A lifetime of achievements came tumbling down this week for Azerbaijani author Akram Aylisli, who was stripped of his honorary titles and pension after writing a novel, "Stone Dreams," casting regional rival Armenia in a sympathetic light.
But amid the furor over Aylisli's work, a quieter conversation has also emerged, with many Azerbaijanis calling for steps toward peace with Armenia.
The relationship between Baku and Yerevan is a deeply antagonistic one, plagued by festering anger over the six-year war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority separatist region located within Azerbaijani territory.
"Stone Dreams," published recently in the Russian literary journal "Druzhba narodov" -- which, ironically, translates as "Friendship of the Peoples" -- stirred resentment by depicting only the conflict's Azerbaijani attacks against Armenians, notably pogroms in Baku and Sumgait. Incidents of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijanis, such as the February 1992 Khojaly massacre, are conspicuously absent.
But even some Azerbaijanis who suffered during the war have come forward to praise Aylisli's book -- including Gunel Movlud, a 31-year-old Azerbaijani poet and Karabakh refugee.
"This novel can work in Azerbaijan's favor. Of course, it's his own opinion. Maybe what he says isn't the truth, maybe it is. But this novel reflects something. It shows that we're a civilized nation that can accept responsibility for our part in things," Movlud said.
Many of Aylisli's defenders appear to be motivated, in part, by the depths of the animosity now directed at one of the country's most respected writers.
After a week of protests, book burnings, and calls for Aylisli to give up his citizenship, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev upped the ante, issuing a formal decree stripping the 75-year-old writer of his honorary title as "People's Writer" and dropping a monthly $1,250 presidential pension he had received since 2002.
Aliyev argued the measures were a just punishment "for distorting facts in Azerbaijani history and insulting the feelings of the Azerbaijani people." But Aylisli -- whose dozens of novels and plays before "Stone Dreams" never touched on the Armenia issue -- accused the government of crossing a line in attacking his entire body of work.
"I didn't ask them to give me that title. And they didn't give it to me for this novel. They gave it to me for my other works. So what does it mean? They're canceling out my other books? I really didn't expect anything like this decree," Aylisli said.
The crackdown has extended further, with Aylisli's son, a powerful customs official, being asked to resign from his post and Baku's National Drama Theater canceling an anticipated production of Aylisli's play "Don't Love Me."
The severity of the censure may be tied to Aylisli's open criticism of Baku's ruling elite. In addition to its depictions of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, "Stone Dreams" paints a thinly veiled portrait of Aliyev's father and predecessor as president, Heydar, as a corrupt official who buys the loyalty of Baku's intelligentsia with free apartments. And a more recent manuscript, "Big Traffic Jam," which has only appeared in samizdat form, is rumored to subject both Aliyevs to a scathing satirical critique.
But the groundswell of support for Aylisli has forced even the government to edge away from its normally pugilistic stance on Yerevan.
Many Azerbaijanis were astonished February 7 when the country's public television station broadcast a live debate on the Armenia question. The debate featured many contentious exchanges, like this one between Aylisli and ruling-party lawmaker Musa Guliyev:
Guliyev: You wrote something that can be used as Armenian propaganda. They're saying, "Look, Azeris are barbarians. We can't live with them."
Aylisli: You do that! Every single day you curse Armenians, but then you turn around and tell them that we should live together.
The issue has been closely watched in Armenia, where Aylisli's privations have provided local media with a fresh opportunity to criticize the Azerbaijani regime.
"Agos," the Turkish-based newspaper formerly run by the slain Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, wrote a scathing account of the affair, noting that Aylisli's plays had been a feature of Armenia's Soviet-era theater scene and quoting the writer's own assertion that "Stone Dreams" was a message to Armenians that "it's not the end" and "we can live together."
Levon Ananian, the chairman of Armenia's Union of Writers, on February 8 offered a formal response to the controversy, saying: "Kudos to our Azerbaijani colleague! He is that brave man who blazes the trail, the trail that leads to repentance through truth." Ananian added that "not only Armenians, but also Russians, all people that are concerned about the future of the country...should share this braveness."
It remains to be seen, however, whether any Armenian writer will rise to a challenge posed by Aylisli to his literary counterparts across the border. Speaking last week, Aylisli said he deliberately chose to focus on Azerbaijani violence and that it was the "job of Armenian writers" to follow suit.
"It's not possible for any people to commit such cruelties and not write about it," he added.
Back in Azerbaijan, there are those who wish Aylisli had chosen to portray both sides of the conflict. Rustam Behrudi, an Azerbaijani poet, says Baku has gone overboard in its attack on the novelist, particularly at a time when it is conducting a significant crackdown against antigovernment protesters and political opponents.
At the same time, Behrudi says Aylisli erred in representing only one side of the story. Any story of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, he says, should portray the actions and sufferings of both.
"Azerbaijan has so many big problems. But instead of solving those problems, they're attacking a writer for his novel. What is literature about? It's about freedom of expression, about liberty," Behrudi says.
"I don't think it's right to attack a writer like this. At the same time, I disagree with the author about some parts of the novel. If an Armenian was beaten and killed in Baku, and a writer writes about it, he should also talk about the events that caused the attack."
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in Prague and Baku by Azerbaijani Service correspondents Rovshan Gambirov, Shahnaz Beylergizi, Sevda Ismayilli, Kebiran Dilaverli, and Turkhan Kerimovand. Gayane Danielyan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service also contributed to this report from Yerevan.