‘The Book of Tbilisi’, Becca Parkinson & Gvantsa Jobava (eds.) (Review)

I often suspect that the international turn my reading has taken over the past decade is the result of not really doing much travelling in real life since moving to Australia (and, more importantly, since having kids).  It’s just as well, then, that my books allow me to travel vicariously, and some of my favourite literary travel guides over the past few years have been the excellent short-story collections from Comma Press, each exploring one city for the discerning armchair tourist.  So far, I’ve been to Rio, Tokyo, Gaza and Khartoum, and today’s post is just the latest stop on this world tour, this time taking us to Eastern Europe.  Please join me today for the next destination – fortunately, no passport is required 🙂

The Book of Tbilisi (edited by Becca Parkinson and Gvantsa Jobava, review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes us to the capital of Georgia in the company of ten contemporary writers.  Jobava’s introduction, to both the book and the country, offers a brief outline of Georgia’s recent history, including the issues it has with its big neighbour (and former master…) Russia.  She explains:

In this anthology, you will hear ten voices from a generation that grew up during these decades of hardship; a generation that experienced the unmasked cruelty of the world around them, and managed to adapt to an almost endless series of changes; a generation that contributed to the collapse of the old system, coped with the consequences of that collapse, and invested all its energies into the building of a new one.
‘Introduction’, pp.xv/xvi (Comma Press, 2017)

The experiences of the post-independence period form perhaps the most cohesive thread throughout the collection, with several stories mentioning the wars with Russia in one form or other.

Erekle Deisadze’s ‘Precision’ (translated by Philip Price), for example, featuring the daily struggles of a war orphan and his sister, stricken by bombs and cancer, makes for a bleak look at the post-war generation.  Yet it isn’t much better for the adults, judging by Bacho Kvirtia’s ‘Patagonia’ (tr. Nino Kiguradze).  Here, a middle-aged woman spirals into poverty and abuse after her husband fails to return from the battlefield, struggling to survive in an unforgiving environment.

Other stories confirm the idea of Tbilisi as a violent city.  In ‘Uncle Evgeni’s Game’ (tr. Kiguradze), Dato Kardava has a new journalist on the hunt for a story interview a former policeman about a murder case.  The story, unusual for its method of piecing together recorded interviews, takes a turn when the new publicity around this cold case sees the old man become a suspect.  By contrast, Lado Kilasonia’s ‘A Bronx Tale a la Gold Quarter’ (tr. Maya Kiasashvili), is a slightly more light-hearted story, with a middle-aged man reminded by a movie of an event from his youth – one that ended rather painfully for the wannabe gangster…

However, life in Georgia isn’t all about grief and violence.  Gela Chkvanava’s ‘On Facebook’ (tr. Tamar Japaridze) is a story for the modern era, in which a public declaration of love (in chalk…) causes the residents of a block of flats to trawl social media for clues as to the identities of the two people named.  The event causes chaos for the people living there, but in a strange way, it also brings them closer together:

Do any of you realise that the history of our apartment is being written on Facebook right now?!  There is no place for animosity here, even if we have so many bad things to say to one another…
‘On Facebook’, p.32

A clever look at neighbourly communication in the social media era, the story allows us insights into the way your private life is anything but when you have lots of nosy neighbours.

The Book of Tbilisi has several short, poignant pieces among the ten contributions.  There’s Zviad Kvaratskhelia’s ‘Peridé’ (tr. Mary Childs), a three-part story in which we first see an old woman running laps around a track, before shifting to her point of view, and Rusudan Rukhadze’s ‘Dad After Mum’ (tr. Japaridze), in which a young woman caring for her senile father attempts to jog his memories of the past.  Shota Iatashavili’s ‘Flood’ (tr. George Siharulidze) is a bizarre piece (leaving much to the imagination) in which a family destroy their home, while Ina Archuashvili’s ‘Balba-Tso’ (tr. Price) shares the thoughts of a woman working through cancer treatment.

Overall, the collection makes for an interesting introduction to Georgian literature, with none of the stories really disappointing, but I did have a couple of reservations.  Several of the stories came in at under ten pages without leaving too much of an impression, and not many of them really gave much of an insight into Tbilisi itself.  At the risk of being guilty of exoticising the city, I would have appreciated a little more of its flavour and atmosphere in the stories selected.

This was certainly present in my favourite story, Iva Pezuashvili’s ‘Tsa’ (tr. Childs).  In the longest piece in the collection, a man constantly in trouble for being unable to keep his mouth shut finds work at a dubious TV station, sourcing mediocre acts for a talent show.  Back home, he strikes up a friendship with his new neighbour, a Chinese immigrant, and when he learns about a special talent she possesses, he starts to think of a way to help both of them towards a better future.

‘Tsa’ is a fascinating piece, revealing more of the city and the people than most of the other stories, revelling in the dark humour of life in a poor country:

At university I studied film-making, but I didn’t set eyes on a camera for four long years.  There was a rumour that the university owned a camera, but that it was constantly being hired out for weddings.  This wouldn’t have surprised me.  On one occasion, the students started a fight with the professors about the camera, and were promised that a camera would be brought into a lecture in the following few days.  A few days later, we did indeed have a lecture about how to use a camera, but what was brought in was just a diagram of one.  That was the first day I found myself cursing a man old enough to be my grandfather.
‘Tsa’, p.65

However, this humorous tone soon gives way to bitterness as a nastier side of Tbilisi comes to the fore.  As it turns out, despite (because of ?) their own hardship, the ordinary people aren’t quite ready to accept the newcomers to their city.

Despite the minor issues raised above, I enjoyed my latest experience with the literary guides from Comma Press, and I’m looking forward to another trip in the near future (a little bird tells me that there’s a tour departing for another location in Eastern Europe very soon).  These books are great for the vicarious traveller, and even if I’m unlikely to ever visit Georgia, at least I know a little more about the country now.  Next time Tbilisi is mentioned in the news, instead of a blank space, I’ll have images from these stories running through my mind, and that can only be a good thing 🙂

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