Back in January, Dalkey Archive Press released the first four books in the Georgian Literature Series, enabling English readers to gain some appreciation of the literature of this previously underrepresented country. The project began in 2012 with the publication of Contemporary Georgian Literature, a 400+ page anthology translated by Elizabeth Heighway (covered very well at A Year of Reading the World). This collaboration between Dalkey Archive and the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia turned out so well that the partnership continued and now readers reap the benefits.
Heighway translated Aka Morchiladze’s Journey to Karabakh. Morchiladze (born 1966) is one of Georgia’s most respected writers and this short novel was one of the country’s all-time bestsellers. Published in 1992 and the basis for two films, it sucks you in right on the first page with its likable loser of a protagonist, Gio. The son of a wealthy man in Tbilisi, Gio is unmotivated but not empty-headed, hanging out with debauched ne’er do wells but fundamentally decent, and depressed by his lack of control over his own life. Then comes his trip to Karabakh, trying to score drugs with his stupid friend Goglik…
Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had all recently been Soviet Republics and were in the midst of turmoil when Morchiladze wrote this book. Readers unfamiliar with the area may benefit from a little background (going into the novel cold is a bit confusing). Georgia’s first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown in a coup in December 1991. He moved quickly from Armenia (which gave him asylum when Azerbaijan refused) to Chechnya while Georgia swarmed with Mkhedrioni – paramilitaries busy suppressing the president’s supporters. Meanwhile, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested Karabakh region was heating up and by the end of 1992 it had evolved from “conflict” to “war.”
Curiously, the few reviews there are of Journey to Karabakh tend to interpret the novel as an allegory of Georgia in its post-Soviet state, M.A. Orthofer at the Complete Review claiming “it does already feel a bit dated” as a result. This doesn’t seem likely – France isn’t trying to invade Russia anymore, but that doesn’t make War and Peace dated. My opinion is that the story is far more a portrait of personal malaise than an allegory. Everything politically real is dismissed in the second paragraph. I didn’t care about any of that back then, and I care even less about it now. Gio’s father is involved in the turmoil on the streets, manning roadblocks, confiscating weapons, but even this doesn’t get him interested. “Well, seriously, what on earth does he think he’s doing, running around like a revolutionary at his age?” Gio lives in a directionless apathy and is encouraged, consciously or not, to remain there by his family.
The story begins, not with him setting out on his journey, but with an extended flashback to his romance with Yana, a gentle prostitute. The story is old hat and is capable of filling whole novels with angst but Morchiladze has remarkable pacing and focus, outlining the entire affair with maximum economy. It is begun and ended in one chapter. The improvement a stable relationship gives him (…I didn’t turn the television on, didn’t let my friends in when they came around, and every single morning I went out to buy fresh bread) collapses as soon as his family learns of it and, scandalized, they immediately take steps to break it up. Tellingly, once the relationship is discovered they both quietly submit and go their separate ways. We’d only been so happy because nobody was sticking their nose in and interfering with the way we lived our lives. Gio’s own sense of fatalism prevents him from fighting.
With this character-establishing prelude out of the way, the meat of the novel takes place with Gio captured first by the Azeris and then the Armenians. The isolation he feels when separated from Goglik comes to him like a breather. It becomes very clear that Gio wants a different sort of life when the Armenians allow him to wander around their rural village:
I went inside the house and opened the door to my room. There was my patterned divan and everything else. There was a funny smell of damp or cold or of the sun rising through the windows. I felt good. Calm. I felt almost as if I were on holiday at a guest house.
…For some reason I felt as if I might spend the rest of my life here, wandering aimlessly around the village, doing little jobs here and there, planting trees, stuff like that. I’d pop round to see Valera the painter and we’d chat about nothing in particular. I’d write letters, hundreds of letters to Yana, and get them to her somehow. If only I knew how to do something useful, if only I were a doctor or medical assistant or, I don’t know, something. I didn’t know about anything except cars.
The illusion doesn’t last and with the arrival of Russian reporters, Gio’s calmness starts to degrade. His choice of how to resolve his stay in Karabakh and return home becomes a strangely out-of-character moment for a man so little inclined to fight – it contrasts and would seem to be a result of all his previous (in)actions. This segment of the book can’t be discussed in any detail but there is a strong sense of pessimism to Morchiladze’s tale. Gio is not equipped to “come-of-age” and he is left to dismal conclusions: When I think back, I can’t tell if things were really as they seemed; everything looks different with hindsight. But whichever way you look at it I was an idiot, and being an idiot was clearly the thing I was best at in life.
Being for the most part a character study, Journey to Karabakh contains a great many vivid sketches – though the cast remains mostly background, Morchiladze zooms in on each person’s most distinguished features and someone like Goglik is fixed in the reader’s mind the moment introductions are made: Ever since I’ve known Goglik, the only thing he’s been interested in is watching films and then talking about them. It’s what he lives for. There’s only one other thing that gets his attention; put him anywhere near something he can either smoke or inject and he’ll sniff it out in an instant. He’s like the goddamn KGB. Maybe it’s because he’s always broke; I can’t remember him ever paying for anything. And yet somehow it’s always Goglik who ends up running off to buy grass from the dealers. In my car, naturally. The supporting characters, from Tatuna, a fellow-sufferer of parental “relationship guidance,” to the pitiful old Armenian whose son was killed and now “he just plays billiards and talks about his boy…” are given an immediacy even as you learn almost nothing about them.
Gio’s irreverent voice allows a certain amount of humour to lighten up an otherwise grim account of armed conflict and personal apathy, particularly when hunting for drugs with Goglik and when the irritating female reporter starts hitting on him. Also, at only 159 pages, there is no fat on this text. It’s a quick read and offers a solid introduction to Georgian literature for the curious. Thanks to Dalkey Archive, there is more to follow.