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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Human Sadness

Goderdzi Chokheli

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Title: Human Sadness
Author: Goderdzi Chokheli
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 144 pages
Original in: Georgian
Availability: Human Sadness - UK
Human Sadness - Canada
  • Georgian title: ადამიანთა სევდა
  • Translated by Geoffrey Gosby, Clifford Marcus, Ollie Matthews, Margaret Miller, and Walker Thompson
  • With an introduction by Levan Berdzenishvili
  • Edited by Lia Chokoshvili
  • Goderdzi Chokheli also directed a film based on the same material, ადამიანთა სევდა (1984)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing, unusual work (and translation)

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Human Sadness begins with the author recounting coming across a bundle of papers that: "told the story of nothing less than the extraordinary campaign undertaken in Gudamaqari by the villagers of Chokhi" -- his grandmother among them. Chokhi was the first village settled in Gudamaqari Gorge -- "historically and geographically it is a forgotten and inaccessible place" --, founded by the Chokhians. Others followed but the Chokhians remained a rank above in Gudamaqari: other villages had to swear their obedience to them:

The obedience consisted essentially in the bearers of other names recognizing the supremacy of the Chokhian name, and if a Chokhian came to them to ask for the hand of one of their women, in their not refusing, even if the husband-to-be was lame or blind.
       It is this second convention that led to the 'Gudamaqari Campaign': the local 'Worry Collector' who goes around collecting everyone's worries in his notebook gets to Worry No. 1679, Gamikhardai complaining that her son, Shete, has been turned down by a family from Didebani village. Concerned that others will similarly refuse to go along with this age-old tradition of giving their daughters in marriage when asked, the Chokhians decide to show not just Didebani who is boss, but all the villages in Gudamaqari Gorge: they launch a campaign to reässert their primacy in all of the twenty-six other villages in the gorge, and then, last of all, uppity Didebani as well.
       For all its seemingly militaristic ambition, the campaign isn't your usual one of conquest. Notably, most of the "valiant warriors and fighters" are women, as:
in the winter the men take the flocks out to pasture and the young people go to the city, and only the women and children are left in Gudamaqari.
       This goes for the villages they set out for as well, and means they often meet little resistance: the second village they get to, Lida, is practically deserted, with only an old man and his bedridden wife there (nevertheless: "We carried out the main assault on the husband and wife and they, too, submitted to us"), while in the next town over there's just a single woman to be found and she is close to death already.
       The author explained early on that: "since the records are all mixed up, I shall try to put them in order". There are five notebooks, kept by five of the participants, including the Worry Collector's Notebook, as well as those of the Historian-Geographer, the Philosopher, and the Writer, along with an Intelligence Section Notebook; there are also some letters "which the warriors sent to the inhabitants of the village". The bulk of the novel offers excerpts from these, chronicling the campaign and filling in some background, cycling through the various source-material stage by stage.
       After a successful conquest the Philosopher generally interrogates some local, asking them their name and some general philosophical questions, about the nature of life, the hereafter, and God, for example, and there are several such dialogues in the text. The (relatively easy) progress of the campaign is also chronicled, while the Writer's notebook -- titled: Human Sadness (about which the author notes: "I liekd that very much so that is what I called my novel") -- presents a variety of local stories.
       Early on, the author notes that he tends to end his stories with death -- "I love to end my stories with death" --, but the early part of the novel tends more towards the humorous. Among the early stories from the Writer's Human Sadness-notebook, is one looking back at how Christianity spread in Gudamaqari, with it taking some time to completely catch on, complete with a number of misunderstandings, making for one of the funniest episodes, but the dark edge that already shows itself here soon becomes more prominent. Natural death of course occurs, but there are also a variety of tragedies -- most poignantly then also with the final triumph, the Chokhians reaching Didebani, set to unite Shete with the woman he wanted to wed, which had triggered the whole campaign. A concluding story from the Human Sadness-notebook is a kind of add-on -- not so much part of the story proper, but in its themes -- it's titled: 'Carousing with Death' -- very much of a piece with the novel as a whole.
       A very playful narrative, Human Sadness shifts easily between the comic and the tragic; the short pieces it is put together from often get brutally quickly to the point. The pieced-together presentation -- not least with the author's asides thrown in along the way -- make for a narrative that doesn't flow smoothly, but nevertheless makes for a fairly cohesive if loose whole. Along the way, Chokheli reflects on and presents questions of life, death, and humanity in a variety of interesting ways. The country-life here has a slight fantastical edge to it, too, but despite how different life here is from that familiar to most readers, in treating these universal questions Chokheli's stories resonate with readers in the 'modern' world as well.
       Human Sadness is also an interesting exercise in translation, with editor Lia Chokoshvili explaining at the outset that:
The novel is narrated by five different characters each with a distinct voice which the translation seeks to emulate by having a different translator for each individual voice.
       Hence the five translator-credits.
       This seems to have worked out quite well as well; there are no real weak points among the different translations, while the differences between them are not jarring but rather seem entirely appropriate.
       Human Sadness is unusual in a variety of ways -- not least as a (very atypical) example of Soviet-era fiction -- but also enjoyable beyond merely that; it's very good to see this available in translation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 June 2024

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Human Sadness: ადამიანთა სევდა - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Georgian author and film director Goderdzi Chokheli (გოდერძი ჩოხელი) lived 1954 to 2007.

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© 2024 the complete review

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