Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Once upon a time in Georgia

Sonja Zekri talks to Aka Morchiladze, author of "Santa Esperanza," one of the zaniest books of the season.

It's a deadly square. The president Zviad Gamsakhurdia has barricaded himself inside the parliament and lurking about the Intourist Hotel are the men of Tengiz Kitovani, the Bohemian turned warlord. A couple of gun-toters are squatting in the church tower and in the KGB prison opposite, Jaba Ioseliani, ex-criminal, writer and putsch instigator, waits for his hour to strike. At some point, the bullets start flying and the civil war gains new, appalling momentum.

This was fifteen years ago, but Aka Morchiladze can still point to the bullet holes in the church wall with his eyes closes. "The Rustaweli Boulevard was roped off, one at the top end, one at the bottom. And in the middle they shot each other dead: literati, artists, warriors," he says. "Shortly before, Sergio Leone's films had opened here: "Once Upon a Time in America." Later, a politician said to us, what a shame that Leone wasn't alive to see the influence he had on our little country in the Caucasus. Crazy huh? But that's Georgia for you."

That's Georgia. For Aka Morchiladze, this sentence carries the truth and the tragedy of his country. For the majority of people outside Georgia, the name won't mean much at first. In his home country, Morchiladze is a celebrity author, TV presenter, soap writer, sports columnist and so famous that he coined himself a pseudonym. His real name is Gio Akhvlediani. Outside the Caucasus he is a person with an unpronounceable name whose works are written in a language that looks like the secret code of a children's book. He has written 25 books. They've sold in huge numbers for Georgia. Not one of them has been translated. Until now. Now Munich's Pendo Verlag has published his book "Santa Esperanza", and it is, put nicely, the zaniest and most swashbuckling work of the season.

"Santa Esperanza" is not a book, but a collection of small rainbow-coloured booklets in a caramel coloured felt slipcase. "These endless covers, this binding, I wanted something different!" says Mordchiladze. He says it's not necessary to read the glorious saga of "The Isle of Hope" from start to finish or even right through. He nearly made the end of "Santa Esperanza" into a crossword puzzle. In this light, the little booklets seem almost conservative.

The book

"Santa Esperanza" is the fictitious chronicle of a fictitious archipelago in the Black Sea. But really, Morchiladze says, it's all about Georgia. Or more precisely, a utopian Georgia which was never annexed by Russia, never under the thumb of the Soviet Union. The three islands are inhabited by Georgians, Turks, Italians, Jews and Britons. Yes, Britons. In 1919, the Ottoman pasha Sari Beg leased the group of islands to the British Colonel Rollston. The archipelago is due to be given back 145 years later, and Morchiladze's story, which takes place in 2002, focuses on this event. "It's a Hong Kong story," he says. "But without a happy end."

Because just as Georgia sank into misery and civil war after independence - "We were the richest country in the Soviet Union and became the poorest country in the CIS overnight" - so did the Islands of Hope dissolve into desolate conflicts between clans and cliques: the hated bourgeois Wisramiani family, the courageous but barbarous Sungals and the Genoese merchant dynasty of the Da Costas. British spies want to install Agatia, the ageing great granddaughter of Sari Beg as queen. And the ghastly Wisramiani daughter Salome occupies entire parts of the island with her army – just as once upon a time Abchasia and South Ossetia exploited Georgia's weakness and declared their independence.

Many of the stories sound too awful to be true and yet they are. When the enemies open the lunatic asylums and prisons and the sick and criminal raid the Sungal's island, Morchiladze's own outrage comes into play. Similar things happened in Georgia, he says. Then he finds new, unforgettable images for a horror that's already been described a thousand times: the massive murder literally froze the blood in the Sungal's veins. Now they are stabbing themselves in the hands and stomachs to see if it still flows, if they are still alive.

A dwarf state in the hands of the major powers, the pre-modern notion of honour colliding with bourgeois cleverness – "Santa Esperanza" can be read as a great metaphor for Georgia. But it doesn't have to be. Morchiladze, who in the meantime has made himself at home in the cute cafe of a puppeteer friend and is pouring himself a home-brewed mulled wine, has developed such a playful, crazy, fast-paced world that this tiny multi-ethnic state earns a place in the United Nations.

It's a world unto itself, dominated by a card game called Inti, much like Bridge, which requires six players: four attack, two defend. "To win from the defensive, that's the basic situation in Georgia," says Morchiladze. The wailing women belong to the high culture; their songs are wordless like the ocean, they rob men of their reason which is why they are only allowed to perform in licensed clubs.

Morchiladze tells this very colourful epic not in the form of a disdainful novel but in letters and church chronicles, diaries and little dramas. He weaves in excerpts from the constitution, internet sites, a will. For the most part, the parts fit together perfectly; sometimes the most beautiful flowers bloom on dead rails. Morchiladze says he loves to imitate texts. But of course the simulation has to be recognisable right away. Just as Ingo Schulze's "33 Moments of Happiness" was a post-modern bow to the Russian classics, so does the Georgian pay tribute to Western literature, making its tone wonderfully familiar to the reader.

The Wisramiani women fight for power and influence – is this not the female version of Puzo's "The Godfather"? Who doesn't think of Shakespeare when Salomea is prevented from marrying her lover because Sandro da Costa belongs to the enemy family ("I would die for him but not thread a needle for you!") There are traces of Steinbeck and sediments of Melville to be found, the characters have names like Theveneau de Morande, after the traitor of the rococo impostor Cagliostro or Gines des Passamonte after Cervantes' "Don Quijote." Morchiladze went to an English school, he's been more influenced by Hollywood than by Eisenstein. At some point, Niko, Salomea's criminal husband, is found at the window of the cloister library with an arrow in his heart – a recollection of the Leone sequence on the Rustaweli boulevard: once upon a time in Georgia.

America. While Morchiladze was churning out the island saga in London in two and a half months, the Rose Revolution broke out in Georgia. Since then, Georgia's national doctrine has been orientation to the West. The relationship to Russia is shattered. It's about Abchasia and South Ossetia, which as Russian protectorates, contribute about as much to stability in the Caucasus as a few tonnes of TNT. Recently it was about a lone slab of rock, whose crazy rulers bore Sungalese traits, and a Russian prohibition of Georgian wine and mineral water imports. But really it was just about the fact that the Kremlin would like to prevent the encroachment of the revolutionary Atlantic bacillius. "In 1989, Russian demonstrators in Tiflis slayed with polished spades," says Morchiladze. "Since then, their time has passed. They just haven't grasped it yet."

In the fall, President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russian officers of espionage, had them arrested and thrown out of the country by police women (!) It was a childish, dangerous, excessive humiliation. But what a scene! "Don't write this!" says Morchiladze, giggling. "But I enjoyed it. Mischa is like that. Symbols, gestures – that's his thing. When he's behind the staging, it's unforgettable."

The Russians certainly didn't forget and they threw hundreds of Georgians out of the country, set the tax authorities onto VIPs such as the crime author Boris Akunin and the monumental sculptor Surab Zereteli – at which point the latter reflected on his homeland and presented Tiflis with a sculpture of Saint George which, since a few days ago, has been looking down on the roundabout from atop a pillar in front of city call, where the Rose Revolution began.

"At least we have gas and electricity since the revolution;" says Morchiladze. "At any rate, more than before." When you see an old man sawing away at a tree on the the Metekhis Bridge for firewood, however, you suspect that this doesn't apply for all, especially since Russia doubled the price of gas. Or when three young tykes carry bottles full of golden liquid into a bar. "No, that's something else," Morchiladze reassures. "They are selling brandy. I would guess that they have gambling debts." Maybe Santa Esperanza is indeed a suburb of Tiflis. Maybe they really exist, these undiscovered places with dramas that have never been written down. "You know what?" he says happily. "I don't think the earth is round."


Sonja Zekri is a feuilleton editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on December 8, 2006.


1 comment:

AaronE said...

Gamarjoba Levan,

I work at the Caucasus Research Resource Centers here in Tbilisi.

We have just started a blog on social science in the South Caucasus and came across your blog when we were doing some research.

We would be very interested in taking you out to lunch to discuss blogging in Georgia. Would you be available to meet next Wednesday?

You can reach me at aaron AT
or 899277945