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||Der erste Russe - Deutschland
- პატარა ქვეყანა has not yet been translated into English
- Best Novel, 2018, Saba Literary Awards
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B : putters along entertainingly enough, making for a revealing if somewhat long(winded) tour of post-Soviet Georgia
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Lasha Bugadze liefert eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte seit der Wende in nuce. (...) Bugadze nutzt diese Steilvorlage im Roman zu einem Rundumschlag gegen die Kleingeistigkeit und Rückständigkeit seiner Landsleute. (...) Tatsächlich erzählt der Roman davon, wie sich Georgien irgendwie doch in die globalisierte Gegenwart mogelt" - Richard Kämmerlings, Die Welt
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
[Note: this review is based on the German translation by Rachel Gratzfeld and Sybilla Heinze, Der erste Russe (Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2018).
All translations in the review are mine, from that German translation -- i.e. distinctly second-hand.]
In 2001, when he was twenty three, Lasha Bugadze published the short story 'პირველი რუსი' ('The first Russian') in the inaugural issue (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) of დრო მშვიდობისა ('The Peace Times').
The story features Tamar of Georgia (Queen Tamara), one of the most revered rulers of the country (from 1184 to 1213); her first marriage was an arranged one, to the Russian Yury Bogolyubsky; he was a real piece of work and she had him driven out of the country after only two years of marriage.
For Bugadze, this misalliance that brought the 'first Russian' to Georgia marks 'the beginning of the tragic history of the Russian-Georgian relationship' -- and because Yury, despite being well-compensated at his send-off, wouldn't leave be and mounted two campaigns to take the Georgian throne, with the support of some of Georgia's nobility, Bugadze saw it also as: 'the first Russian and Georgia's first disappointment, the first injury, the first act of violence, the beginning of Georgian collaborationism ...'.
In his short story Bugadze has Yury fail to consummate the marriage and, on their wedding night, instead engage in relations with a chicken.
While arguably rude and crude towards and about the Russian outsider, the story otherwise seems harmless enough, but eventually a rabble-rousing member of parliament attacked it and its author in parliament, leading also the locally dominant Georgian Orthodox Church -- the national church in Georgia, as it were, and arguably the leading and most respected authority in the land -- to find and take offense, with the man in charge (then as still now), patriarch Ilia II, getting involved.
Apparently, the feeling was that the story insulted Saint Tamara -- yes, she was canonized --, an insult to the very nation .....
Instead of seeing it as a simple allegory of Russian influence and meddling in their small corner of the world, the story was, in what seems like a fairly blatant misreading, taken to be an insult to national history and honor.
And, overnight, author Bugadze found himself to be public enemy number one.
In this 2017 novel, Bugadze returns to the events of (mainly) 2002, presenting a lightly fictionalized autobiographical account of his unwitting leading role in Georgia's greatest literary scandal since independence.
Still a very young author at the time -- and Bugadze repeatedly emphasizes his youthful innocence --, he couldn't really believe what was happening to him as he found himself the target of a variety of agendas.
The complaints against his work were mostly far-fetched, the supposed harm bordering on the absurd -- the church cited one example of a follower who found she could no longer kiss her icon of Tamar because of the unchaste thoughts that now bubbled up each time she approached it, the perverted scene from the story coming to mind whenever she looked at the holy image -- but the masses were riled up against him in a way that he had to take seriously.
Much of the novel focuses on the fallout from the story and the actions that are (and aren't) taken, but Bugadze also looks beyond this very brief period, with glimpses of (mainly) independent Georgia across the years, from his childhood (Bugadze/the narrator was born in 1977, and so only experienced Soviet rule in his youth) to the near-present-day.
Political turmoil -- notably the 2003 elections and the 'Rose Revolution' that led to the resignation of the longtime dominant local political figure, then-president Eduard Shevardnadze -- as well as the military conflicts that shook up the country (in Abkhazia, in the early 1990s, and then the brief conflict with Russia in 2008) also figure.
Beyond that, the changes in Georgia as it modernized make for background color to the novel -- with the improvement of the electrical grid figuring rather prominently (as early on power cuts, or simply the lack of electricity were common and widespread).
The novel begins with a brief scene in which Bugadze recalls the church presenting him with two official statements and giving him the choice of which he wants them to release: one in which they forgive his missteps and welcome back the lost son into the church-fold -- if he apologizes for his grievous misdeeds --, the other, an order beginning excommunication proceedings (if he doesn't say he's sorry).
They emphasize that a public apology is necessary -- 'otherwise it'll be impossible to placate those who are outraged. And you know how easily people get murdered nowadays ...'.
The scene is basically an excerpt from a much longer one, the full encounter with the church authorities that is described well into the novel, as Bugadze then first looks back and around, presenting what led up to that meeting, the scandal-in-the-making (and its quickly out of hand manifestations), and his own rather hapless attempts to defend and protect himself.
While the story itself isn't presented in the novel, Bugadze describes it -- and the offensive parts -- several times, and it is discussed in several of the conversations that are presented in dialogue-form here -- a Q & A with a journalist, for example.
He notes the circumstances around it -- the magazine, the funding that comes from an Austrian donor (another aspect that hurts his case, as the foreign interference is of course also denounced) -- and the editor of the magazine is also a significant figure in the story.
[The magazine was published by the still-existing International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation; the donor was, in fact Dutch -- Cordaid --and, as in the novel, did then pull its support for the project, meaning there wasn't a second issue .....]
Bugadze mentions that the chapters in the story are numbered in reverse order -- a small narrative trick (that nevertheless confused some of his less observant readers) -- and he does something similar here, the two middle sections of his four-part novel minus-numbered (beginning "-1") and only the relatively short final section presented in 'normal' order (with the plus-sign included, just to make it clear: "+1", etc.).
But it's not like Bugadze changes the flow of the narrative too dramatically, depending on the numbering: much of the novel does progress roughly chronologically -- certainly the day-to-day (practically hour-to-hour) description of the crisis at its height -- but Bugadze does circle around (and back, and forth) in his presentation.
His overnight notoriety -- his grandmother waking him up to tell him he's being denounced in parliament, broadcast on live TV ... -- comes as a surprise to the author, as do many of the actions and reactions that follow: 'I didn't know whether I was slipping into a catastrophe or I should be proud about this'.
The powers that be aren't interested in his explanations, preferring to twist the situation for their own purposes.
And people do get riled up, and Bugadze does get concerned about his and his family's safety.
He has a girlfriend, too -- Ani, who already had been married and has two children -- whom he has a somewhat awkward relationship with (neither has their own apartment, so the sex is complicated), and among the other complications is another woman who comes into the picture and whom he is (also awkwardly) attracted to.
Ani insists he can't give in and apologize, while the editor enjoys trying to shake things up even more.
Colleagues suggest it's a golden opportunity for the young author:
What I'd do, I'd egg on someone to burn the magazine, publicly.
I'm serious, I'm not joking: get one or two folks to burn the magazine with your story.
This kind of opportunity won't ever come along again, and you should pray that they don't actually read the story, that they just attack you.
Why do you even want it to be read ?
It's read, and then what ?
A soap bubble.
Look what's happened to much better texts.
Bugadze's father tries to take a conciliatory tone with the authorities as negotiations of sorts ensue -- though for a while both parents are distracted by a kidnapping threat against their son (that turns out to be unrelated to the story and is just the kind of thing that happened in the Georgia of the time ...).
Central to the novel is, of course, the question of power and who gets to dictate it.
In a country freed from Soviet oppression, the church is here presented as slipping comfortably into a somewhat similar role.
Everyone is careful to avoid talk of outright censorship -- but deference to religion is expected.
The Georgian church is presented as the most respected institution in the country -- unlike the political powers that be -- and as clearly enjoying wielding that power it has.
[It is a reminder again how poor a job the supposedly godless Soviet Union did of suppressing -- much less -- destroying institutionalized religion, this institution -- like the Russian Orthodox Church -- emerging more powerful than ever after the fall of that system.]
When the clock ticks down to Bugadze making his decision -- whether or not to formally and publicly apologize at a church-organized press conference, as he is pressured to do -- the pervasive power of the church really comes to the fore (even as the outcome is then almost anticlimactic).
Bugadze's encounter with the high and mighty -- there's an audience and meal with Shevardnadze, too, as well as meetings with the church patriarch (and his entourage) -- have an element of the comic in the absurdities of the situations, all involving a lot of the play-acting of power (and supposed concern).
Yet the country is also shaped by them: Shevardnadze's long-lasting dominance over his homeland, and the corruption around him, are a significant part of the backdrop, seeping into all aspects of Georgian life -- all then upturned when his regime suddenly crumbles.
Bugadze's account is very much personal, focused on his own experiences -- including a brief stint in the military reserves (unbelievably high blood pressure then keeping him away from any active duty) -- but in the small country the ripple effects of seemingly any and all events -- in politics, religion, and on TV (depending also on the channel ...) -- reverberate across the nation, into everyone's lives.
პატარა ქვეყანა is an entertaining if rather long (and occasionally longwinded) ramble through recent Georgian history and life, closely focused on the young author's life (with a few flashes to his much younger and also more recent day).
While the scandal is front and center throughout most of the novel, the story which all this fuss is about remains mostly in the background, which seems a bit of a shame -- though of course also accurately reflects the scandal, which wasn't so much about the literary text per se but rather about power (and who gets to decide for and over others) and about (the absurd notions that are) national and religious pride and feelings.
When Bugadze amusingly tries to explain to the patriarch that his story is simply: 'a fictional game, a text in the style of postmodernism' the patriarch responds: 'These -isms are dangerous' -- and one might wish that Bugadze had pushed that concept and conflict more strongly.
On the other hand, the situation blowing up around the story is so blatant that Bugadze's approach -- detail-focused on the everyday, rather than the real 'issues' (since they aren't very real, beyond the obvious) -- does make for what is likely a deeper and richer portrait of the country; the title translates as 'The Small Country', and that's what Bugadze captures and presents, warts and all.
It makes for a fine state-of-the-nation novel, during a time of rapid evolution (in some though certainly not all ways ...).
- M.A.Orthofer, 11 June 2019
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Other books by Lasha Bugadze under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Georgian author Lasha Bugadze (ლაშა ბუღაძე) was born in 1977.
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© 2019 the complete review
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