Avelum by Otar Chiladze
Journey to Karabakh by Aka Morchiladze
Adibas by Zaza Burchuladze
When a small but strategic country with a rich literary history receives its first credible contemporary translations, one feels a new level of international companionship has been reached. The last couple of years have finally allowed us to say this safely about Georgia – a nation, which, prior to the time of Shakespeare, possessed a literary inheritance almost comparable to that of England.
For the 70 years until 1991, Georgia had been subsumed into the Soviet Union and more or less disappeared from the world stage. Mostly it flickered in and out of international consciousness via references in 19th century Russian literature. Mikhail Lermontov's Hero of Our Time opens on the Georgian Military Highway; his Romantic poem The Demon is set there, and the area often features in Pushkin and Tolstoy's work.
But its native writers were rarely allowed to reach out of their mountain fastness – until independence in the 1990s, when the Russian language began its rapid decline in the Caucasus.
Monument to Alexander Pushkin reads 'I have known no pleasure more luxurious than the baths of Tbilisi' (c) Maxim Edwards
This new doorway into a culture is useful on many levels.
As a result, this new doorway into a culture is useful on many levels, particularly for such a famously unpredictable nation whose political twists and turns love to confound the experts; witness the victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party in the October 2012 parliamentary election.
Watched intensely by the international community but predicted by no one, this single result – Georgia’s first genuinely democratic change of government – shifted the strategic weather vane in the Caucasus and put an end to the decaying era of former President Mikhiel Saakashvili.
In cases like this, literature could have helped the experts, both homegrown and international. Anyone reading Otar Chiladze's depictions of the proudly emotional Georgian national character in his powerful fifth novel Avelum (1995) would not have been so surprised to see the tarmac of Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue fill with yet another sea of humanity on 1 October 2012.
The novel is an earnest, Georgian investigation into the concept of freedom, both personal and political – in a nation where such quests so often manifest on the streets. The main character’s name ‘Avelum,’ is claimed as the Sumerian word for ‘freedom’ – implying the timelessness of the search. He hunts it out everywhere, but being a poet, particularly through the medium of love. He is provided with a wife in Georgia, a lover in Moscow and he sires a child with his French mistress. But none of these grasps at happiness work; nor the opportunities offered by each of their countries – the West is depicted as merely a different version of the ‘prison’ into which he was born. He is also made to witness the March 1956 demonstrations in Tbilisi as a young man, then the Perestroika demonstrations in April 1989 as a parent. Both resulted in savage massacres by the Soviet authorities, but in the latter case, followed by the arrival of a political 'freedom' when Georgia became a sovereign country in 1991.
The rapidly ensuing civil war is presented as an example of what happens when the emotions unleashed by sudden liberation land on a society unprepared to absorb them. In the demonstrations leading up to the 9 April 1989 massacre, Avelum describes his daughter, ‘little Katie’s’ instinctive sense of the concept but without any of its accompanying knowledge, which he, as her flawed parent, frustratedly can’t find a way to provide.
'She never even hinted, 'I can't understand, could you explain.' Quite the opposite; she reacted to everything the same way: 'I knew anyway, so why ask.' She couldn't wait to attach artificial wings to her shoulders … She waved her homemade flag like a wing and leapt onto a tank.'
This quest to become either a hero or a martyr is a significant element in the Georgian character.
This quest to become either a hero or a martyr is a significant element in the Georgian character, but like all impulses, requires an education. The narrator’s mind tumbles through a series of brilliant rants in which the multiple voices in his head (and by inference Georgia's) start arguing against each other as a delirious inner monologue.
While perhaps confusing for readers unfamiliar with recent Georgian history, together the voices make an eerie kind of sense. They superbly articulate the feelings spinning round the nation at the time of its writing (the early 1990s) and serve as a check-list for all the doubts, suspicions, cynicism, wild hopes accompanying the popular ideas of freedom, or one could even say the then ‘Georgian dream,’ in the sense of an American Dream. Each page seems to carry a memorable line connected to one of these emotions – 'Even the earth's rotation is against us …' on page 212. It is no surprise that the original Georgian version was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1999.
But the country's democratic change of government in October 2012 shows that Childaze’s concept has indeed taken on some education. Confounding many observers again, Saakashvili did not send troops onto the streets and cling onto power, but gracefully handed over the reins to a rival more adept in his understanding of the voices in Avelum's head.
For the English version we must thank the redoubtable Donald Rayfield and his Garnet Press, who with a bit of help from the Georgian Ministry of Culture’s book translation programme, provided the first English translation in 2013.
These translation projects are vital for nations like Georgia, much of whose talent lies concealed behind a complex, and in this case, non Indo-European language and script. Until now, publishing had been a very local affair in Georgia, with the occasional tantalising clue leaking out, usually via Russia. Until the end of the Soviet Union most British people’s knowledge of Georgia as a country only began in 1982 when the Rustaveli Theatre presented its extraordinary, burlesque version of Richard III at London’s Roundhouse.
This led to subsequent invitations: the Tumanishvili's Theatre's Midsummer Night's Dream and a no less compelling Don Juan at Edinburgh. All these hinted at an emotional intelligence struggling to emerge out of all the emotion.
Journey to Karabakh
Some of this can be witnessed in another important Georgian novel given to the outside world via the Book Translation programme – Journey to Karabakh by Aka Morchiladze.
Written around the same period as Avelum, but by a writer not much older than Avelum’s daughter, this far shorter modern fable of the Caucasus is excellently translated by Elizabeth Highway and published by Dalkey Archive Press.
Georgian author Zaza Burchaladze. CC Ikeshel
This is a gripping tale, right from the first page when the narrator tells us he's somehow been persuaded into a crazy journey across the southern Caucasus. The reader is then carried along in a delightful carriage of Georgian charm (in fact a mud-splattered, bullet-ridden Lada) into the heart of an absolutely appalling situation – the Armenia-Azerbaiiajan war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The wily yet helpless 24-year-old narrator, Gio, with his 'completely stupid' friend Goglik, finds himself driving his father's car accidentally into a war zone that would generate over a million refugees. Not only a superb metaphor, the slapstick undertone demonstrates that remarkable Georgian ability to carry optimism into the blackest of predicaments.
It is also a reminder that in the Caucasus there is often nothing better than a good joke, or failing that a great disaster. But the people Gio encounters in his unenthusiastic search for drugs – the friendly, money-sniffing Azeri and Armenian paramilitaries – present for any outsider a vivid snapshot of the southern Caucasian nationalities, not always seen at their best.
In the Caucasus there is often nothing better than a good joke, or failing that a great disaster.
Which brings up the topic of Georgia's war with Russia in August 2008. Reading Journey to Karabakh, it sometimes seems that this enduring hunger for drama played a role in the calamity. Although both sides will hotly deny it, it’s hard not to detect the urge for a scrap in the two opposing governments.
The theory receives a boost with the discovery that afterwards the Saakashvili regime funded a major feature film about the disaster Five Days of War, in which Andy Garcia plays Mikhiel Saakashvili, albeit with a quite surreal Russian accent. One wonders what Otar Childaze would have made of that.
Unfortunately, Chiladze died just too soon, but another young Georgian writer in the Dalkey Archive series, Zaza Burchuladze, did have a go.
His novel Adibas is set during those actual five days of war, in which the main character is a vacuous materialist and sex maniac. Written in the first person, the novel presents the worst kind of new Georgian male cavorting around Tbilisi as the Russian tanks bear down on the city (in reality they stopped 50km short having made their point), even accepting a part in a Pepsi commercial at the moment of greatest crisis. While there is definitely a metaphor here too, the book’s sustained attack on US-style consumerism never really shows the reader anything beyond it. But the anger is real and such a reaction helps articulate many Georgians’ sense of intense shame and frustration at this war. And one feels a respect for the author because he wrote it at a time when Saakashvili was still president and his minister of interior, Vano Merabishvili, was sending government opponents to jail like there was no tomorrow. There could be some Andy Garcia-style irony in the fact that Vano himself now languishes in one of his own jails.
Meanwhile, one truly hopes that the periods of civil war may be over, even if the external forces keep pushing their fingers across Georgia's borders – Western consumerism no less than the old Russian colonial dream. As the new Georgian government struggles to carve out a middle-path between the two, one recalls Otar Chiladze’s words in Avelum, written back in the dark mid-1990s:
'The idea of freedom has only just been born in the labyrinth, which is why there is such a strong smell of blood and tears. Blood and tears are candles, bread and wings for the soul. Yet true freedom is, I expect, what doesn't need wings to fly.'