by Hans Joseph Fellmann
Life is not panning out exactly as Californian Johann Felmanstien thought it would, so with nothing to lose and possibly lots to gain, he applies to join the Peace Corps and is accepted. The country chosen for his two-year English teaching stint is Turkmenistan in Central Asia, a country that is largely desert and adheres to a totalitarian regime….
Saving Jahan is, on the surface, an absolute riot to read. Immediately engaging, outrageously amusing and incredibly interesting. It’s possibly not a book for the easily offended; Felmanstien and his Peace Corps buddies have a ruthless capacity for alcohol and its consequent debauchery. This combined with fairly non-existent amenities in the remote village to which he is posted does result in some eye-wateringly entertaining passages.
Throughout, the writing is refreshingly candid. Felmanstien is searingly forthright in describing his own feelings, actions, and how he perceives those around him. He does so with a singular, brutal honesty which makes this book compelling and very funny. However, this is only one layer of the novel, scratch the surface and there are a few more subtly operating.
The prose is slick and perceptive, sometimes a well-chosen sentence burns through a scene that another writer would devote a chapter too. Alongside the focus, a seam of poetry runs through the entire narrative, trailing poignancy in its wake and alerting the reader to the painful self-awareness, doubt and loathing that lurks within Felmanstien. This is horribly apparent when he returns to the US for Christmas and repeatedly manifests itself in introspective bouts laced with heavy drinking during his time in Turkmenistan.
What is slightly downplayed in Saving Jahan, and which cannot be underestimated, is the inherent gift that Fellmann/Felmanstien possesses for linguistics; the mastery of which goes some way to explain the wonderful way he manipulates words. His writing is punctuated with sharply poetic metaphors that are uniquely lovely, ‘fresh as a snapped pickle’ is one such example.
Notwithstanding, this is also a book about Turkmenistan and its people. Although there are gorgeous descriptive passages, Felmanstien lets the Turkmen and women speak for themselves. It is through his discussions with them that the reader is educated from differing points of view. The dialogue illustrating these perspectives was as authentic and realised as the individuals themselves. The conversations cleverly provide the majority of the characters’ exposition and despite Felmanstien’s occasional irreverence and humorous asides, he demonstrates an innate cultural respect for the Turkmenistan people tempered with honest observation.
His Peace Corps friends are also nicely depicted; Fellmann is adept in knowing who adds depth and who adds comedy value. Brooke was the standout; so very damaged yet somehow childlike in her capacity for excitement and unwavering loyalty.
Amid the culture shocks and carnage, the reader is given the sub-plot with Jahan which begins to blossom and gather momentum as the novel enters the last half. The scenes with her are masterful in their sublime structure. Softly beguiling yet underscored with futility and frustration. Johann and Jahan’s exchanges ache with the weight of what is not said or done. Technically, they slow the pace, provide reader intrigue and give the narrative a guiding purpose as well as Johann himself. The ending between them is beautifully ambiguous and shot through with pathos.
Part travel memoir with an antic vibe, part profound commentary on the human condition, Saving Jahan is highly recommended.