ZOiS Spotlight 34/2018

Of writing and writers from Georgia

by Nina Frieß 10/10/2018
Nino Haratischwili Georgia made by Characters

“Georgia – Made by Characters” is the banner for Georgia’s showcase as this year’s Guest of Honour at Frankfurt Book Fair. It plays on the dual meaning of the word “character”, focusing on Georgia’s unique alphabet, which was added to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016, and on the authors who use it to create fictional worlds.

The elegant characters of the Mkhedruli alphabet are the dominant motif in the design of the Georgian pavilion at the Book Fair, as well as in the promotional material for the German book trade. It also features in a short animated video on a website set up specifically for the Book Fair. The video uses the 33 characters as entry points for an introduction to people, events, regions and artefacts of importance to Georgia and its history, creating the image of a modern country, very much on trend but with a strong awareness of its traditions. Although styled as a fairly conventional offering from Georgia’s tourist information industry, the video has some surprising political elements. The example chosen to illustrate ე [ɛ] is Enguri, a river which, we are told, flows through “a spectacular region of Georgia – Akhazia, currently occupied by Russia”. The frozen conflict over control of Abkhazian territory thus finds its way into this otherwise good-humoured PR presentation. The country’s Soviet past also makes an appearance. The narrative for the character ჯ [dʒ] refers to the jeans generation: “Generation of Georgians who wore jeans as a sign of protest against [the] Soviet regime”. Here, the emphasis is on the dissident movements, which undoubtedly existed in Georgia in Soviet times. However, a promotional video is hardly the place to critique the role played by Georgians in the Soviet Union.

Nino Haratischwili Ambassador of literary Georgia

One of the literary characters showcased at the Book Fair – in addition to the 70 or so authors visiting from Georgia itself – is Nino Haratischwili. The author and playwright, who lives in Hamburg, became something of a literary ambassador for Georgia in Germany following the publication of her novel Das achte Leben (Für Brilka) [The Eighth Life (For Brilka)] in 2014. Brilka and previous novels Juja (2010) and Mein sanfter Zwilling (My Gentle Twin) were published in German and were only later translated into Georgian. It is fair to say that the author is a much more familiar character to readers in Germany than in her country of origin.

Haratischwili’s latest novel Die Katze und der General (The Cat and the General, 2018) was shortlisted for the German Book Prize. Winning the award would have been the ultimate accolade for the Georgian showcase, which Haratischwili was heavily involved in promoting. The fact that she missed out on the prize may be due to her subject matter. The novel tells the story of Alexander Orlov, a Russian soldier in the First Chechen War (1994-1996) who is involved in the rape and murder of Nura, a young Chechen woman. In the years that follow, and with his moral compass in disarray after the atrocity, the fearless Orlov rises to prominence as the eponymous General, a Russian oligarch and one of the wealthiest men in Russia. But the past comes back to haunt him when his daughter Ada finds out about the young woman’s murder and takes her own life. In Berlin, the General encounters Cat, an actress of Georgian origin who bears a startling resemblance to the murdered Nura, whereupon he vows to bring her murderers to justice.

Political novels among the new releases

As in her previous novels, Haratischwili makes use of shifting perspectives and narrators, numerous flashbacks and changes of scene. Only at the end of the novel are these individual strands of the plot woven together into a – surprising – picture. By setting the denouement in Chechnya in 2016, Haratischwili moves into territory largely unexplored in contemporary literature. Her description of Chechnya only takes up a few pages, but is enough to expose the key lines of conflict in this autonomous republic, with its authoritarian regime, its suppression of any remembrance of the war, the increasing Islamisation of daily life, and the cult of personality around the “Holy Trinity”, as the novel calls them: Ramzan Kadyrov, his murdered father and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Die Katze und der General is Haratischwili’s second political novel after Brilka. In contrast to Brilka – which recounts the history of Soviet Georgia in the 20th century through the fate of one Georgian family, mainly from the victim’s perspective – her new novel focuses on the perpetrators, revisiting the classic themes of great literature: guilt and atonement, crime and punishment. In that sense, Haratischwili is in very good company at the Book Fair. The 100-plus new releases by Georgian authors include numerous political novels on topics ranging from the Georgian patriarchy to corruption after the collapse of communism, the outbreaks of violence in the 1990s, and the ongoing conflict in Abkhazia. Contemporary Georgian literature is one of the most political in the post-Soviet space. Frankfurt Book Fair is a chance to get to know it better.

Nina Frieß is a research associate at ZOiS. Her current project focuses on literature and power in the post-Soviet space.