses, having recognized them immediately, hadn’t let on, Nuvarish Karabakhly put down to the fact that they’d certainly feared the information would have been poorly received by the doctor.
Nuvarish Karabakhly guessed that all his words had gone in one of the doctor’s ears and out the other. Either the doctor had been too immersed in his own thoughts or else he, Nuvarish Karabakhly, had been unable to find the necessary words in his nervous state. Therefore, he tried to focus as much as possible and resolved to recount everything that had happened on the Parapet again, more simply and basically.
“It was like this, Doctor: today I was walking around the city. What time it was, I can’t say exactly—maybe ten, maybe eleven. On the Parapet there’s a place with a fountain—you’ve probably seen it. And suddenly a terrible shriek came from there. As if someone was howling. It turns out it was an old Armenian. He’d gone out to buy bread, and there he fell into the hands of the yerazy. Right in his housecoat! And slippers. When I got to the place, the unfortunate man was already dead and had been thrown into the pool. But his eyes were open, Doctor, and he was looking straight at me. I personally didn’t see how they killed him. But people who were there earlier said that at first they threw the Armenian into the pool, right into the frozen water. He was an old man, he couldn’t stay in the water. He wanted to climb out. And those guys were standing at the edge of the pool, kicking him, until they kicked him to death. And Sadai Sadygly, God help him, always has trouble circling around his head. Otherwise, how could he have been the one to show up at that moment in that cursed place? He couldn’t hold back, that’s what happened! He’s an artist, a humane person. His heart couldn’t bear it. He ran to help. And how could those yerazy know who and what he is? They’ve just arrived, they’re not from here. So, they took him for an Armenian and attacked like wild animals. If I’d been just a minute later, they’d have sent him to join the old Armenian. But God spared him—he remained alive. I beg you, Doctor, save him. The life of that great person is now in your hands.” With these pathetic words, the artist finished his speech.
The doctor hurried to start the operation. But it seemed that some necessary item was missing.
Besides, the story of the artist had apparently shaken him. He didn’t see anything particularly unusual in the fact that the Hamlet-Othello-Kefli-Iskender lying unconscious on the operating table had been trying to save an old Armenian. In the doctor’s opinion, anyone who considered himself a human being would have behaved the same way. However, the inhabitants of the city, as if they’d come to an understanding about it, were trying to steer clear of what’s called humaneness. It seemed it was no longer worth their while to even pretend to be human beings.
Just ten or fifteen days previously in that same operating room, Dr. Farzani had performed a very complicated operation on an Armenian girl of fourteen or fifteen who, by God knows what miracle, had been brought to the hospital.
In the metro, where it’s always full of people, a few Azerbaijani women had attacked her and, watched by hundreds of people, inflicted savage punishment. And just a few days before that, some poet-degenerate had burst into the hospital and beaten up a doctor who’d worked in the cardiology department for forty years, driving him out of his office just because he’d had the misfortune to be born Armenian. After that, not a single Armenian remained at the hospital—neither doctors nor members of the supporting staff. Some had hidden at home, some had left Baku forever.
“Numaish muallim, it’s as the Persians say: mesele melum est, the issue is clear,” the doctor said in a cheerful voice that was not at all in concert with his obvious bad mood, shifting his surgical instruments.
Nuvarish Karabakhly wasn’t offended that the doctor had mangled his name (a person who’d lived more than thirty years in Moscow had full right to do that), but he didn’t fail to correct him:
“Who is Nuvarish Karabakhly, Doctor?” he said. “An ordinary actor. Hundreds of Nuvarish Karabakhlys aren’t worth the little finger of Sadai Sadygly. It would have been better if those scoundrels had beaten me in his stead.”
“Is he also from Karabakh?” asked the doctor, checking the patient’s pulse again.
“No, of course not, Doctor. I’m not from Karabakh either. Karabakhly is just my stage name—I’m originally from Kiurdamir. And Sadai Sadygly was born in Nakhchivan, a place in the Ordubad region, the village of Aylis. A very ancient village, Doctor, although I’ve never been there myself. They say at one time many Armenians lived there. It seems seven or eight of their churches are standing there to this day. Apparently, those Armenians were very smart, good people. And Sadai Sadygly is the kind of person, Doctor, that even if the world turned upside down, he wouldn’t call white black. He’s suffered for his outspokenness many times already, but he hasn’t learned anything. In a couple of months he’ll turn fifty, but he remains a ten-year-old boy. He says what’s on his mind. He can’t even occasionally be silent, even in such dangerous times. He says it’s not the Armenians but we ourselves who are bad. And he isn’t afraid. He says it everywhere, all the time, in the theater and in the tearooms.”
Dr. Farzani, his eyes widening, looked in the patient’s face, this time with a kind of special interest. It was as if he’d just now seen him for the first time. The women, who’d been preserving a dead silence, suddenly began whispering in a lively way about something. Farzani took Nuvarish Karabakhly firmly by the arm and, leading him to the door, said:
“Well, young man, there’s nothing more for you to do here. Go sit in the corridor, rest. And if you want, go home, drink a shot of vodka as needed, and topple into bed. Then come back if you want to. This isn’t cutting out an appendix, my friend. A full overhaul is necessary here, which will take three or four hours. Don’t worry. Your friend will live. I’ll make such an Othello of him that Desdemona will faint with joy.”
With these words, the doctor escorted the artist into the corridor and closed the door behind him.
Excerpted from Farewell, Aylis by Akram Aylisli, published by Academic Studies Press. Copyright © 2018 by Akram Aylisli. Translation copyright © 2018 by Katherine E. Young. By arrangement with the publisher.