Tamta Melashvili's 2015 novel, Eastwards, from which this excerpt comes, is the story of a young woman, Irina, in present-day Georgia, who is simultaneously suffering from depression, a vanished lover, and a taboo medical condition, vaginismus. She is researching Elene Dariani, a mystical poet believed to have had a secret affair with the famous Georgian poet Paolo Iashvili. Cofounder in 1915 of the Blue Horn Symbolists, Iashvili committed suicide in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge, when many Georgian writers were executed. In this extract––which references other famous Georgian poets such as Titsian Tabidze and Galaktion Tabidze––Irina is beginning to imagine that Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (who, like Stalin, was Georgian) was implicated in the poets’ mythic love affair.
She picked up the phone. First she glanced at her watch and then she made the call, thinking, It’s early, but he’ll be awake. Old men wake up early.
Revaz, sir, Mr. Rezo, good morning, it’s Irina.
Irina? Which Irina? Rezo must have been in a bad mood.
Irina. About Elene Dariani.
Oh, Irina! Irina Gasviani, is it? Irina Gasviani. Something’s bothering you, my dear Irina?
I’d like to see you again, Mr. Rezo.
Well, I’ll be. I don’t suppose you rang to ask how I am?
Irina couldn’t think of an answer.
What’s happened, girl, why don’t you tell me, Rezo softened. You really are a shy girl. Do you want to come round?
Yes, I want you to talk to me about Beria. I’ll only come today, I won’t bother you again.
You can bother me all you like. Go ahead. What am I for? Hang on, about Beria? You were interested in Dariani, in Paolo, in poetry, in “Beads of Coral,” isn’t that what you asked me to talk about? Why do you want to know about Beria now?
Irina was silent.
All right, come on over. What would you know about Beria? How could you know about Beria? Your generation only knows gypsy actresses on TV. And on the computer. Come on over.
Rezo put down the phone.
Irina went back to her laptop, which she’d left open. She opened Google and entered in Georgian: Lavrenti Beria.
She went through the list.
Lavrenti Beria’s Sex Crematorium
Lavrenti Beria’s Ghost and Tbilisi Buildings full of Secrets
Lavrenti Beria’s Secret
Lavrenti Beria’s Secret Diaries
Lavrenti Beria––the Bloodthirsty Tyrant
Lavrenti Beria and Women
Lavrenti Beria and His Women
Lavrenti Beria’s Love and Revenge
Lavrenti Beria––what Secrets did his Lovers take to their Graves?
Lavrenti Beria and the Case of the Treacherous Wives
Lavrenti Beria and the Actress Who Was Shot
Lavrenti Beria’s Revenge
Lavrenti Beria’s Fateful Speech
Irina felt a burning sensation between her legs. She switched off her laptop and rose heavily to her feet.
My blood pressure's high, there must be something wrong with me, said Rezo. What did you want us to talk about? Hang on, did you see them? The girls?
What girls? Irina couldn’t understand.
Iza and Liana.
Yes, I did.
Liana’s husband died.
Oh my God, what are you telling me, girl? Her husband was a young man. How come I never heard that her husband had died? I’ll telephone her later. I’ll offer my condolences. Poor woman. What did he die of? He was a young man.
Oh my God, said Rezo. Poor man. And Iza? Have you seen Iza?
Yes, I have.
You two haven’t quarreled, have you?
You can’t be in the mood for a talk today. Anyway, what brings you here? What did you say? What are we going to talk about?
Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria?
Was it Pavlovich? Yes, it was, Pavlovich. You want me to talk to you about Pavel’s lad? That snake with the glasses? That bastard? You don’t know, I suppose. If you can’t say something good about the dead, say nothing at all! Rezo was in a teasing mood. Can you say anything good about Beria?
Why can’t you?
Because Beria was a bastard.
What do you mean?
You can take it as you like: literally or metaphorically.
Shall I start recording?
Hang on, girl. Hang on for a bit. Get up: you can see a book on the top shelf. History of the Georgian Communist Party. On the right, girl, on the right, the top shelf. History of the Georgian Communist Party.
Irina sensed that she was being observed. Rezo was eyeing her up.
You had a very beautiful mother, didn’t you? What was her name?
Lia, said Irina.
And you had a handsome father, too; but your father was crazy, crazy and out of his mind, one of those Civic Warriors.
I’ve found it, said Irina with relief.
Open it to the first page, said Rezo. What do you see?
I see Stalin. Irina turned back to face Rezo.
Now the next page, what do you see?
A photo that’s been blacked out, said Irina. It’s covered in ink, who is it?
That was Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, a real child-eating monster! Can you see it?
Where does this man get these words from?
Now see what year the book was published in.
1949. Who did this?
Who blotted it out?
The whole of Georgia did, Rezo got up from his chair, the whole of Georgia did that. One day you’re in the heavens, the next you’re six feet under. Well. You are dirt and you get it thrown over you. This is not the ink on the photo, but the dirt. He died and he had dirt thrown over him. He died and they blotted him out, they burned him, they annihilated him. They poured ink over him. His name became taboo, taboo, taboo, do you get it? A taboo. After his death the pictures of him that were hanging everywhere were taken down and torn up, and they erased every place where his names, first name and last, were written. He’d killed enemies of the people and then became an enemy of the people himself. That’s life, isn’t it?! Eh? He exterminated half of Georgia. His troika tribunals. You know what a troika is, don’t you?
Yes, I read about it somewhere.
The troika was the Holy Trinity of its time, Rezo chuckled. You’re not a churchgoer are you, girl? Don’t be angry with me.
Well, just look at you! Good girl! You and I are the only non-churchgoers in all of Georgia. Long live Irina and me! Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll cut our heads off.
Irina gave him a conspiratorial smile.
Yes. Anyway, he died, how many years ago did they kill that man? Fifty? More—sixty! It was sixty years ago and not a single decent monograph has been written about him in this Georgia of yours, the Virgin Mary’s own country. Everyone avoids the subject. Everyone. They either won’t or they can’t write about it!
Rezo examined Irina once more.
What are you looking at me for, I’m a literary critic.
In short, nothing’s been written here. Here, unlike there. Rezo shook his head. Over there, in Great Russia, a lot’s been written. A lot, but it’s rubbish. Ideological rubbish. Even after the Soviet era, even now. All these ideologues have built up an Everest of lies, of their own lies!
Yes indeed, they have. What did you come here for? What interested you?
Was it possible, Irina couldn’t find the right words, was it possible that there was some connection between Beria and Elene Bakradze, also known as Elene Dariani . . .
I wouldn’t know now. At the time you could say that every woman was on Beria’s antenna, Rezo let his hand drop between his legs, people said he could hear the whispering coming from anybody’s love nest, you know?! He had both of your Elene’s husbands shot. What can you make of it? She was a beautiful woman, but was she? I wouldn’t know, to judge by those pictures she was an ordinary woman. There were a million like her walking about in Tbilisi, even more in Kutaisi. But look here, in that picture where she’s smoking a cigarette, and she’s wearing trousers, the one feminists tote about, you know that picture? She looks all right in that picture, you know it, don’t you? You can see that she had her own kind of charm. A photograph can’t capture it. That charm doesn’t show up in a photo. You can see she had something. Something that made the men go mad for her. Paolo. Her husbands. Who knows who else. Paolo was quite a womanizer, did you know that?
They both fell silent.
I’ve remembered a funny story about Beria, should I tell it to you? Rezo looked with one eye at Irina.
Well then, once Beria took his lover to Sokhumi. The one he had at the time. She was a nice woman, good-looking, a real beauty, an actress. Apparently, one day, this woman goes into the sea to bathe. She swims, splashes about, and suddenly her dentures fall out and she loses them in the wretched water. Hee-hee-hee, Rezo tested his own dentures with his tongue, this actress apparently had dentures, false teeth. She searches and searches, the poor girl dives but can’t find the dentures and goes back to the hotel, devastated. She sits there more dead than alive, waiting for Beria; the woman seems to be afraid that Pavel’s lad will shoot her when he finds out she has no teeth. She sits there more dead than alive and Beria, apparently, comes in and she falls at his feet: “Forgive me, forgive me,” and Pavlovich breaks out laughing. He laughs and laughs, so much that he almost chokes with laughter.
Did he shoot her?
No, no. He didn’t. But he dropped her. What's the use of a toothless woman? The story didn’t make you laugh, girl?
Well . . . no.
You must be in a sour mood today, I did say, smile, girl, laugh, girl! You’re a good-looking girl and there’s no light in you. Laugh! Shed a ray of light on your looks. Put on a short skirt, put a flower in your hand, cross the street, and stop the traffic! Spring is coming! Make eyes happy, hearts happy!
Irina tensed up.
Fine, fine, Rezo waved his hand. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes, Pavel’s lad, yes. What do you know so far? All the women remember him very well. What goes through a woman’s mind? “While she’s running about without a husband, a woman’s a woman. A woman’s a woman and she’ll find balm for herself,” I wonder who wrote that poem . . .
Clever you, clever girl! Rezo was pleased. You don’t write poetry by any chance?
Why not? Every good girl used to write poetry in my day.
I wouldn’t know, I don’t.
But you do like poetry, don’t you?
Yes, I do.
Very good! Fantastic, my dear lady. Well, what was I saying? A wife has a good memory, so does a mistress. Beria had not just mistresses, but a whole harem. He had harems, did you know that?
A harem, what else?
A-a-ah, said Irina.
Your generation doesn’t know Russian anymore, does it?
Do you know what a haramkhana is?
Well, he had a harem. A haramkhana. Every conceivable kind of woman was in it: blondes, brunettes, redheads . . . And these women remembered him favorably, by the way. Casual adventuresses, his mistresses, don’t remember him well. Those women scribbled various things later, books. They wanted to get rich at Beria’s expense, but they couldn’t benefit, who would believe them, nobody! His wife, though, did love him, by the way, did you know that? And she was a good woman, beautiful. Nina. Gegechkori. Yes, she loved him. Can you be in love with a monster? You can, you see. Women love monsters. He had another mistress, a girl, younger than you, almost a second wife. She too loved him. And that Nina kept on loving him. They couldn’t get her to say a single bad thing, so she died, saying only good things about her husband. Those were different times, do you understand? Do you have a boyfriend?
Why not, girl? Is reading poetry all you want, then? And that Elene Dariani?
Well, what can I tell you, said Rezo. If you’re a man with that amount of power, every woman is yours. Anyone you lay a hand on, they’re all yours.
Rezo fell silent for a short while.
True, Pavel’s lad wiped out half of Georgia, but people tend to forget that he also built the entire country. Beria was a builder. He really was! “Our orchards and meadows are blossoming, the sky is the color of emeralds, o builder of Georgia, may you live long, Beria!” He made Tbilisi look like a city. Now, you and I both use the drainage that he installed. He constructed the circus, he built the football stadium. Not just the circus and drainage, but the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for him, did you know that? And that’s not to mention intelligence and counterintelligence. Beria was a genius. They didn’t give him a moment, they had him shot. All of state power fell into the clutches of that dimwit Khrushchev! Khrushchev killed Beria, and how? Treacherously. One more Georgian had got stuck in the Russians' throat and they couldn’t shut him up! Rezo leaned forwards, the Chinese stole Beria’s plan for developing socialism, otherwise can you imagine what a country we would be living in? Not in a wretched hole like we are now! My God, Rezo suddenly put his hand on his heart, I get tired very quickly these days. My medicine’s right there next to you, pass it to me.
Yes, that one; water? Don’t I need water, girl?
Irina went out to the kitchen. Something was stinking in there.
He’s on his own, poor wretch. He’s an old man.
She held her breath.
Bless you, said Rezo. He sipped at the water. I get tired very quickly, you see.
I’ll go, said Irina. Thank you very much for everything.
It’s nothing, dear girl. Rezo had put his hand to his heart again. Come and see me now and again. Let’s talk, let’s recite poems, Irina. After all, I live alone. “That day white snow and loneliness fell. I opened the door, white snow burst in. I closed the door, loneliness moved in.” Who said that, then?!
Good for you! Congratulations, girl! You’re a star!
Thanks a lot, for everything, Irina got to her feet, take care.
Fine, fine, Irinola, said Rezo, as he moved heavily from his chair to his bed. Shut the door, then I’ll lock up.
I’ll shut it, take care, said Irina.
Frankly, this country could really use someone like Beria right now, wouldn’t go amiss! Rezo shouted from the room.
She quickly closed the door behind her and hurried down the hallway.
© Tamta Melashvili . By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 Patrick Donald Rayfield. All rights reserved.
Tamta Melashvili will speak about her novel Eastwards in the online event Medea's Daughters: Georgia's pioneering women in the arts, as part of the festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi, Writers’ House of Georgia and the British Library, will be livestreamed on Saturday, February 27, 2021 at 15:15—16:35 GMT. Bookers will be sent a link giving access and can watch at any time for 48 hours after the start time.