Ilya Odegov - Old Fazyl's Advice
It is necessary to assume that when you provide advice to a child that they will heed the warnings and obey. Necessary, mind – not sensible. We provide advice in order for it to be followed, though of course this is so rarely the case. Instead, the mistakes that we made are made again, the problems of the world replicated anew with each maturing generation.
Ilya Odegov's Old Fazyl's Advice (trans. Rohan Kamicheril) subverts this concept somewhat. In the beginning the story, “Old Fazyl” provides some advice to a young girl, Hania:
“One ought not to cause offense to people,” said Old Fazyl. “I try never to offend anyone. And one ought not to quarrel with people; it is dangerous to speak unkindly to them. Even if you are their master, you must not curse them, especially if they do not consider themselves guilty.”
“Because God will punish you?” asked little Hania.
“God’s punishment comes through the hands of the insulted,” said Fazyl, sighing. “Well, now go on, run off home. Listen, your mother is calling for you.”
Sensible, no? And the girl, who asks but a single question, seems to absorb what he has said. Later, she is bathing naked in a river when she spies an unknown man. Rather than scream or run she instead remember Old Fazyl's advice and considers that, should punishment be necessary, then it will occur. God will sort it out.
The man, named Bahadur, is not interested in rape but information; he gives the girl a gift and asks for her mother by name. Hania, confused but convinced that justice will, if necessary, prevail, leads Bahadur to her mother who is, we discovered, both saddened and pleased to see him. The reader, with the wisdom of youth, knows what Hania does not – this Bahadur man is certainly Hania's mother's lover, and is almost guaranteed to be Hania's father.
But for Hania – a catastrophe. The man was nice to her, but now he is nice to her mother. What can she do?
And then she remembers the advice of Old Fazyl, and instead decides that shewill provide the punishment that “comes through the hands of the insulted”. Calamity ensues.
Odegov's story moves along at a brisk pace, though given its structure as an inverted folk tale it should, I think, be shorter than it is, and quicker than it is. Too much time is given to Hania's thoughts when she should instead remain a pure cipher for the purposes of the story's message. Brevity is not always necessary in a story, but one as tightly constructed as this, and with such a clear arc – from proverb to conflict to inversion of the proverb – there is little room for superfluous detail, and unfortunately there is a shade too much here.
Nevertheless, Old Fazyl's Advice reads well, and Odegov plays nicely with our expectation by inverting what “should” occur within such a story. And the piece, no doubt set somewhere in Kazakhstan (the country where the author is from), certainly benefits from the exoticism provided by this relatively unknown (or at least it is to me) nation.
So, Old Fazyl's Advice achieves the laudable goal of engendering curiosity within me to further discover the author's works. His prose has won awards and has been published in both Russia and Kazakhstan. While this story is not, perhaps, strong enough to garner a following in the English-speaking world, it should be, I hope, enough to encourage more of his work in translation.
Old Fazyl's Advice by Ilya Odegov is a short story from Words Without Borders' September 2012 edition, Writing From the Silk Road issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Words Without Borders review series:
---May 2011: Writing From Afghanistan
---January 2011: The Work Force
---October 2010: Beyond Borges: Argentina Now
---August 2010: Writing From Hungary
Index of short stories under review