This is an ably edited and exciting collection from the intersection on the globe where East meets West, an area often neglected in surveys of world literature—there are few translations of works from Georgia available in English.
The collection gets off to a cracking start with Uncle Evgeni’s Game by Dato Kardava, translated by Nino Kiguradze. This begins with a powerful pair of similes:
Journalists were like cigarette ash and the news desk was like a dirty ashtray that no one bothered to empty till it was full.
The reader is immediately plunged into the grubby, tenuous world of Redhead, a rookie reporter in search of a sensational story. He finds suitably titillating material in a past murder that turns out to have repercussions in the present. It is an interestingly constructed story, told largely through transcripts of Redhead’s recorded interviews with his various sources. Kardava uses the way Redhead pursues his story to explore ideas about truth, and fiction—perhaps Kardava intended a meditation on fake news in his homeland? If so, his meditation is now relevant worldwide.
On Facebook, by Gela Chkvanava, translated by Tamar Japaridze, Tsa, by Iva Pezuashvili, translated by Mary Childs, and Balba-Tso, by Ina Archuashvili, translated by Philip Price, also feature journalists. In On Facebook, the journalist, Thea Tetradze, stirs her neighbors into gossipy speculation about the identities of the people mentioned in an inscription, in yellow chalk, on the courtyard of their apartment building: ANZOR +THEA = LOVE. Other stories also emphasise the intimacy of life in Tbilisi’s apartment blocks and courtyards. As the reader learns from Tsa, this is a world where neighbors take a keen interest even in each other’s laundry.
The laundry lines stretch from one end of the yard to the other, and each one tells the history of a single family. You’ll learn more about a person from the clothes hanging on their line than you will from their resume.
The idea of neighbors keeping each other under observation occurs too in Peridé by Zviad Kvaratskhelia, translated by Mary Childs, about a recluse and the woman with whom she once quarrelled.
But back to journalists. Tsa has a TV journalist whose job is to find untalented people for a talent show, to boost the ratings, and Balba-Tso has a young, unnamed, female journalist remembering her life as she undergoes cancer treatment. She survives, and the story concludes with a chillingly sharp observation when she’s lying in bed on her last night in hospital:
Night falls on the oncological clinic—such a fearsome place to those on the outside.
Cancer is a misfortune that can strike anybody, anywhere, but several of the stories in The Book of Tbilisi address hardships more specific to a people whose recent history has included occupation, war, and economic turmoil.
Precision, by Erekle Deisadze, translated by Phillip Price, concerns heavy-handed attempts by the state to help two siblings, war orphans who have been living in a train carriage for the past three-and-a-bit years. The brother, the unnamed first-person narrator, sniffs glue. The sister, Tusi, like the journalist in Balba-Tso, has cancer. Alas, she succumbs to the vile crab. It’s a grim story, but it stresses the tenderness between brother and sister even in the most terrible circumstances, and it ends with at least a hint of hope for the surviving brother:
Yesterday, I found a little stray puppy by the entrance to the metro station. I took it home and called it Tusi. Now there are two of us again.
Tenderness in the face of difficulty is also stressed in Dad After Mum, by Rusudan Rukhadze, translated by Tamar Japaridze, which concerns an adult daughter caring for her widowed father, who is senile. The story stresses the importance of memory, as the daughter struggles to provoke in her father happy memories, in order to remind him of himself, and also of her. By implication, the story suggests that it’s important for a country roiled by disaster-upon-disaster not to forget its past.
Meanwhile Flood, by Shota Iatashvili, translated by George Siharulidze, appears to argue, or to show, that social breakdown can lead to mental breakdown: it’s a strange story of a family destroying their home.
Not all the violence and misery in The Book of Tbilisi is provoked by war, occupation, and other disasters. In A Bronx Tale A La Gold Quarter by Lado Kilasonia, translated by Maya Kiasashvili, copycat violence in adolescent males is provoked by Hollywood—and although it concerns boys beating each other up, this story is funny.
Indeed, bleak humor threads its way through many of these stories, with some good, if resigned, jokes, particularly in Tsa, which mentions a biology teacher refusing to teach sex education because “my husband died twenty years ago”, a university course on film-making that proceeds even though the university does not possess a film camera, and alternative music that could be “just noise that stood in as an alternative to music.”
The final story, Patagonia, by Bacho Kvirtia, translated by Nino Kiguradze, is another tale of hardship: it’s theme is male violence towards women in the aftermath of social breakdown.
The editors made a good choice concluding with this story, since its final paragraph, the final paragraph of the collection, includes this description of Tbilisi:
On the streets, by the railway station, people are walking up and down. Woman, child, student, merchant, homeless, vagabond, prostitute, drunkard, stray dog, policeman, soldier… some are leaving, others are returning. Some don’t want to go anywhere in particular… others are sick of everything. Some are hungry. It’s life.
It’s life. Those words could describe not just the scene near Tbilisi railway station, but also this entire collection of short stories. Reading them left me wanting to visit Tbilisi, and also to read more literature from Georgia.