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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Otar Chiladze

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To purchase Avelum

Title: Avelum
Author: Otar Chiladze
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 348 pages
Original in: Georgian
Availability: Avelum - US
Avelum - UK
Avelum - Canada
Awelum - Deutschland
  • A Survey of the Current Press and a Few Love Affairs
  • Georgian title: აველუმი
  • Translated by Donald Rayfield

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Our Assessment:

A- : effective portrayal of (former Soviet) Georgia, history, and personal action

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review . 11/2013 Hamid Ismailov
Die Zeit . 10/6/1998 Alexandra M. Kedves

  From the Reviews:
  • "Awelum, ein überzeugender Prototyp dieser und so mancher anderen Schizophrenie des westöstlichen Landes, das bis zum heutigen Tag als Spielball strategischer und materieller Interessen herhalten muß, Awelum mit seinen ebenso symbolischen wie überaus realen Affären hängt in Cafés herum, säuft, hurt und läßt sich zuweilen als Vorzeigeschriftsteller hofieren, der ein bißchen Freiheit in seine Bücher sät. (...) Der andeutungsreich dahinströmende Text überflutet den Leser so, wie die Figuren und der Autor selbst von der Geschichte, den Ereignissen überwältigt wurden." - Alexandra M. Kedves, Die Zeit

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:

       Avelum is about a Georgian writer named Avelum -- a name which the author suggests: "is Sumerian and means 'free citizen with full civic rights', although the only source I have for this etymology is an old notebook of mine" -- who closely resembles author Chiladze. If not exactly fictional biography, Chiladze's portrait of Avelum is nevertheless very personal, right down to the similar works they have written.
       Chiladze explains that he means to convey that:

all his life Avelum has tried in every way to be just that -- a free citizen with full civic rights in a country, even if that country exists only in his imagination.
       Avelum is very much a novel a Georgia -- a Soviet Socialist Republic for most of Avelum's (and Chiladze's) life, but the book written and first appearing in a newly independent nation. There's a sense of fatalism -- "Probably nothing more was going to change for a long time here in Georgia, assuming that anything ever changed" -- while throughout Avelum struggles with his role in the process of political change. Two dates mark his life, both instantly recognizable to Georgian readers (both also sometimes call the 'Tbilisi massacre'): 9 March 1956, when Soviet troops fired on protesting students, and 9 April 1989, when Soviet troop again fired on protesters.
       These are historically fraught dates: 9 March was the third anniversary of the death of (Georgian-born) Stalin, and the protests in part a reaction to Khrushchev's 20th Congress denunciation of Stalin. As to the 9 April events: while it would be two more years before independence was declared, the 1989 clash was the turning point in anti-Soviet protests -- and is still celebrated as a public holiday in Georgia, the Day of National Unity.
       On both days, Avelum feels he falls short. In 1956 he sees an injured boy but is unable to really help him. In 1989 his daughter, called Little Katie, takes part in the protests, and winds up deeply scarred by events, compounding uninvolved Avelum's feelings of guilt.
       These two separate events and their fallout, so important in both the history of Georgia and in Avelum's own life, hover over the entire book, even as Chiladze shifts his focus elsewhere. Much of the novel, in fact, deals with entirely different matters -- in particular, Avelum's efforts at flight, both geographically and into love-affairs (his attempts to flee connected, as he travels to Moscow and abroad because of the women in his life).
       Avelum is married to Melania, the mother of Little Katie, and despite his straying he remains devoted to her and their family-unit in Tbilisi -- in no small part because of their shared history, which is also their shared national history:
Of all of Avelum's womanfolk, only Melania could understand him, because they endured together 9 March 1956 and 9 April 1989
       Still, back in still securely Soviet times Avelum and Françoise, visiting from France, began a long-lasting relationship. First mainly in a roundabout back and forth of letters, but then much more up-close-and-personal, when Françoise found an opportunity to move to Moscow for two years. Her great desire is, if she can't have Avelum all to herself, at least to have his child -- which she then does back in France, a girl that Avelum doesn't see until he visits when she is already thirteen years old (even then the visit happening: "more thanks to 'perestroika' than to his own efforts" -- in this as in many matters, he doesn't prove himself to be much of a man of action or initiative). Avelum doesn't lose touch with Françoise over the years, and there are reunions, but he also takes a new mistress back in the Soviet Union, Sonia -- to keep him busy or distracted: he's a man of passions, but rather self-absorbed in them.
       When their affair is still in its earliest stages, someone happens to tell Françoise about Avelum:
The man is pretty well our best known Georgian, but as a womaniser, not a writer.
       While clearly a well-established writer, the focus in Avelum is on his personal life. There is some mention of his (Chiladze-echoing) work and preoccupations, such as Abelum's dreams that are variations on "various episodes from his last novel" -- but literature hardly figures anywhere at the fore any longer. It is also a sign of the times, especially the times of Soviet collapse, as Chiladze notes:
But we, today's people, don't want literature any more. At best, we sell our books for recycling (as lavatory paper) or, if we need to, we use books as cheap fuel. Yes sir. As you like.
       A bit later, he hammers home his point:
One idiotic novel can easily give us tow or three rolls of lavatory paper. Anyway, to be frank, food for the soul, like any other food, sooner or later ends up as excrement of one kind or another.
       In some ways a larger than life figure, Avelum seems constantly to feel marginalized. His writing doesn't occupy an important place in these time any longer, it would seem, and the women in his life are set on their own paths, which he can stray onto but doesn't seem to play a significant role in. So, while his illegitimate French daughter greets him eagerly the first time they meet, by the time she's fifteen her focus is entirely elsewhere. Damaged Little Katie is largely lost to him, and his mistresses have lives of their own in which he plays, at best a peripheral role. It's tough for needy Avelum:
I was like the refugee trying to cram into a suitcase more than it would hold. Actually, I was trying to find a place in my life for love: that's why my whole being, all my life, was as taut as a violin string or a bow-string, to the point of pain
       Avelum remains a bystander to most events, marked already by the memory of the boy he couldn't save in 1956. Yet he is keenly aware -- and deeply troubled -- by what he sees and what happens, and especially the violent upheavals around him. Self-absorbed, he retreats into his love-affairs, but even he recognizes they only offer so much escape.
       Over the course of the novel Chiladze impressively presents a national portrait along that of Avelum: Georgia, and questions of national identity, purpose, and history repeatedly figure and are addressed, both overtly and more subtly. It is a novel specifically of transition -- even as it shows how transition itself is a constant -- and turns expertly on 9 April 1989 to present a remarkable account of this particular Georgian changeover, within the context of both Georgian history but also personal experience. In focusing so much on the personal, Chiladze also conveys history to much greater effect than more obviously 'historical' novels generally do.
       A powerful, personal work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 November 2014

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Avelum: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Otar Chiladze (Otar Tschiladse; ოთარ ჭილაძე) was a leading Georgian author. He lived 1933 to 2009.

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© 2014-2017 the complete review

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