Fiction » Contemporary Fiction

Georgian Literature

recommended by Gvantsa Jobava

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

How does a country left in ruins by 70 years of Soviet oppression rebuild its literature? It starts from scratch and breaks all the rules. Gvantsa Jobava reveals the riches of Georgian literature, from 12th-century feminist epics to radical, experimental accounts of a post-Independence underworld

  • 1

    The Knight in the Panther Skin
    by Lyn Coffin (translator) & Shota Rustaveli

  • 2

    Kvachi
    by Donald Rayfield (Translator) & Mikheil Javakhishvili

  • 3

    A Man Was Going Down the Road
    by Donald Rayfield (Translator) & Otar Chiladze

  • The Lame Doll

    4

    The Lame Doll
    by Ani Kopaliani (translator), Besik Kharanauli & Timothy Kercher (translator)

  • The Cushion

    5

    The Cushion
    by Elizabeth Heighway (translator), Irakli Samsonadze & Philip Price (translator)

How does a country left in ruins by 70 years of Soviet oppression rebuild its literature? It starts from scratch and breaks all the rules. Gvantsa Jobava reveals the riches of Georgian literature, from 12th-century feminist epics to radical, experimental accounts of a post-Independence underworld

Gvantsa Jobava

Gvantsa Jobava is Chair of the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association and international projects manager and Editor at Intelekti Publishing. She is the author of a poetry collection, Cardiogram, and the translator, from English into Georgian, of books including John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. She is the co-editor, with Becca Parkinson, of The Book of Tbilisi, and head of the publishing programme for Georgia's Guest of Honour presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018.

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I hate the expression ‘having a moment’ but Georgia does seem to be attracting more people than, perhaps, it used to. Does Georgia’s being the market focus at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair suggest that the literature is as attractive a proposition as the food, the wine, the landscape…?

Georgian cuisine, wine, and nature speak the international language and require no translation—the value of these things is immediately perceptible. Unfortunately, this is hardly true of Georgian literature: the unique Georgian script was included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2015, and, at the Book Fair, this feeds into our motto, “Georgia Made by Characters”. However, the script also means that only about 3.5 million citizens of Georgia (and about a million Georgian emigrants throughout the world) get to read the country’s literature in the original. For the rest of the world, the language remains incomprehensible and distant.

“In Georgia, literature has always been one of the most significant and efficient weapons”

We Georgians take pride in our tourist appeal, yet we have always had an ambition to be known through our artistic culture—which inevitably must include our literature. In this respect, Georgian literature has undertaken a mission of major significance: it was extremely hard to assure others, and especially the government, that it was worth—for a country liberated from the Soviet grip just a few decades ago—prioritizing the support and promotion of Georgian literature and its translation. The trust put in us by the Frankfurt Book Fair further strengthened our confidence and has helped to reassure the Georgian authorities that their investment in the translation of Georgian literature will not be wasted. As a result, over the past eight years, a great number of Georgian books have been translated and published in various languages, with about 200 of them being in German. The interest shown by Germany also encouraged publishers from other countries—presently, Georgian books are being translated to English, French, Chinese, Polish, Ukrainian, Arabian, Italian and Albanian languages among others. Thus, in reply to your question on whether there is a growing interest in our literature, we’re on the right track!

Is there a thriving literary scene, then?

It has never been as thriving as it is today, and it’s becoming increasingly dynamic, with Georgian writers also travelling abroad to attend the presentations of foreign editions of their own works, speaking at festivals, and so on. Of course, publishers are no less active than the writers, and both play an important public role in Georgian society, being frequently heard at street protests and meetings, and on TV and radio programmes.

Having suffered under the rule of the Soviet ideology for 70 years, until independence in 1991, the country is still trying to get rid of the remnants of that system, and at this stage of transition, generational gaps and differences in mentality have become more evident. Literary experiments and provocative performances have become increasingly prominent since independence, and this is hardly surprising. If one looks at the history of Georgian literature, an interesting fact will necessarily attract attention: a hagiographic work on the martyrdom and death of Holy Queen Shushanik, dating to as early as the fifth century and considered the first Georgian novel, tells the story of a woman who refuses to obey her husband due to religious differences. Literature has always been one of the most significant and efficient weapons.

Presumably you set out to give a sense of this chequered past, and indeed present, in your collection of Georgian short stories, The Book of Tbilisi?

As the co-editor, working with Becca Parkinson at Comma Press, the selection of the ten stories was not a simple task. I was looking for texts and styles that would contrast with each other, not only in terms of the narrative style, but the gender and age of the authors. We tried to focus on a diversity of themes, too, to portray the past and present of our city, viewed from multiple perspectives. So we’ve ended up with a kind of kaleidoscopic portrait. Of course, any other editors would have made a different selection: ours tends to draw on sad characters, full of a sense of inner tragedy while simultaneously striving for a happier life—and perhaps they will succeed. I think this neatly illustrates Georgia over the past few decades.

Do most people read Georgian books or is the bulk of book sales down to foreign works in translation?

Translation has a long history here. Georgian monks ran active and extensive literary and translating programmes in churches and monasteries as early as the tenth century. Translation did not cease during the Soviet period despite the fact that the Soviet authorities decided what could and couldn’t be translated: first a work would be translated into Russian and only after that could other Soviet countries translate it into their own languages—very often in fact, the book would be translated from the Russian translation of the original work, so the end result had an extra stage of remove.

In recent years, however, Georgian publishers have taken the reins. In most cases, translations of world bestsellers appear almost immediately upon publication of the original works, and it’s true that most Georgian readers do prefer translated literature. Georgian classic authors are also widely popular, though. There is a growing interest in contemporary Georgian literature, too, and increasingly books by contemporary Georgian authors fall into the list of national bestsellers alongside imported works.

Is the scene—that is, the activity of literature—mostly centred on the capital, Tbilisi?

Almost each region of Georgia has a group of specially admired and respected writers; however, Tbilisi remains the major centre of literary activity (in fact, the capital is the centre of most activities in the country). Tbilisi seems to be large and welcoming enough to accept everyone—it has always been famous as an exceptionally tolerant, multi-ethnic city. In addition to the fact that people from various regions of Georgia always strove to move to the capital, the Georgian population has long peacefully coexisted with the Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Azerbaijani, Russians, Greeks, Iranians, and the Turkish. Today, the vast majority of people and especially youth still tend to move to Tbilisi—whether for higher education or career prospects. Everybody believes that our capital city provides the biggest opportunities for career development, and naturally, that goes for those wishing to make their names in literature, too.

With a few exceptions, such as Elizabeth Heighway’s edition for Dalkey Press, Contemporary Georgian Fiction (2012), not to mention the tireless efforts of Donald Rayfield (who translated one of the books we’re about to discuss, in fact), most people in the Anglophone world will know very little, or no Georgian literature. Why has so little been translated? I read somewhere that until quite recently there was no comprehensive dictionary of the Georgian language for translators to refer to?

It’s true, there really aren’t many works of Georgian literature translated into English. One of the first pieces to be translated to English was Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther Skin, first published in London in 1912, translated by Marjory Wardrope. In 2017, the Georgian Poezia Press published an excellent new version by the American poet and translator Lyn Coffin. And Dalkey Press, who you just mentioned, recently launched the Georgian Literature Series—thanks to them, the books of several contemporary Georgian writers became available in English for the first time. Donald Rayfield’s work has also been highly valuable. It is also worth noting that, currently, Rayfield and Rebecca Gould are working away to translate Vazha-Pshavela, a great poet and prose writer.

“I remember standing in front of the TV in 1989, at the age of three or four, my fists clenched tight, shouting ‘hail to Independent Georgia!’”

Recent years have also seen contemporary Georgian poets being published in English, including A House with No Doors, an anthology of Georgian women poets published by Francis Boutle Publishers. This year, Francis Boutle also brought out The Dictatorship of Poetry, a personal collection of poems by the contemporary poet Zurab Rtveliashvili. This short list cannot, of course, form a complete picture of what Georgian literature is. It’s just the beginning.

There are a number of reasons for the delay. The most important is, of course, to do with Soviet rule. During those 70 years, no law on copyright existed in the Soviet Union (including the Soviet Republic of Georgia). Accordingly, everything could be published and translated, if, of course, allowed by the relevant authorities in Moscow. Thus state-owned publishing houses in Georgia neither bought nor sold copyrights, and, in fact, did not have any business relationships with foreign (including English) publishing houses. Certainly, the same was not true of the relationships that the Georgian publishers formed with their foreign colleagues from other Soviet republics, and Georgian literature was actively translated and published into other languages of the USSR.

In addition, closed borders prevented students from receiving or enhancing their education abroad, and the specialists of foreign languages had no opportunity to travel to Europe or America, let alone stay there to improve their competence and qualifications; only very few people managed to do this. Translation of fiction requires a translator to be highly fluent in at least two languages, of course. So it’s impressive that within these strictures, Georgian translators still managed to produce descent translations of foreign literature. Translating from the Georgian language into European languages was a greater challenge, though, especially considering the absence of proper comprehensive dictionaries—the Comprehensive English-Georgian Dictionary was first developed in the mid-1990s by the Lexicographic Centre of Tbilisi State University, and, as of now, they have created printed editions, online versions and a parallel corpus.

There were still some exceptions, however, and even the Iron Curtain could not stand against the greatness of The Knight in the Panther Skin, which has been translated into about 60 languages.

Once Georgia regained independence in the 1990s extremely hard times followed: since then, we have lived through two wars with Russia, as a result of which our ‘northern neighbour’ occupied Abkhazia and Samachablo, leaving the small country without its oldest regions. The country had to be reborn from the ruins of the collapsed Soviet Union; we basically had to start from scratch. Considering the dire reality of that period, it was difficult to think about the translation of national literature—and yet we managed it. The fact that you and I are discussing Georgian literature today—and that you are interested in it—is, I believe, quite incredible.

Let’s talk about The Knight in the Panther Skin, then—the twelfth-century epic poem (we have it translated by Katharine Vivian) you’ve chosen as your first book. This is a very important national text—which might seem a little strange, given that it isn’t even set in Georgia.

Literary life in Georgia became particularly active in the 12th century, in the age of Shota Rustaveli, a genius Georgian poet and thinker. A great number of literature scholars all over the world consider Rustaveli one of the major representatives of the medieval period and his epic, one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. As I said, it’s been translated into some 60 languages. Georgians sometimes call it the second Bible.

“Even the Iron Curtain could not stand against the greatness of The Knight in the Panther Skin, which has been translated into about 60 languages”

Structurally, the poem consists of the prologue, body text, and the epilogue, and it is written in lines of 16 syllables (in addition to that, Rustaveli employs perfect rhyme for all four lines of each quatrain). The poem is particularly notable for many wise and philosophical aphorisms. About 160 manuscripts of The Knight in the Panther Skin have survived; the first printed edition, however, came in 1712, and it was edited and annotated by King Vakhtang VI of Kartli (in the eastern part of contemporary Georgia).

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It’s true that the poem goes beyond the boundary of Georgia to tell the story of Arabia and India. But scholars believe that the author was employing the common literary device of the mask—if you know a bit about that period in Georgian history, it is not difficult to perceive the historical reality of Rustaveli’s contemporary Georgia within the poem—to allow him to include the risky historical allusions or references, and liberal and humanist views and ideas he does. According to widespread opinion, the tales of the main female characters of the poem Tinatin and Nestan-Darejan bear close resemblance to two stories from the life of Queen Tamar, the only daughter of Giorgi the Third of Georgia: the first one is her coronation; the second, the proposal of marriage made by Sultan of Rúm. It is assumed that Shota Rustaveli cast himself in the roles of both Avtandil and Tariel, the two heros.

Do we know how all this was received at the time?

According to historical sources, The Knight in the Panther Skin was persecuted for centuries by both secular and clerical authorities. It is widely known that the author had to leave the country and find shelter in Jerusalem, at the Monastery of the Cross. The main reason must have been his humanist views: he was a man ahead of his time, a different thinker, who wrote of love and passion, equality, and friendship, putting human values above everything else, including social status, gender and origin.

Love, romantic and platonic, is one of the primary themes, isn’t it?

On the one hand, The Knight in the Panther Skin is a chivalry epic with dominant themes of love and friendship; on the other hand, however, the poem is laden with profoundly philosophical and psychological issues, concerning human life in general. Way back in the twelfth century, the poet was exploring liberal ideas and gender equality—take this line (as translated by Lyn Coffin): “Lion’s whelps are equally lions, though female or male they be.” The contemporary critic Levan Bregadze has called Shota Rustaveli “a true dissident of his time.”

Without giving away too much, can you give us a sense of the plot?

The story opens with the decision of the ageing King Rostevan of Arabia to crown his only daughter Tinatin in his own lifetime. Despite the fact that she is the queen (in Georgian, the word meaning ‘the ascension to the throne’ is literally translated as ‘to become a king’, regardless of the monarch’s gender), the young woman accepts the advances of her commander in chief, Avtandil, who is madly in love with her. While on a hunting competition, Avtandil and King Rostevan come across a strange, seemingly foreign young man sitting beside the river and bitterly crying. Later, on Tinatin’s request, Avtandil finds, and befriends the stranger, Tariel.

Tariel, who is revealed to have been a commander in chief of India’s military forces, tells Avtandil the sorrowful love story of himself and Nestan-Darejan, the only daughter of the King of India. Nestan’s parents decide to marry their daughter to another man but, on Nestan’s request, Tariel kills the bridegroom. Nestan’s punishment is severe and exemplary: her family has her locked in an ark and pushed out to sea to be lost forever. It is after a vain search for his beloved, when Tariel is broken, that Avtandil meets him and vows to help…

Is it true that until the early 1900s, a copy of The Knight formed part of the dowry for every bride, no matter how rich or poor?

Yes, it was a tradition in Georgia. We know that in past times it was required of a noble family to give either manuscript or printed versions of The Knight to their daughter as part of her dowry. The earliest data on this custom is preserved in documents from the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Furthermore, the custom does not seem to be entirely forgotten. More generally, though, there is hardly a family in Georgia that does not have at least one copy of Rustaveli’s poem.

The poem evokes an enlightened world, with a strong female ruler—how much should we read into this?

Respect of women has always been strong in Georgia, since the earliest times. The twelfth-century rule of Queen Tamar (or King Tamar, as she is generally referred to in Georgia) is commonly known as the Golden Age. It’s worth noting that, on her ascension to the throne, Queen Tamar abolished the death sentence, as well as the popular medieval use of torture. Gender equality is one of the most dominant themes in The Knight: a king, who gives the throne to his only daughter; a society that recognizes and respects the female ruler; strong and manipulative female characters (Tinatin and Nestan-Darejan are the ones who first speak of their love).

To come back to contemporary life, Georgian women today are more active than they have ever been. This is partly conditioned by the difficulties and poverty that our country went through in the late twentieth century. In Georgia, as in many other ex-Soviet countries, women had to carry the main burden of poverty. In the years of early independence, a great number of Georgian men died either during the state coup, or during the Russia-Georgia war; most of the surviving men broke down psychologically, or became addicted either to alcohol or to drugs. This is when women came to the stage, and they did their best to keep their families and—in a greater sense—their country alive; they traded in the streets, or went abroad to earn a living. At that time, most boys were attracted to street life, while studying was considered an activity for girls. This mentality changed over time, as the country developed, but it did allow women to increase their dominance in certain roles and functions. Certainly, gender inequality, family abuse and violence remain, as all over the world, but today more and more women manage to live independent and free lives in Georgia.

Your next choice is Kvachi (1924) by Mikheil Javakhishvili, translated by Donald Rayfield in 2015—it sounds like a raucous read.

Mikheil Javakhishvili is considered one of the main architects of 20th-century Georgian literature. Javakhishvili started out as a short story writer, and, later in his career, in 1924, he wrote his first, picaresque novel Kvachi Kvachantiradze, thus, laying a foundation for realism in Georgian literature. Rayfield’s translation, published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015, was listed by William Boyd among his “best holiday reads”, in the Guardian, so it seems people are finally catching on.

Kvachi is a great protagonist.

Yes, he’s often referred to as “the Georgian Felix Krull.” He’s a conman who lives in Stalin’s Russia and the book narrates his exciting and fantastic adventures. Kvachi, being an accomplished villain of rare wit, manages to take possession of other people’s property, money and fame by flawless cunning. His confidence tricks are not limited to Georgia alone, but reach St. Petersburg, Paris and even London: his wealth increases and so does the extent of his fraud. Murders, robbery (both of people and banks) and fraud are part of Kvachi’s every-day life. The crimes committed by him and a group of his subordinate swindlers and robbers lead to the misery and death of many people. He would sacrifice everything and everyone for his own personal gain and career success, without subsequent remorse or repentance.

“The novel illustrated the moral decline of the governing circles of the Russian Empire with great precision and truth—so, needless to say, it was banned”

As critics have suggested, at that time there would have been plenty of real prototypes in the Soviet Union for the author to draw inspiration from. These included Vasil Dumbadze, a Georgian aznauri (a Georgian term for the lowest rank of nobility) and financier, notorious for his adventures and a scandalous military career at the Ministry of War of the Russian Empire; Mikhail Andronikov, a Russian prince and adventurist; and Solomon Ashordia, a talented Georgian conman, famous for document falsification, who used forged bank documents to steal about five million Roubles from the Russian banks.

Kvachi’s grotesque image enabled Javakuishvili to point a finger at the social structure and system that produced such “heroes.” He also illustrated the moral decline of the governing circles of the Russian Empire with great precision and truth—so, needless to say, Kvachi and Javakhishvili’s other novels were banned in the Soviet Union.

The life of Mikheil Javakhishvili is itself an interesting story. He fell foul of Stalin, obviously…

If anyone of the great Georgian novelists had, and has, the potential of gaining worldwide recognition, it’s Mikheil Javakhishvili. In addition to being a writer, he was also a famous public and political figure, one of the leaders of the national liberation movement between 1921 and 1924. He was a great thinker and one of the leading journalists of his time.

From the start of his career in the early 1900s, he was extremely critical of the Russian Empire’s repressive tactics. He temporarily disappeared, slipping into exile to avoid persecution by the authorities, and went to study at a Parisian university; he travelled around Europe afterwards, and returned to Georgia in 1913. There, from around 1917, he became actively involved in the national movement, and became one of the founding members of the National-Democratic party. Remember that Georgia managed to gain independence and form a democratic republic, although it lasted only for three years (between 1918 and 1921), until the Bolsheviks invaded and occupied the country. Following the “sovietisation”, Javakhishvili was a member of the independence committee of Georgia between 1922 and 1924, and became actively involved in the planning and preparation of the 1924 rebellion.

You’d think all that organizing might not leave him much time to write wild picaresques.

Yes, but in fact it was around this time that his literary career—which had been mostly short stories beforehand—had a second flourishing. Javakhishvili published brilliant stories and novels in sequence. He wrote with equal interest and excitement about human nature, moral issues, and life under the rule of the newly established Soviet regime, a person’s duty to his family, his nation and motherland. More importantly, he managed to convey all that in a wonderfully expressive and realistic manner. A year from the completion of Kvachi Kvachantiradze, Javakhishvili composed another important novel, Jaqo’s Dispossessed, in which he contrasts an educated yet inert and passive man with a vulgar, illiterate, brutal man of action—he presents both as dangerous social phenomena.

He seems, in a sense, to have combined the best of both in his own work, though—I mean, his highly accomplished and intelligent writing was his mode of action.

Indeed and his fate was largely determined by his final realist novel, A Woman’s Burden, which, according to some critics, signalled that the writer, being no longer able to counter the oppression by the Soviet government, had broken down morally and spiritually and decided to write a text that would please the Soviets and save his life. Except Javakhishvili seemed unable to accomplish that heavy mission, and ended up doing quite the opposite, enraging the Bolshevik government even more. The Soviet ideologist Vladimr Ermolov condemned the novel, stating that the text portrayed Bolsheviks as terrorists in pre-revolutionary Georgia.

The authorities also began to suspect Javakhishvili of assisting a fellow activist, another wonderful Georgian author Grigol Robakidze, to emigrate to Germany. Eventually—after a further complication over the suicide of the poet Paolo Iashvili (whom Javakhishvili, much to the Soviet’s ire, said “seems to have been a true hero, braver than all of us”)—Javakhishvili was declared a spy and a deviant by the Presidium of the Union of Soviet Writers. Javakhishvili, now branded a counter-revolutionary terrorist, was arrested soon afterwards, mutilated in Lavrenti Beria’s presence and forced to sign an act of confession. That same year, in 1937, he was shot.

There is a striking passage in the memoirs of Javakhishvili’s daughter: following her father’s death, she found herself at a reception in Moscow, where she met Stalin. He asked her about her father, and she answered that her father had been shot. Stalin feigned surprise and said there must have been some mistake…

Had Stalin not almost entirely missed the work of your next writer, Otar Chiladze, by dying in 1953, I don’t imagine he would have been an admirer of his either…

I’m sure … But despite the fact that Chiladze actually lived most of his life in the Soviet regime, he neglected the regime and its ideology entirely. He was interested in the philosophy of life, mythology, history. The novel Avelum is a prime example, with Chiladze telling the story of a writer who, in an attempt to escape the Empire of Evil (no prizes for guessing what that’s a stand-in for), creates an alternative world, his own empire of love.

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When he published his debut work in 1952 he was immediately recognized as a brilliant and prolific poet, but it wasn’t until 1973, when a text originally conceived as a poem about the myth of the Argonauts could no longer fit into verse, that he wrote his first novel, A Man Was Going Down the Road. Then came five more novels, all outstanding—Everyone that Findeth Me, The Iron Theatre, The March Rooster, Avelum, and The Basket—as well as plays (Tsete’s Red Boots, The Labyrinth), and more poetry.

You’ve chosen A Man Was Going Down the Road (1972), also translated by Rayfield (2012) to recommend—why that novel as opposed to, say, Avelum?

The novel is a sophisticated text, laden with profound mythic elements, subtexts and symbols, the most important of which is the sea, which gradually recedes, signalling the coming of misery. Generally, while reading Childaze, it is necessary to read between the lines.

These days, A Man Was Going Down the Road is among the most loved books in Georgia, however, it has to be mentioned that reading and understanding this book requires a well-prepared reader.

Because of its basis in existing texts and myths, you mean?

Precisely. The novel is divided into three parts: Aeetes, Ukheiro, and Parnaoz. It is a brilliant interpretation of the myth of Medea and the Argonauts, arguably one of the best both in Georgian and world literature.

One of the first mentions of the Argo and the Argonauts, who sail to the land of Colchis (which is the western part of contemporary Georgia) to steal the Golden Fleece, are found in the Iliad and the Odyssey, of course. Jason, the leader of the Argonauts is assisted by Medea, the daughter of the Colchian King Aeetes, who is known in Greek mythology as “the greatest witch of the world”, a great knower of herbs and potions; so they steal the Golden Fleece and take it away from Colchis.

Medea is the first character in literature to be from Georgia. A Man Was Going Down the Road is a novel about Medea, Aeetes and his kingdom, love, betrayal, and the destruction of the world. Some critics believe that all this is an allegory for the destruction and degradation of Chiladze’s homeland, first by the Russians and then by the Soviet occupation. Chiladze, writing the novel in the early 1970s, seems to have sensed that the mythic universe of the Soviet era was—like King Aeetes’s rule—coming to its end, and the time would come for Georgia to begin writing a new history.

Besik Kharanauli, your next writer, was a revolutionary or sorts, too, setting out to rewrite the history of Georgian’s literature at least by writing in free verse, which didn’t really exist there. (Presumably this was a direct reaction against the dominant Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze’s statement about the poet being “king”?)

Besik Kharanauli, now 78 years old, is perhaps the most important contemporary Georgian poet there is. He began literary career in 1954, and his first collection was published in 1968. From the very beginning, his poetry stood out as non-traditional, modernist; at the same time, it demonstrated close ties with Georgian folk poetry, with shades of Shaver dialect (Fshavi is one of the mountainous regions of Georgia). In the 1970s, when Georgian literature mostly recognized only traditional poetic forms, Besik Kharanauli’s works did prove revolutionary. His poetry managed to ‘legalize’ and fully establish blank verse as a standard poetic form in Georgian literature.

Galaktion Tabidze, meanwhile, an epochal Georgian poet, had committed suicide in 1959, about a decade before Kharanauli’s first efforts. Tabidze had declared himself the King of Poetry in his own lifetime, and the vast influence of his work has been difficult to avoid for every poet after him, including major contemporary poets. But Kharanauli refused to follow writing norms. He brought something genuinely new to the sound of Georgian poetry, while simultaneously undermining future attempts to deify him by famously saying ‘I am just a tear more than you are’.

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In the 21st-century, you will find a great number of followers of Kharanauli’s poetic path, and Kharanauli himself still carries out deliberate poetic experiments, demonstrating new opportunities in Georgian poetic form. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize several times and his works have been translated into several languages. Indeed, his works are becoming more and more popular globally—this year, the German publishing house Dagyeli Verlag are publishing Besik Kharanauli’s poetry collection Sprich Mir Vor, Angelina (Talk to Me, Angelina), translated by Nana Chighladze and Norbert Hummelt; a few months ago, an American literary magazine, The Common, published an English translation—by the American translator Ilan Stavans and myself—of Besik Kharanauli’s poem “Digging Out Potatoes”. Corvinus Presse Berlin published “Digging Out Potatoes” in an anthology of the same name, translated by Norbert Hummelt again, earlier this year, too.

Of all Kharanauli’s works, though, you’ve singled out the epic poem The Lame Doll (1972), translated by Timothy Kercher and Ani Kopaliani. What can you tell us about it?

Speaking of this book, Besik Kharanauli recalled that, like many other poets, he was to a certain extent inspired by Galaktion Tabidze; however, the inspiration soon exhausted itself, and the poet confessed that he would no longer be able to write in such manner, as the traditional or the classical poetic forms prevented him from fully expressing himself. This is why The Lame Doll (1972)—which represents a pivotal moment in Kharanauli’s career and Georgian poetry as a whole—was composed in blank verse. The poem describes an ordinary day in the life of a single person, with a focus on existential problems.

“As soon as the editor looked at the text—perhaps reading only three or four lines—he returned the book to the author, telling him it wouldn’t be possible to print it”

The main character is a passive person, accustomed to his monotonous way of life—he is “a man who, due to his inaction and inert nature, cannot keep up with contemporary life”. One ordinary morning he wakes up feeling something extraordinary and strange. He realizes that his life is being wasted, and he vows to strive for perfection and absolute truth; however, God remains dead. The poem is sad and ironic at the same time. The poet mocks this lyric person who cannot form his own ideas of events and issues, who prefers to have someone else make decisions for him—he longs for someone more powerful to obey and to free him from the burden of responsibility. The main character also finds true love to be too great a burden, so he proves a loser in love as well.

Its passage into print was far from straightforward—presumably because it was perceived as criticising the regime? The Lame Doll is a rather provocative title.

This poem was not a direct attack against the Soviet Union, yet when Kharanauli presented the work to the publishing house, the editor found it impossible to proceed. Apparently, as soon as the editor looked at the text—perhaps reading only three or four lines—he returned the book to the author, telling him it wouldn’t be possible to print it. This was down to the form of the poem—blank verse! It’s a vivid illustration of how the regime avoided the introduction of any novelty or deviation from the mainstream.

Kharanauli was then assisted by a friend employed at the publishing house. This friend tricked the publisher into printing The Lame Doll by leading him to believe that he was signing off on a second edition of Kharanauli’s first collection instead. The book received favourable reviews, and this might explain why the author was not punished for his ‘fraud’.

That first publication came out under the title Poem, Poem, Poem, with the true title, The Lame Doll, printed in a much more modest font on the title page: such phrases would indeed have been deemed improper for Soviet book covers.

Your final book is Irakli Samsonadze’s The Cushion (2016), set in the last decade of the 20th century—a pivotal period for Georgia, in the wake of the USSR’s dissolution and the country’s independence. What are your own memories of those days?

I was born 32 years ago, in 1986, in the Soviet Republic, and in 1991, I became the citizen of an independent Georgia. I was too young to remember much, but I have heard a great deal from family and acquaintances, and read countless accounts.

My father Tengiz Jobava was a dissident. As early as 1962, he was a member of an illegal, underground organization founded in the Georgian city of Zugdidi, which intended to awaken the national spirit through the dissemination of secret proclamations. At that time, he worked at a press and he would secretly take fonts away to help print these illicit proclamations. In 1963, he was arrested and held in the cellar of the KGB building for a long time. They tried to make him speak about his secret activities by torturing him physically and psychologically. Thankfully, because the officials neither broke him nor found any proclamations hidden in his house, they were not able to prove his guilt and had to let him go. From the 1970s, he fought alongside Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the future first president of independent Georgia and the leader of the national liberation movement.

“My father was a dissident; he worked at a press and would secretly take fonts away to help print illicit proclamations”

So, naturally, the first memories of my childhood are associated with the political events of the time; in fact, I hardly have any memories from my childhood that are not associated with politics. I remember standing in front of the TV in 1989, at the age of three or four, my fists clenched tight, shouting ‘hail to Independent Georgia!’ to encourage the protesters staring out at me. The tragedy of that day—April 9, 1989, when the Soviet army violently repressed peaceful Georgian protesters, who had gathered in front of the parliament building to demand independence—resulted in the death of 21 people, while many others were injured. In that sense, the Soviet regime put an end to its own reign—change had to come, although of course it was not straightforward and the price was great.

The declaration of independence in 1991 was soon followed by a coup, the persecution of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and his death in ambiguous circumstances (the official version states that it was a suicide, however, most people believe the president was betrayed and murdered). Then came war between Georgia and Russia, as a result of which Russia occupied Abkhazia, the oldest region of Georgia. Many refugees came from Abkhazia and settled in Georgian cities. About that same time, criminal groups began to rule the streets, rob houses and terrorize civilians—the country was plunged into a whirlwind of crime and corruption.

I remember how, in the days of the coup, my father found handfuls of bullet shells in the yard every day; I remember standing with my mother for hours, queuing for our rations and how, when somebody tricked or cheated others to advance in the queue, fights would break out: the farther you stood from the counter, the greater the chance was that you’d return home with no bread that day. I remember the happiness of my parents when my father’s friend, from time to time, would bring jars of milk powder gleaned from humanitarian aid imports. I remember how inflation began, and deposits and savings, which had accumulated in bank accounts for years, lost all value. I remember, how the gas supply was cut permanently, and a large cloud of smoke appeared above the city, as the entire population resorted to wood-burning stoves, brought in from rural villages, to warm themselves. Of course, not everyone could afford firewood, and they had to stay in bed with their all their clothes and blankets on. I remember how the electricity went off every day—sometimes we had none for several days, and we would sit in the dark, reading and studying by candlelight. I’m actually still scared of the dark.

And how does Samsonadze bring all this to life on the page?

The Cushion chronicles the events of that period, when the country was full of dishonest bureaucrats and black marketeers. The main character of the novel is a writer, living in the Tbilisi of the 1990s, who considers himself a “true and respectable member of the society of has-beens”—he finds it very difficult to adjust. Everyone and everything seems to have transformed: former sportsmen are now politicians, former peasants are now traders, former builders, taxi drivers or doctors are now directors of construction companies, former writers are now smugglers.

The writer has a wife and a son he needs to support. He also has a friend called Vakho, a drug addict with whom he intends to set up a business, in the hope of keeping himself and his family alive (the lack of money leads to his frequent family conflict). Everybody is trying to save him or herself. At one point, the friends decide to go to church—but religious life proves to be a disappointment and offers them no consolation. No ideology can get through to him. Unfamiliar and strange rituals, which have nothing to do with faith, seem to have become normal. The friends conceive a money-making plan: each of them will sell a kidney for $5,000. That plan fails, too. Then, the writer is offered a position within a political party—but he doesn’t find his place there either…

The text is highly emotional, and it makes the reader sympathize with these characters trying to crawl out from under the ruins of the Soviet Union. The form of the novel is also very original and interesting.

How so?

Samsonadze’s book is a kind of an experiment: the short novel, which reads as if it were written in a single day, consists in only one paragraph. Big ideas are conveyed through short, succinct sentences, sometimes of just two or three words. So the reader can read the entire book in a single day, too. And while reading, you can’t miss the internal music and rhythm of the text—there’s a kind of poetry here, too. The Cushion is as truthful, honest, precise and bare an account of Georgia in 1990s as you’re likely to find.

What purpose lay behind the experiment?

Irakli Samsonadze, who, as I mentioned was also a playwright and worked on movie scripts too, once explained it himself. The structure of The Cushion, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, was based on movie editing’s (montage) principle: word—dot, word—dot, word—dot and then a picture, landscape, portrait, mood, action. As the author explained, you might expect this to require plenty of paragraphs, but in The Cushion he aimed to convey each element in only a few words. This meant he needed to choose precisely the one word that would convey the whole scene. This, he said, created an “organic rhythm,” and captured the inner conditions of the character. It was, in short, true to life as it was lived.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

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Gvantsa Jobava

Gvantsa Jobava is Chair of the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association and international projects manager and Editor at Intelekti Publishing. She is the author of a poetry collection, Cardiogram, and the translator, from English into Georgian, of books including John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. She is the co-editor, with Becca Parkinson, of The Book of Tbilisi, and head of the publishing programme for Georgia's Guest of Honour presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018.