Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.
Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.
Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.
They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.
At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.
Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.
Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.
The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.
When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.
Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.
“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”
There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.
He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.
“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued. “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.
When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.
In this charged work of autofiction, Bey explores her ties with the Algerian War for Independence, during which her father was killed.
“That was his war. Yes, it was a real war. His father, too, had had his war. And he had gone to it singing ‘The Marseillaise.’ Like him. And before him, his father’s father, and thus numerous generations caught in the often tragic snares of history.” These are the ruminations of Maïssa Bey’s unnamed female protagonist in her novella Do You Hear in the Mountains… as she rides a train somewhere in southern France. Originally published in 2002, the novella is a work of autofiction that explores Bey’s relationship to the Algerian War of Independence, during which her father was killed. The brief chance encounter of three strangers on a train begins a conversation that not only addresses the “often tragic snares of history,” as Bey’s protagonist writes, but also implicitly questions the process through which history gets recorded. The book serves as a porte-parole for a multiplicity of voices whose traumas have been silenced, in an excavation of untold pasts that bears the mark of a personal project.
Through truncated conversation, Bey’s characters slowly come to realize they represent different facets of a shared violent past.
“And there! We’ve come full circle! A pied-noir’s grand-daughter, a veteran, a fellaga’s daughter. It’s almost unreal. Really, who could have imagined such a scene? It looks like a television studio, gathered for a show by journalists in search of truth, hoping to lift the veil to shed light on ‘France’s painful past.’ All that’s missing is a harki. And especially, to emphasize this situation’s absurdity and strangeness, they should not neglect to introduce her not only as a fellaga’s daughter, but as herself obliged to flee her country to escape the fundamentalist madness.”
(The translator, Erin Lamm, provides notes that help the reader understand the terms that are left untranslated: a pied-noir, she explains, refers to an Algerian of French descent who supported French rule; fellaga is a derogatory term for an Algerian resistance fighter; and harki is the term used to describe members of the Algerian population who collaborated with the French army throughout the Algerian War of Independence.)
The veteran in the train car extracts the unnamed protagonist’s story from her semi-forcibly in an attempt to draw connections and make peace with his own participation in the French-Algerian conflict. Despite his attempts to “practice the culture of silence,” especially in relationship to his complicity in the war, his story also eventually comes to light. Through his revelation, the protagonist learns just how interconnected their histories are and she is left with both clarity and horror.
The protagonist’s feminist critique of violence is searing. Having fled Algeria’s widespread violence due to the Algerian Civil War that lasted from 1991 to 2002, an event that is occurring contemporaneously with the story, she meditates on her ironic refugee status in France: “Still, in this country, there are men. In every country, there are men. It is they who make it into a homeland. Who make it into hell. Or a country that’s nice to live in.” She relegates war and the project of nation to a masculine space and reflects on the patriotic tropes that serve as excuses for otherwise inexcusable actions.
Bey’s novella has just been published in the US alongside a collection of her short stories, Under the Jasmine at Night, in a single volume titled Do You Hear in the Mountains… and Other Stories. The book is part of a collection of Caribbean and African literature translated from the French and edited by University of Virginia Press as part of its CARAF Books series.
The short stories included in the volume examine the intersection of femininity and Franco-Algerian identity from a host of perspectives. It has been nearly two centuries since the French invaded Algiers in 1830 and began the process of establishing a 132-year imperial rule over their North African neighbors. It has also been over 50 years since representatives from both the French and Algerian governments signed the Évian Accords establishing the full independence of the Algerian nation. However, the legacy of French-Algerian relations remains murky and politicians, regardless of “side” or “position,” are reluctant to talk about decades of conflict and cultural exchange.
Bey’s stories address the manner in which these cultures have become mutually imprinted on one another. They take up the lived realities of immigrants who live in France, of Algerians who aim to negotiate the lessons of colonial history and subsequent independence, and of individuals who inhabit a space somewhere in between. From start to finish, the stories delve into the complexities of everything from love and domestic violence, to marriages affected by threats of repudiation and the corporeality of motherhood. They retain their gendered critiques as they explore a young girl’s first encounter with patriarchy, the role of rape in warfare, and the need to find spaces of sisterhood. Bey asks universal questions about the construct of race in discourses of immigration and about the cyclical nature of war. Her characters highlight our human need to connect with the past and to dream about the future. In doing so, each story accomplishes the feat of being grounded in a specific cultural reality and milieu while appealing to a broad audience.
The story titled “NOWHYBECAUSE” is a particularly compelling example of such an endeavor. It combines the innocence of its young, female protagonist with her curiosities about the world around her to reveal the limitations of growing up a girl in Bey’s Algeria:
Concrete examples, sentences to complete, according to social, moral, and cultural realities:
“Given that you are a girl…”
“The fact that you’re not married yet…”
“Seeing as he is a good catch…”
Let’s go back to childhood.
“So, can I go play downstairs with my girlfriend?”
(Pointing to my brother) “Why him and not me?”
"Because. You can’t. That’s how it is.”
The narrator reduces her relationship with her parents to this exchange of phrases and describes the slow realization that her brother did not face the same nowhybecause in his day-to-day. She also describes for the reader the process through which she learned to tell half-truths or to manipulate information to avoid the nowhybecauses. In a few short pages, Bey captures the reality of disparate gender realities and neatly times them to the “subordinating conjunction” her narrator disdains: because.
Lamm’s translation is beautifully rendered. The contents of the novella and the subsequent short stories may be sobering, but they provide a host of essential queries for the individual who enjoys a philosophically charged read. The edition is made all the more pleasant by its afterword, authored by Alison Rice, from the University of Notre Dame, who puts both Maïssa Bey and her writing into context for the non-specialist who wants to better understand Bey’s literary journey.
When representatives from Georgian publishing houses first visited the Frankfurt Book Fair at the end of the 1990s, they could only dream that in 2018, some twenty years later, Georgia would enjoy the status of guest of honor. Nevertheless, to our surprise and delight, the dream has become reality, and now, as if seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel, Georgian writers and publishers find themselves face to face with the most important project in their history, the main event of which is only days away. This light will guide Georgian culture to the heart of Europe, showing it the way as it takes those all-important first steps toward calmer waters after centuries of stormy seas.
The sense of expectation that surrounds the presentation to be made by the country chosen as guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair resembles the buildup to a great sporting event, and this year, our German colleagues have informed us, fairgoers are particularly excited. Everyone is keen to know the reasons behind the (some might say risky) decision by the organizers of the fair to give Georgia a platform alongside such heavy hitters as the Netherlands, France, Norway, and Canada.
Georgia will be the Guest Country at next month’s Frankfurt Book Fair. How will a country that remains almost completely undiscovered by the outside world cope with such a huge international project? Even more important, what does Georgian literature look like today? What did it look like in the past? And who are the Georgian writers worth reading, listening to, and maybe even meeting?
Perhaps one of the main reasons that Georgian literature, in spite of its long history, has never been widely read beyond its homeland is the unique three-script Georgian writing system, which was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. Georgian is written and spoken by only around three and a half million people in Georgia itself and fewer than one million emigrants. For the rest of the world, the language is almost completely inaccessible. From time immemorial, Georgians have regarded their language as a vital asset worth preserving at all cost, as was proven in 1978, during the Soviet period, when people came out onto the streets in huge numbers to protest the decision by the Soviet government to make Russian the official language of Georgia. They eventually forced the authorities to back down. However, such a unique asset comes at a price, and if Georgian literature is to achieve widespread popularity in the international arena, it is essential to support translation work with meaningful investment and promotion.
For Georgian writers, the Iron Curtain and the seventy-year Soviet regime proved to be almost insuperable obstacles in their quest for freedom from literary boundaries. During that period, it was essentially impossible to have translations and original writing published outside the Soviet sphere, and even within that sphere, publishing was always tightly controlled by the regime. Nevertheless, there were a few exceptions, such as the twelfth-century epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that rare book that could not be hemmed in even by the almighty Iron Curtain, such was its genius. Considered not only the most important work in Georgian literary history but also a masterpiece of world literature, it has been translated into around sixty languages.
In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, foundations were laid for the construction of an independent publishing sector (until then, only state publishers had existed), and slowly this new industry arose from the ashes of the USSR while simultaneously establishing and developing business relationships with publishers across the world. Over the last twenty-five years, the publishing and literary worlds of Georgia have come a long way, maneuvering past many roadblocks on the path to development. Now the baton has been passed to a new generation of caretakers, young people with modern outlooks who are working hard to integrate fifteen centuries of Georgian literature to promote it to foreign publishers.
Georgian writers have always had a powerful influence on the nation’s consciousness, and this is as true now as it was in the past. They are present whenever civil society battles injustice, and they continue to support efforts to consolidate democratic values in Georgia. Writers also played an important role in the period immediately following independence: during those difficult years, as the country struggled to reappraise its values and free itself from the influence of Soviet ideology, there were times when certain authors were shunned by the authorities and ordinary citizens, when their freely written words and freely formed opinions fell on deaf ears. And yet young writers—and here it is particularly important to underline the role played by women writers—went on talking and writing loudly and stubbornly as they strove to break down taboos. It is of course impossible, in the space of only two decades or so, for the country to free itself entirely of the Soviet mentality and ideology that wormed its way into people’s consciousness so destructively for seventy years, and traces of that ideology still appear from time to time in both society and the political arena. That is why you will often see Georgian writers alongside NGOs and ordinary citizens at demonstrations and on TV screens and social media. In public debates, politicians have found writers to be some of their toughest and most feared adversaries. You may also have spotted a group of Georgian writers and publishers at our national stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, holding up banners that read, “We are writers and publishers from Georgia. We have voices. We have power!”, “Stop Russia!”, and “Russia is an occupier!” to protest Russia’s occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Samachablo and its ongoing policy of “creeping occupation.”
With all this in mind, it is only to be expected that the most difficult and challenging topics arising out of the process of transformation from Soviet Georgia back to independent Georgia should still be fully present in contemporary Georgian literature. Indeed, what we find in Georgian literature today are works that represent an original and unique synthesis of largely European values and national traditions. In a country whose first novel and earliest surviving text tells of the martyrdom of Queen Shushanik, and where the twelfth-century ruler Tamar was so powerful she was given the title King, it is no surprise to find fiction dealing with feminist themes and questions of gender equality. Meanwhile, in a country where even today you can find a Georgian Orthodox church, a synagogue, a mosque, and an Armenian Apostolic church standing side by side in the capital, Tbilisi (a city noted for its historical tolerance of difference), and which has been invaded over the centuries by nearly all the major powers—the Arabs, the Mongols, the Seljuk Turks, the Ottomans, the Byzantines, and the Russians—it is equally unsurprising to find fiction about tolerance, war, and the importance of peace. At the same time, our writers have not forgotten to write about everyday life in Georgia, and you will of course also find in modern Georgian literature love stories, made all the sweeter by the times of hardship.
When we were choosing the authors to be featured in this edition of Words Without Borders, our main criteria were to show how original and varied contemporary Georgian literature is and to present a balanced selection of writing in terms of gender, age, and genre. For me personally, it was especially important to offer our overseas readers some interesting works of poetry alongside prose fiction, which tends to be the most popular genre independent of geography. After all, Georgia is often referred to as the Land of Poets! We have also taken this opportunity to present an excerpt from a work of Georgian nonfiction.
Thus, you will have the fascinating (I hope!) experience of becoming acquainted with the work of Naira Gelashvili and Teona Dolenjashvili, two female fiction writers from different generations, as well as with a piece of fiction by another important young writer from the youngest generation, Beka Kurkhuli. As for poetry, you will find works by two of Georgia’s most distinguished modern-day poets, Irakli Kakabadze and Lela Samniashvili. Finally, the fascinating Gela Charkviani has been chosen to represent the field of nonfiction.
Naira Gelashvili, born in 1947, is one of the most brilliant writers in contemporary Georgian literature. She is also an expert on German culture, a well-known literary critic, and a social activist. She quickly found a wide audience for her nonconformist writing at the very earliest stages of her career, and though she often received unwanted attention from the Soviet authorities as a result, she never stopped working, producing novels, short stories, essays, poetry, and children’s fiction and winning various literary prizes in the process. In 1994, Gelashvili founded the nongovernmental organization Caucasian House, which to this day strives for peaceful coexistence among the multicultural, multifaith peoples of the Caucasus. In recent years, several of her works have been translated into German, bringing her a significant readership in Germany. Here, we present an extract titled "Little Dipper" from her short novel, The Ambri, the Umbri, and the Arab, one of the most unusual love stories in the whole of Georgian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although it should be noted that the romance is merely the foundation on which Gelashvili builds an expansive universe. It is also worth noting that mythology—in both the cultural-traditional and the philosophical sense of the word—plays an important role in Gelashvili’s work, and the text we have chosen is no exception.
Teona Dolenjashvili, born in 1977, is one of the best Georgian writers to break onto the scene in recent years. She published her first book, the short story collection January River, in 2005 and since then has been awarded important literary prizes on several occasions. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and published in various overseas anthologies, and in 2008, her novel Memphiscame out in Italian. Her story “Meskhi vs. Meskhi” was chosen from her latest short story collection, Personal Christ, published in Georgia earlier in 2018. The story deals with a topic that has been widely discussed in Georgia in recent years: surrogacy. In 2014, a draft law imposing legally binding age limits of forty-one and forty-six for women and men respectively on IVF treatment was introduced into the Georgian parliament. The proposed legislation was met with an uproar in society, and thankfully its progress through parliament is currently stalled. “Meskhi vs. Meskhi” shows again how sharply attuned contemporary Georgian women writers are to the issues of the day and how powerfully they react to them. In addition to her literary achievements, Teona Dolenjashvili is actively involved in public life. At present, she is working on a project to build a modern seaport that meets international standards in the town of Anaklia, which lies on the border with the ancient Georgian region of Abkhazia, now of course occupied by Russia.
Beka Kurkhuli, born in 1974, is from the same generation as Teona Dolenjashvili but made his first appearance on the literary scene much earlier, in 1991. He worked as a reporter for several years during the wars that engulfed the Caucasus following the collapse of the Soviet Union, filing reports not only from the conflict zones—Abkhazia, Samachablo, and the Pankisi Gorge—created in Georgia by the wars against Russian forces but also from other regions of the Caucasus, such as Ingushetia and Azerbaijan, in addition to Afghanistan. Almost all of Kurkhuli’s books have won literary prizes. Here we present an excerpt from one of his most popular short stories, “The Killer,” from the collection The City in Snow, which was translated into Italian in 2018. “The Killer” deals with Georgia’s recent past, giving the author an opportunity to mold his professional experience as a war reporter into artistic form. The story depicts the lives of Georgian soldiers and partisans in Abkhazia during and after the Russo-Georgian war and describes the terrible effects of the war on ordinary Georgians and Abkhazians, who until then had been connected for generations by family ties, friendships, and shared territory.
Kurkhuli won the important Littera Prize in 2018 for his short story collection Skandara and Other Short Stories; Lela Samniashvili took the poetry prize for her latest collection, Thirty-Seven. Samniashvili is one of the most well-known and distinguished poets in Georgia. Her poetry is characterized by rigor and precision, while her poetic voice possesses a highly original sonority. She was born in 1977, and in 2007 received a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Oslo. She is the author of several prizewinning collections of poetry, and her work has been translated into English, Dutch, Italian, Azerbaijani, and Russian. Samniashvili is also active in the field of translation, and many Georgians know her as the translator of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. For this publication, we have chosen two of her most brilliant poems, “A Run in My Stocking” and “Military Drills.”
The poet Irakli Kakabadze was born in 1982 and is the author of four collections of poetry and one book of short stories. For several years he worked in the public sector, specifically at the National Center for Teacher Development in Tbilisi, a legal entity under the Ministry of Education and Science in Georgia. Following his first appearance on the creative scene, while still a civil servant, he rapidly made a name for himself as a passionate social activist and an indefatigable defender of human rights and freedom of speech, and these are precisely the topics he deals with in his work, which is noteworthy for its originality. Even while still employed by the civil service, he never shied away from harsh criticism of the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church, but eventually, due to the impossibility of reconciling his work for the government with his activism, he was forced to make what was, for him, an unbearably difficult decision and leave his homeland for Turkey. Kakbadze now lives in Istanbul. He owns a café called Café Galaktion, named after the great Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze, and spends the rest of his time popularizing Georgian culture throughout Turkey, teaching Georgian to ethnic Georgians living in Turkey and responding through his writing to controversies back home. For this publication, we have chosen Kakabadze’s poem “The Children of Beslan,” dedicated to the victims of the bloody confrontation between sub-units of the Russian Special Operations Forces and Chechen extremists in a school in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. We also offer a selection of Japanese tanka. Kakabadze uploaded a number of these short poems to various social media sites over the course of several years under the pseudonym Iaki Kabe, fooling many into believing they were the work of an unknown Japanese poet translated into Georgian. His tanka became so popular on the Internet that when they were published in book form, the book topped the national bestseller lists. To this today, interest in this side of Kakabadze’s work shows no signs of flagging.
Last, but definitely not least, we present Gela Charkviani—diplomat, pedagogue, writer, television personality, and showman. Charkviani was born in 1939 into the family of Candide Charkviani, first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia under Stalin, and thanks to his famous father was known as the Communist Crown Prince. (In 2000, Gela Charkviani’s son, the musician and writer Irakli Charkviani—the most eccentric member of Georgia’s underground scene from the nineties onward, who created alternative music that even today, after his tragic death, enjoys unprecedented popularity in Georgia—was given the nickname "The King," prompting Gela to joke that this made him both the son and the father of kings.) Eleven Years by Shevy’sSide (here excerpted as "Shevardnadze and Me: The Beginning")is Charkviani’s personal, professional, and political autobiography. More precisely, it is the autobiography of a multifaceted individual in a multitude of roles. He begins life as Communist Crown Prince and grows into a rebellious Soviet youth drawn to banned music and the urban underground. Later he becomes an enthusiastic proselytizer for the free world on the other side of the Iron Curtain (he was one of the few individuals who were allowed out of the Soviet Union, traveling to America in 1970 and taking courses at the University of Michigan), as well as the author of numerous policies reflecting social initiatives. From the 1990s onward, he worked as chief foreign policy advisor to President Eduard Shevardnadze, spokesperson for President Mikheil Saakashvili, and ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the United Kingdom. Over the last few years, he has published a series of books, including his autobiography, excerpts from his notebooks, and other works of documentary prose, all of which have taken their rightful place on the year-end bestseller lists.
Understanding the historical, political, and cultural backdrop against which these authors, with their diverse worldviews and life experiences, are writing is important to making an unfamiliar literary culture a little less unfamiliar. Their appearance here constitutes a big step forward on the great journey of bringing Georgian literature to the world.
Poet Hiroaki Sato, whom Gary Snyder has called "perhaps the finest translator of contemporary Japanese poetry into American English," reminisces about his collaborations with Ashbery.
Photo Credit: Seiji Kakizaki. John Ashbery and Hiroaki Sato in
September 1991, on the occasion of the publication of
Sato's translation of A Wave into Japanese.
Toward the end of 1973, I was about to move from my apartment on the Upper East Side to one in Chelsea when I received a card. To my surprise, it was from John Ashbery, saying he liked my translation just out, Spring & Asura: Poems of Kenji Miyazawa. Not that I’d known him in person. It was my fifth year in New York, where I’d moved as soon as I finished my graduate studies in English and American literature, in Kyoto, and I recognized the name Ashbery only because it was in one of the books I bought here, such as Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, as I started translating Japanese poetry, though it’s possible that Michael O’Brien, the poet who had helped me translate Miyazawa, told me about him.
During the 1960s, Japanese college courses in English poetry stayed with safe greats: Sidney, Shakespeare, Herrick, Dryden, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning, Dickinson, Whitman. I’d read Pound because my poetry teacher, Lindley Williams Hubbell, taught “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” with notes that he mimeographed for us. Thanks to Hubbell, too, I’d read some Eliot, including “The Waste Land.” But even Hubbell, the 1927 recipient of the Yale Younger Poets prize for his Dark Pavilion, did not cover Beat poets, despite the fact that Ginsberg and others were all the rage in Japan around 1960, something I learned belatedly—only a few months ago, in fact—in writing about Kazuko Shiraishi’s book of poems in Yumiko Tsumura’s translation, Sea, Land, Shadow.
Ashbery had included his address, and it was, to my further surprise, on the street I was moving to. I wrote him at once to thank him. Was I also forward enough to tell him I’d be his neighbor soon and propose to meet him? Perhaps. Along with Spring & Asura, I had three other translations out that year: Poems of Princess Shikishi (a chapbook), Ten Japanese Poets, and a special issue of the Chicago Review, Anthology of Modern Japanese Poets. So, not long after settling down in the new apartment, I walked west, past just a half-dozen buildings, to see him.
That evening, when asked what I would like to drink, I said vodka—my drink since a few years earlier, when the two women who asked me to “teach” them haiku, Eleanor Wolff and Carmel Wilson, invited me to a restaurant called Napoleon. My college days in Japan just over, I wasn’t used to American restaurants with a battalion of liquor bottles or, for that matter, American etiquette. Thus, when Miss Wolff, asked me, “What would you like to drink?” I was at a loss. Quickly discerning my plight, she, who had spent her youth in Paris, summoned a garçon—and the garçon recited a long list of liquors. Confused, I meekly said, “The first one.” That was vodka. Thus it had become my drink during the soirées before each haiku session at either of the two ladies’ places.
Ashbery fetched me a drink. He didn’t drink himself, saying he was on the wagon. I got drunk fast. And what did I prattle on about? The art of translation! I was full of myself, to be sure.
In the following days, and years, when I stepped out the front door of my building to go to work, I’d occasionally see him, and when he happened to see me, he’d smile. Most often, I’d see him walking away. In those days, in New York City, dogs could drop their feces anywhere on the street and their owners weren’t required to collect them. Was he negotiating those hazards as he walked? I had read a story about Wallace Stevens: a woman who lived in a house on a street Stevens took every morning to his insurance company would sometimes see him stop and walk backward a couple of steps, as if rearranging the rhythm of the verse he was composing in his head.
I learned—probably from Robert Fagan, the poet who was helping me translate at the time and for a long time afterward—that Ashbery was the poetry editor of Partisan Review, and I sent him Ozaki Hōsai’s haiku, a batch of 150, all translated in one line. Hōsai (1885–1926) was among the haiku writers who started ignoring the two basic requirements of the genre: the form of five-seven-five syllables—defining the haiku as a verse form of three lines is a foreign invention—and the inclusion of a seasonal indicator, kigo. To my surprise again, Ashbery accepted the whole set, without comment, and published it in the January 1979 issue of his magazine. For a magazine to accept so many haiku at once may have been unheard of, before or ever since, in Japan, let alone the United States.
In the summer of 1982, Hisao Kanaseki, a scholar of modern American literature whom I knew arrived in New York under the aegis of the U.S. Information Agency, to visit a dozen artists, Ashbery among them. Since Ashbery lived on the same block, Kanaseki came to visit me after interviewing him and said Ashbery told him that he learned about the genre haibun—a short essay-like prose piece written with a haikai spirit, usually accompanied by a haiku or two—from the anthology of Japanese poetry that I translated with Burton Watson, which had come out in the previous year under the title From the Country of Eight Islands. I was happy, then, to see Ashbery’s book of 1984, A Wave, include “37 haiku,” composed all in one line, and six haibun. A few years later, when a chance arose for me to write a book about English haiku, in Japanese, I included four of Ashbery’s haibun.
When that book, Eigo Haiku, with the English title, Haiku in English: A Poetic Form Expands, came out in 1987, the Japan Society had an event for it, and its auditorium was packed—clearly because of the popularity of haiku, but also because of Ashbery’s participation. And because of him, a New Yorker writer came and during the reception talked to me, with a small tape-recorder in one hand. But I evidently failed to say anything that would have tickled the suave readers of the weekly. Whatever she might have written didn’t make it to “The Talk of the Town.”
One day in 1989, Ashbery telephoned me to say he was in trouble: a Japanese professor who had invited him to Japan for a round of readings told him he couldn’t come with his partner, though Ashbery told the professor he’d happily pay for his expenses. So I called Kanaseki, and Kanaseki called the professor, and the matter was settled. Kanaseki had much greater academic weight in Japan. In a recent letter, Ashbery’s partner David Kermani, told me that the professor was “not a nice person” in Japan, either, so the two visitors took to calling him “Mr. T”—a popular figure in the U.S. entertainment business at that time.
So it was Ashbery, and his book A Wave, that I chose when the Tokyo poetry publisher Shoshi Yamada agreed to do a book by an American poet in my translation. My translation, as you can imagine, endlessly flummoxed the publisher’s editors, however much they were used to some of the more intractable modern Japanese poetry. Ashbery’s poetry, in stark contrast to his art reviews in New York and other magazines, was infamously “opaque,” or, as Larissa MacFarquhar put it in TheNew Yorker (September 5, 2017), of the kind that made readers wonder “why he had to go so far out of his way to contort his sentences, if ‘sentences’ was even the right word for whatever they were.”
There also was my cultural and literary deficiency. For example, I didn’t know that Sabrina in “Description of a Masque” originally came from Milton’s masque Comus (though I had majored in English literature) until my poet friend Geoffrey O’Brien pointed it out to me. I had thought the name referred to the heroine of Billy Wilder’s film of that title starring Audrey Hepburn. So I provided my translation of Ashbery’s “Masque” with half a dozen footnotes, though that was an exception.
Ashbery, who had lived in France for about ten years, said that when his poems were translated into French, he helped his translator. But I did not bother him with my translation. It wasn’t just that he evidently didn’t know Japanese, but I knew that once I started asking him questions, I would have drowned him.
I must add that I was particularly presumptuous in translating A Wave. At the time, I read somewhere an article about him—perhaps in the New York Times Magazine—that Ashbery worked for a set amount of time every morning, without fail. I decided to copycat him and tried to work on translating A Wave for a certain amount of time every day, regardless.
Nami Hitotsu came out in 1991. It looked more impressive, I dare say, than the original, from Viking. With 300 pages, it was three times heftier than the ninety-page original. Shoshi Yamada is famous for turning out beautiful books, and my translation was stylishly produced, with the cover design incorporating the sculptor Masaaki Noda’s painting “Inducement.” The book came with a pamphlet, a selection of writings on Ashbery—an essay Geoffrey O’Brien wrote for the book, as well as excerpts from commentaries by Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Charles Berger, and Anita Sokolsky. In my translator’s afterword, I contrasted Ashbery with Gary Snyder, who had written a blurb for Spring & Asura. To do so, I quoted the two poets’ autobiographical statements included in Paris Leary and Robert Kelly’s anthology, A Controversy of Poets, and ended with my translation of Snyder’s poem “Civilization.” In essence, I wanted to have Ashbery represent “culture,” Snyder “nature.”
When I received copies from Tokyo, I took a couple to Ashbery. During some chitchat, he asked how it came about that I translated a book of his. I told him that back in 1973 he had sent me a card complimenting Spring & Asura. He said he didn’t remember doing that at all.
A few weeks later, we had a party with him and several other poet friends of mine reading in Lenore Parker and Robert Fagan’s loft. My photographer friend Seiji Kakizaki, who had taken some memorable shots at the party for my first books eighteen years earlier, was on hand to take some good photos.
Nami Hitotsu was praised by a number of Japanese poets. Among them was Kazuko Shiraishi, who wrote a long review, concluding that through my translation she could see “one gleaming wave” in the offing of “mystery and maze.” But Nami Hitotsu didn’t sell—in fact, the publisher, Shoshi Yamada, lamented a few years later that of all the books it had published, Nami Hitotsu was the worst seller. It is still available from the publisher, if not from Amazon or any other bookseller.
I might have expected something like that. I hadn’t ask for a translation fee. And, knowing that it would cost a bundle if the publishers got involved, I talked to Ashbery. He agreed to skip his publisher, giving his personal permission for the translation and its publication free of charge.
Following Nami Hitotsu, there appeared two Ashbery books in Japan, as far as I can tell. One is Selected Poems of John Ashbery in the Shichōsha series of modern American poetry in collaborative translation. The series is based on the idea that if a translator and a poet work together, the result will be best—that a poet should be able to transform a mere translation into “poetry.” In the case of the Ashbery volume, which came out in 1993, the poet was Ōoka Makoto, a prolific literary critic who himself did a good deal of translation from French, and the translator the scholar of American literature Iino Tomoyuki.
(As I write this, I remember my vague puzzlement two decades ago. In 2000, when Ōoka spoke at the annual Sōshitsu Sen Lecture Series at Columbia University, Ashbery was in the audience and at the dinner that followed, and I wondered why. Now I know. Ōoka had worked on Ashbery’s poems.)
In 2005, Tomoyuki published a book of essays on Ashbery under a title that may be translated John Ashbery: Poetry “in Praise of Possibilities,” abundantly quoting Ashbery’s original poems, followed by his own translations. The established house Kenkyūsha, famous for its English-Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries, published the book.
Have these two books affected Japanese readers’ understanding of John Ashbery? That is hard to guess. Some may have found inspiration in the way he wrote; but Japanese poets have been writing in quite unconventional ways for a long, long time.
On September 3, 2017, the world lost John Ashbery, the pivotal American poet whom the New York Times hailed as "a tradition unto himself." On this, the first anniversary of his death, Words Without Borders pays tribute to this giant of American letters with work from three poets and translators working across varied languages and literary traditions. Fady Joudah contributes "The Poem as Epiphyte," a poem in conversation with Ashbery's poetics; poet Hiroaki Sato (whom Gary Snyder has called "perhaps the finest translator of contemporary Japanese poetry into American English") reminisces about his collaborations with Ashbery, including the translation of the American poet's work into Japanese; and Uruguayan poet Roberto Echavarren, a personal friend of Ashbery and translator of his work into Spanish, considers what set Ashbery apart and his legacy vis-à-vis other poets, not only those from the US but abroad. May these "delicious few words spread around like jam" provide a fitting tribute to a true original who lives on through his work.
Uruguayan poet Roberto Echavarren, a personal friend of Ashbery and translator of his work into Spanish, considers Ashbery's poetics and his legacy vis-à-vis other poets in the US and internationally.
The Voice, the Voices
Unlike the Beat Poets (Allen Ginsberg in particular), poets of the New York School like James Schuyler and John Ashbery wrote to be read rather than heard. Frank O’Hara was a possible exception, and Schuyler also occasionally declaimed in public with tact and subtle authority, to notable effect. Ashbery, less accessible at the spoken level due to the length and complexity of his rhythmic sequences and the abruptness of his transitions, declaimed in a rather uniform tone, with soft, sometimes imperceptible emphasis, as if his voice were a supplement, an almost unnecessary accident in the process of the poem’s transmission.
In this way, he underlined the fact that writing is a vehicle for effects unrelated to the mimesis of the voice. The poet’s voice is no longer a literal one. On the page, it splits into many “voices.” But there’s more: the lines become autonomous, though not completely independent from the voice’s dramatic effects.
The poem has its “music,” the rhythms and pauses provided by line breaks and syntax. The “voices” lack neither substance nor emotion but aren’t thoroughly human. The poem is the voice of no one, the voice of things, not even a voice. It is a “[H]umorous landscape without music / Written by music,” “an almost inaudible piccolo,” “a visible soundtrack,” or a “quartet” in which the instruments take turns and their notes become intertwined. T.S. Eliot’s title, Four Quartets, similarly alludes to the prosopopeia—the personification—according to which the poem’s voice is composed of an instrumental chord. Each “voice” attaches itself to an abyssal body, lacking identity, in a state of becoming that embraces, accumulates, and combines turns of phrase, colloquialisms, and verbal strategies but also opens up a register different from conversation.
While this may be said of nearly all poetry, it is particularly evident in Ashbery’s work, since he resorts neither to oral demagoguery nor to an immediate, straightforward transparency of interpersonal feelings nor to a “sincere” or flawless communication.
Ashbery’s poetry is not confessional. While it may explore the impact of events and actions, it does not brandish biographical anecdotes (either in a veiled or explicit manner). Instead, ironic and serene, it skirts a mystery—the loss of any prior happiness. The witness to a previous situation “lands,” so to speak, in a new moment, but that which was contemplated and lived in the past has now been erased. The new moment has no memory, no sympathy for memory; it forces the witness to begin anew. Deprived of relics, he must embark on the next “chapter,” improvise new verbal actions in the void. His responsibility is to face the present moment, and he explains, in addition, why he can do nothing else. From the point of view of reading and writing, the verses do not represent a recovery in the face of forgetting; on the contrary, they expose forgetting and loss.
The length of some of the poems challenges the possibility of self-representation, of being present to oneself, of knowing oneself. It is impossible to reconstruct the advances and setbacks of a thought process, a dream, or a romance. These different versions and evocations of selfhood mingle; they contradict each other; they distort and erase. Both poet and reader find that they do not control each and every intertextual allusion brought into play by the preceding lines, nor can they follow each twist and turn in the ensuing ones. The attention afforded a poem—particularly a longer one—will be dazzling but intermittent. Neither the poet nor his reader can avoid getting lost, forgetting the fragments they’ve just read momentarily or forever. They find themselves in medias res, not knowing where they are. They dwell in an interrupted fragment made of words and books.
Each reading recontextualizes, equivocates, and burns poetic material in the daily sacrifice of other lives that respond to diverse circumstances and particularities. One does not read a poet, or even a poem. The poem can offer a “bite” of “pleasant intuition,” since in it we glimpse something unexpected that moves us, which we find interesting or beautiful due to a personal matter, or to experiences that prepare us for it. Aesthetic judgment, then, is subjective. The strength of our conviction makes it seem universal, but in fact it is singular. It is, then, an illogical universal.
Outbursts of irony mock the absurdity, blindness, and partiality of the pretensions of a purported lyric self, which splits in an instant, laughing at its own folly. Despite this, it does not dismiss the validity of its attempts but acknowledges the limits of self-control, in a poetic confirmation that things do not go as planned. An unavoidable disturbance undermines the reasons that would seem to lead to this or that conclusion. The ruins of these pretensions trigger a renewal of hope, in landscapes invented to conceal an absence, “wasted with eternal desire and sadness.” The poem displays a crisis of self-knowledge and of the possibility of communication: “Will they finally see us as we are?”—a mixture of acute rage and disarming humor.
The provisional lyric self laughs at its own inability to calculate, and at its forgetfulness. But this lack of memory is what makes writing possible, forces mistakes and conjectures to be made, hurried along by urgency and expectation. The poem comes to substitute that which does not become present, invokes an empty moment outside time, a rebellious moment outside speech. The poem is the symbolic sequence that implicates and betrays that moment, translates it while allowing it to escape, passes through it to leave it intact.
The humor directed at the self, the irony, the splitting of the lyric subject reveal the poem to be an ambiguous blessing, an opportunity for both sadness and happiness for receiving both bad and good news. The poem is a “tragic euphoria.”
Somehow, things work out, and fall into place. The “meditation” is testament to these unpredictable arrangements. The subject has no prior knowledge of who he is; according to the poem’s lines, he is one and many and nobody, a bundle of surprises and contradictions, and, furthermore, a mystery at risk of oblivion. Each signifier represents and at the same time obliterates him. In Ashbery, lines are sustained not by an I but by a “sigh.” The pronoun representing the subject can be an I but also and thereafter, especially in the longer poems, a you, he, she, we, or they. The poem is a colossus that speaks, a soliloquy that ousts the unambiguous I. Each pronoun serves as a provisional stepping stone for an obliterated subject.
The poem streaks by, like a “bad comet” or a vehicle with uneven wheels, spurred on by a “dream.” It streaks by without fulfilling its meaning, depriving us, in the end, of a satisfactory explanation. The poem, and the poet along with it, slips away, taking refuge in darkness.
The Tour de Force
The Ashbery poem is a succession of states, of atmospheres. Its course is established between vigorous blows, a flapping of wings, a “rowing towards you,” metaphors of diverse actions, isotopes that, overlapping, stay open a crack to let in the light. The act of maintaining that valve open entails a tour de force.
The muted background of sounds and repetitions, the insistences and pauses, the acceleration or elongation, speculate about a region of darkness. But the poem follows a blazing trail of light, always at a speed that renders its effort pathetic; it inhabits and homes in on the “back of the mind,” remaining there for a few moments.
This isn’t to say that the Ashbery poem is abstract. On the contrary, it consists of a set of verbal performances and panoramas for the spectator to behold. Although the meaning of the moment is stolen, the process is not “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” While it does indeed have fury and sound, it also contains a plethora of successive and accumulated partial meanings, always susceptible to suspended revisions, never complete.
Each phrase leads, through resemblance or conjecture, to a referent, to a state of things that in itself remains misunderstood. Each picture is inaccurate but not in the sense of any lack of artistry. It is precisely due to this artistry that the picture’s incompleteness can be exposed.
Somebody notes, scribbles down, and concludes each occurrence without achieving a distinct result, passing through it, carrying it out, as if crossing the street. The intentions are equivocal, availability is all that matters.
To “sing” is all that is left, all that can be done to precariously bore through the “back of the mind,” but it isn’t enough. It makes us neither transparent nor immortal. The poem is an occasional lookout tower, from which the imminent surrender of the self can be glimpsed.
The poet dreams while waking, through “a sail of some afternoon,” drifting between islands on a houseboat; he disembarks on one of them, holding onto the lines’ texture to avoid being crushed too soon against the shoal.
But in the end, words carry an “evil burden” that destroys anyone who utters them. Posterity or “stellification” is “for the few,” and consists, in any case, of a misunderstanding: readers believe they recognize an experience unrelated to that which led to the poem’s writing. It is a different experience, responding to different circumstances unique to the reader. The poem seduces precisely because of its lack of transparency.
The Messenger, the Message
Someone moves incessantly to remain in the same place, in life, in the backyard, at the back of the mind. The mind has two spaces and two doors, a house and a backyard, a front door and a back door. The furnishings in the house are conventional, the front door opens to guests, but the garden is rough, formless, a specter of fragrances and semi-deserted stillness.
From a daily privation, from an absence, from a “slamming door,” sounds a murmur that was always there but which before was impossible to hear. Otherness, the Other, a message, a self-sufficient messenger who is the message, a courier, an Indian runner, an angel is near, growing because no one takes possession of him, nor should they do so. That phrase, that angel-message, is “a breeze that’s pointed from beyond the tomb,” the speech of the dead, which is resurrected with them. It momentarily occupies a cave, a crypt—or the backyard—profaned by its conjectures. That phrase is the only way to achieve a half-presence; it participates ironically in the flirtation, invokes and maintains the Other, or otherness, at arm’s length, in a foreign skin. It seduces because it is beyond reach.
Some things, gestures, reveal themselves, but against an undefined aura or horizon; from the curve of a lens, a visible half, a hyperbola, is projected onto the still unseen other half, a complete vision of which is never attained. The backyard is an atmosphere, an available experience, a yet imprecise idea.
The poem is not ahistorical; it becomes a history as it is written, in that very moment. It therefore lacks the exemplary nature of a completed cycle, nor does it merely repeat the repertoire of formulas catalogued by an antiquarian, nor is it only critical of that history. It demonstrates a historical enthusiasm. It is a flow chart, a measure of the tide.
One should gain access through “hunches” to a position that is nevertheless impregnable, which cannot be conquered at a glance. It is necessary to focus on every minor detail because each one is eloquent, not for what it is but for what it implies. It betrays the circumstances of a feeling, neither foreign nor intimate, that can be glimpsed. The poem culminates neither in positive knowledge nor in any kind of moral. It is playful and rejects hierarches; anything can be worthy of consideration. It trains its attention on each detail through which feeling passes.
Ezra Pound identified three “kinds of poetry,” three ways in which poetry can be pushed beyond its meaning: 1) melopoeia, the charging of the words with musical, rhythmic, phonetic qualities; 2) phanopoeia, the use of visual images; 3) logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words,” the play of the mind upon all facets of verbal expression. Of course, all three of these aspects may be present in the same poem. The role and relevance of each is a question of emphasis, of stylistic inflection. Unlike Brazilian concrete poetry, for instance, Ashbery’s poetry is not essentially based on melopoeia. Unlike that of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams, Ashbery’s poetry does not rely on image, even though it traverses many landscapes. His is a syntactic poetry, anti-logocentric in the sense that it regards its verbal materials—the figures and tropes that make up the poem as a whole—with irony.
For Pound, the work of Uruguayan poet Jules Laforgue is a notable example of logopoeia. Perhaps something similar can be said of the painter Giorgio de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros (which Ashbery translated from the Italian), or of Wallace Stevens’ long poems. It seems to me that this is the tradition in which the poetry of John Ashbery is inscribed.
Ashbery writes, “the object of all this meditation will not/ Infrequently turn out to be a mere footnote to the great chain / That manages only with difficulty to connect earth and sky.” Poetry thus becomes “notes towards a supreme fiction” (in accordance with Stevens’ title) that “with difficulty” brings together the dimensions of “earth” and “sky.” The poem does not connect things already there, like the banks of a river. Edges emerge as edges only in the confluence effected “with difficulty” by the poem; dimensions that exist only when united, when brought into play through a precarious feat. The poem does not symbolize things that exist previously, that are not the poem itself. The poem is a thing, an allegorical artifact, the tunnel through which an occurrence passes.
One dimension, the sky, falls upon a deserted garden, and all that reveals itself in that space (also called “the back of the mind”), all that corresponds to the earth, acquires a hallucinatory being, of true and clear-eyed affect. The poet and the reader no longer seek in reality the illusion of love with which desire deceives them. The poem is the place where the real acquires the full range of its possible dimensions, even though their meeting is neither a known totality nor a final result nor a lasting object but rather a precarious alliance.
The poem makes use of its syntax while also questioning it. The subject is represented by alternative pronouns that transgress the rules of gender, number, and identity; the verbs, predicates, subordinates, and adverbial locutions function as pawns and tokens that displace and are displaced by the poem. Not even principles such as the logic of non-contradiction reign supreme. The poem’s being is autonomous though not independent from these principles, and it makes use of them for as long as they are of use, but its “thought” moves beyond contradiction through paradox or “conceit.” Ashbery considered giving his book Shadow Train the title “Paradoxes and Oxymorons.”
The poem recognizes no obstacle in itself; it is an excess, but it should, in its irony, recognize a pre-existing if unknown limit. At some point, the poem will pause, triumphant though defeated by fatigue; what matters is the road traveled, the precarious meeting between “earth” and “sky,” the space opened up, the occurrence identified by the poem, rather than the end product itself.
The human embryo has a special status because of its potential for development to a stage at which everyone would accord it the status of a human person.
—The Warnock Committee (U.K.), Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology, 1984
Children born by artificial insemination will also be problematic, for their lives have developed as a result of the destruction of numerous embryos.
—Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia, Christmas Epistle, January 2014
Listen to Teona Dolenjashvili read "Meskhi vs. Meskhi" in the original Georgian
Marika dreamed the dream only a few times, but it always seemed to coincide with the most important periods of her life, and eventually it became for her a special sign, an intermezzo punctuating her existence. She would only become aware of this much later, however—after the first time, all she is left with are a few dreamlike images and a strange mood that follows her around for a few weeks, hanging in the air like a child’s swing rocking back and forth between sleep and the reality of the day.
The first time Marika has the dream, she is married and full of renewed hope. She is sitting beside Irakli in the car, and they are making their way hurriedly toward Mtskheta. It is a few days before Christmas, and Saint Gabriel has appeared in a dream to an elderly nun called Mother Paraskeva, promising that anyone who visits his grave before Christmas will be granted three wishes. And so, one more story begins with a dream. In this case, though, not exactly a dream, but a vision; a vision that has sent almost the entire country on a frenzied dash to Mtskheta, with the result that the narrow road from Tbilisi to the ancient royal capital is now clogged with a long line of cars filled with worshippers and dreamers.
Irakli and Marika, in their black Land Cruiser Prado, are part of the caravan. It’s been eight years since they started trying for a baby, and they have taken the nun’s dream as a sign that the Pool of Siloam has received its yearly visit from an angel of God. It is said that when the angel comes down and disturbs the waters in the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, those who bathe in it will be blessed with fertility.
They were among the first to leave Tbilisi, but it’s now the fourth day since their exodus from the city began, and they are still on the outskirts of Mtskheta. What’s more, nobody seems to know how many more days they will be stuck there. They crawl along the road at tortoise speed, buying food from roadside restaurants, wiping down their bodies with dampened handkerchiefs, and changing their clothes in the back seats of the car. An unending line of jeeps and sedans stretches out before and behind them. The wind is bitingly cold, and it occurs to Marika that they are like characters in Cortazar’s story “The Southern Thruway.”
When night falls, the curious dream comes to her. In the dream, she exists in another space and time. She sees a long, desolate road, illuminated by moonlight yet unfamiliar to her. A group of lepers and invalids is walking along the road, swathed in black cloaks. She realizes she is one of them: a beggar close to death. The dream is eerily silent, as if the sound blasting out from an ultrasensitive Dolby speaker system in a movie theater had suddenly been cut off. The wretched battalion plods slowly onward, heads bowed. All Marika can see are the soles of the feet of those walking directly in front of her. At the end of the road stands a cattle shed. She hears a disembodied voice shouting an order to enter, and she steps inside with the others. In the cattle barn there is a manger, and in the manger lies Christ the healer. He has the soft, gentle face of a child, and with a smile, he lays his hands on the head of each of them in turn, curing them of their ills.
When she opens her eyes, the highway really is illuminated by the light of the moon, although the silence is broken by the whistling of the cold December wind and the sirens of police cars on patrol. Marika’s neck hurts from sleeping awkwardly in the car. Images from the dream linger, preventing her from making a complete return to reality. For a moment or two, she stares vacantly at the line of cars packing the narrow moonlit road ahead of her. Then she shakes Irakli awake and tells him about her dream. She tells him she has seen Jesus. She tells him she’s sure it’s a sign that if only they can reach Saint Gabriel’s grave, they will for certain be blessed with a child. Irakli, exhausted from lack of sleep, nods his head, turns over, and mutters something unintelligible. He has never looked less like a potential father.
Marika doesn’t have to wait long for the first part of her premonition to come true. The very same day, Irakli spots an old classmate of his, Father Vasili (or Vaska, as he was known before his ordination). Vaska has a set of keys to the locked cemetery, and he opens it up and lets them sneak inside in the middle of the night. Unlike everyone else, Marika has the grave to herself for the entire night. She is completely alone. She feels special. She lies down on the grave, flat on her stomach, plants her face in the soil, and listens to her heart—or maybe it is Saint Gabriel’s heart—beating through the warm earth. It’s cold. Freezing cold. The big silver moon shines down on her head. There is magic in the night air, and Marika thinks she feels—no, she knows she feels—Saint Gabriel’s immaculate hand rising up from the grave and stroking her frozen fingers.
A long time passed after the night Saint Gabriel held Marika’s cold fingers, weakened body, and wavering soul in his hand, but the second part of her premonition never did come true. And the reason for that, in Marika’s opinion, was Irakli’s lack of patience, or more accurately, his lack of faith. Their long-awaited child had yet to make its appearance on Earth, and now no one knew if it ever would. After their divorce, Marika and Irakli were left with an embryo they had had fertilized in vitro and preserved in a test tube. It was the mother’s fervent wish that this embryo would one day become a living being; the father’s that it would never see the light of day. The decision was to be made by the court.
Marika opens the curtains to reveal a panorama of the city, long since wide awake. The uneven mass of apartment blocks, all with different numbers of floors, the original lie of the land underneath, and the old quarter, spread out like an amphitheater around the Tbilisi Basin, give the city a muddled appearance, as if it had lost its way at some point in the flow of time. It is a bright, warm September afternoon. Some of the city’s residents have yet to return from their vacations, while others are still being carried along by the light, carefree buoyancy of the summer just gone.
Someone on the floor above is trying to make her way to the end of Bach’s concert variations for piano. Marika’s neighbor, whom she has never actually set eyes on, gives private piano lessons to pupils from the music school from around one in the afternoon, and this is the time when Marika starts her day. Unskilled hands crashing down on piano keys and classical pieces full of mistakes have become her alarm clock, and they work every time. She opens her eyes, sits up, pulls up her knees until her feet are flat on the divan, and stares at the walls of the room absentmindedly, reluctant to leave the other world. The walls are white and completely bare except for a single photograph of Marika standing on a veranda, her elbows resting on a wooden railing. She’s wearing a short, flowery dress, her hair is down, and she’s laughing. High mountains form the landscape behind her. The shot has been set up so that her full body is visible against the backdrop. She isn’t shaded by the background, and you can even see the tops of the mountains. In short, it’s a successful photo,s all the more so since it was taken by Irakli rather than a professional photographer. Irakli is on the other side of the lens, the invisible string puller. If he hadn’t been there, the photo wouldn’t exist. It wouldn’t be hanging there on the wall, and Marika would probably be a completely different person than the one she has turned out to be. This snapshot of Marika’s past, and Marika herself in that space and time, smiling and happy, are Irakli’s creations.
The photo is also an accurate representation of Marika’s current state, for Irakli, the creator of her past, continues to govern her everyday life behind the scenes. The spot on the wall where the photo hangs is constantly in Marika’s line of sight, and every single time she catches a glimpse of it, she feels a twinge in her heart. It’s like a kind of self-consciousness, a constant awareness of something heavy and immutable, as if someone were whispering, “He left you, remember?” and “Don’t forget how unhappy you are!” over and over in her ear as a sort of personal memento mori.
“I’m so unhappy,” thinks Marika as she walks into the kitchen and puts the kettle on the stove. She pours some coffee into a cup, takes some cheese out of the refrigerator, and chews indifferently on a croissant she has warmed up in the oven. Her cat jumps onto the table out of nowhere and peers into the fridge.
After she separated from Irakli, Marika went out and bought herself an American Keuda kitten, and because the kitten immediately reminded her of Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, Bastet is what she called her.
Irakli hated pets. He thought they made their owners look like those childless couples who, resigned to their fate, substitute an animal for a human child and expend all the parental warmth they’ve stored up over the years on some primitive creature with pointy ears instead. Poor Bastet ended up on the receiving end of not only Marika’s stored-up tenderness, but also the whole drama of the divorce and its aftermath. It was Bastet who looked on with sympathetic eyes as her new owner sobbed for hours and Bastet who purred soothingly while licking away Marika’s hot tears from her wet fur.
The musical theme coming from the floor above has changed, and the melancholy Chopin melody being played now is like a river of viscous bile that quenches fiery passions and washes them downstream, soothing troubled hearts as it flows along by coating them in sticky resin. And yet the thought that occurs to Marika as she stands under the shower, namely that sooner or later all this will pass and become meaningless, brings her sadness rather than relief. How depressing it is that in the final game of love even hatred dies, leaving the players numbed, with nothing left to do but doze away the days in a soft, indistinct fog of unhappiness. And that’s when the forgetting begins. But Marika doesn’t want to forget. She doesn’t want to relegate Irakli to the past and wait for someone new. How could she ever be with someone else, someone strange and unfamiliar, when for as long as she can remember she has been with Irakli? When she has sacrificed so many years to her love for him. When their child already exists, fertilized in a test tube and frozen indefinitely at the preembryonic stage, a zygotic string of genetic code, in which sex, eye color, skin tone, hair color, facial structure, body shape, susceptibility to disease and even temperament are already set in stone. A tiny microchip storing a wealth of information. A life that came into being with Irakli’s participation and is now duty-bound to be born to save his and Marika’s love from being forgotten and vanishing without trace.
As Marika dries herself, she looks at the brightly colored decoration on the bathroom wall, carefully arranged to imitate the aesthetic of a Klimt painting. She and Irakli chose the decor together in a pretentious interior design shop where everything was supposedly laid out on the principle of coexistence between everyday life and art. The shop owner was dressed up like the curator of a gallery, and the salesgirl chatted as if she were a lecturer in the faculty of art history at some famous academy. In an obvious attempt to attract the nouveau riche, the product manufacturers had selected only the most famous works of art, the culmination of which was perhaps a toilet bowl decorated with Van Gogh’s sunflowers. That was the moment when Marika finally understood the true meaning of the slogan “Art for the Masses”: the freedom to make feces look refined by painting toilet bowls beautiful colors. After all, what could be more human than art that prettifies the banal process of defecation?
Irakli didn’t like the toilets. He didn’t think much of the bathtubs adorned with Chagall’s flying lovers either, and he barely glanced at the Picasso-style cubist mirrors and window glazing. The only thing he wanted was Klimt: still colorful, but not quite as brash as everything else, and much more suitable for everyday use. It was without doubt the most sensible choice.
A tune with a quick tempo is being played on the piano now. Marika doesn’t know who the composer is. It might even be an etude. The performer loses the rhythm, stops the melody somewhere in the middle, and goes back to the start. Another wrong note is followed by a short pause and then a renewed attempt at creating harmony.
Bastet has licked her plate clean and is sitting on the windowsill. The sound of the clock ticking in the living room reminds Marika that she is due to meet her lawyer in an hour. She pulls out a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt—practically the first things she lays her hands on—from her wardrobe, laces up her white canvas shoes, combs her tangled hair, and stares in the mirror at her face, with its baleful eyes and sunken cheeks, as if it belonged to someone else. Her clothes make her look like a little girl, but appearances can be deceiving, for her body has already started to decay and die. As if it weren’t bad enough that her womb is incapable of carrying an embryo to term, her cells are now gradually producing less and less estrogen. She’s already thirty-eight years old. Menopause may still be relatively far off, but her reproductive years are nearly over. She has four or five left if she’s lucky. Falling in love again (if such a thing is even possible) takes much longer than that.
Irakli is sitting in the foyer of the fertility clinic and writing a petition.
Petition by citizen Irakli Meskhi . . .
Lying on the table in front of him is a pile of application forms that people fill in to request the assistance of the clinic in passing on their genes to the next generation. He filled in one of those forms a while ago, but now he wants the clinic to disregard his previous request and put a stop to the whole process.
In front of him are a sheet of paper and a cardboard cup full of coffee. Behind him stands a row of giant fridges filled with frozen prezygotic embryos in test tubes. Human lives, some destined for birth, some not. Irakli thinks it’s a bit similar to being in a morgue full of dead bodies. Some destined for heaven, some not.
It’s utterly banal and utterly absurd at the same time. Humans are primates lost in an anthropological maze, who have been given an impenetrable genetic jungle to find their way through in place of the right to determine their own desires. A couple of hours in this large-scale industrial womb is more than enough to convince Irakli of that. Take this lesbian couple here, for instance, who have just walked in together with their surrogate: if their attempt at in vivo fertilization ends in success, three women, one man, and a test tube will have played roles in the creation of the child born in nine months’ time. And what about this widow here, face racked with grief, deliberating with the doctors on a preferred date for the birth of a zygote she has created using one of her eggs and her dead husband’s sperm and entrusted to the care of the laboratory to be stored in liquid nitrogen and frozen to minus one hundred and ninety-six degrees? If that zygote turns into a baby, it will have been created with assistance from the next world, no less.
Irakli feels sick. He wants to get out of this place as fast as he can and forget it even exists. Come to think of it, how the hell did he end up here in the first place? What on earth was he thinking, giving in to Marika’s nagging and willingly handing over his blood, sperm, and genes to this madhouse? He’s already convinced any child born by this method could never turn out normal. It would lack an eternal soul, like a creature created by a different god. Instead, it would have a plastic heart, and the ice-cold stare of a glass-eyed doll.
I hereby request that the embryo created through in vitro fertilization by myself, Irakli Meskhi, and my former spouse, Marika Meskhi, on June 30 of last year be removed from cryopreservation and . . .
He signs his petition and waits for the doctor. He still has a few questions. For example: has a surrogate already been appointed? If he wins the court case, how long will it take for the verdict to be put into effect? Will all the embryos be destroyed without exception, leaving no chance for the plaintiff to come up with some ruse and use his sperm to produce a child somehow or other somewhere down the line?
Irakli already has a real child. It is in Tatia’s belly, and more and more often these days, Irakli can feel it kicking as it pushes against the walls of its mother’s womb, saying hello to its daddy. It’s a miracle he has waited a long time for. It is his legacy—confirmation that he will live forever.
“There’s nothing more important in life than the desire for self-preservation,” thinks Irakli. “That’s what makes people fall in love with each other—the need to produce descendants. If not that, then what else?” Irakli recalls Schopenhauer and his Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes, and how it’s all just pure egoism—the meditation of the genius of the species on the individual who is made possible only through this man and this woman.
Anyway, Schopenhauer put it much better himself . . .
There is something quite peculiar in the profound unconscious seriousness with which two young persons of opposite sex who see each other for the first time regard each other, in the searching and penetrating glance they cast at one another, in the careful review which all the features and parts of their respective persons have to endure. In the meeting and fixing of their longing glances there appears the first germ of the new being, the individual striving with the greatest vehemence to enter the phenomenal world.
That’s exactly how it was for Irakli too: a meeting and fixing of longing glances on that beautiful evening when he first met Tatia. He remembers every detail of that day: it was August, Gega’s birthday. He was on his own, without Marika. Tatia arrived with her girlfriends. She sat on the other side of the table, directly opposite him. She smiled at him, running her fingers through her hair. She was perfect for him: ten years his junior, large breasts, smooth skin, healthy-looking white teeth, healthy-looking all over, in fact.
“A Gurian pear so ripe it would burst on a rock,” Irakli thought, remembering the line from Lebanidze’s poem as he led Tatia to dance and touched the soft flesh of her waist for the first time. A pair of wide, rounded hips curved out below her waist, and her golden hair (dyed, but so what?) tumbled down over her shoulders. She was a real goddess of fertility, and sure enough, in the glances they exchanged appeared the first germ of a new being, an individual possible only through this man and this woman.
Their relationship progressed easily. Marika didn’t suspect a thing. Irakli messaged Tatia whenever he felt like it. They spoke on the phone, went to the cinema, and spent evenings together. Every time Irakli laid eyes on her, his whole body tensed as the age-old alchemy set to work and large doses of endorphin and cortisol flooded his brain, rendering him momentarily speechless and thoughtless. Which was all as it should have been, of course, for what was growing between them was precisely that yearning for each other—that magnetic attraction—that was required by the future individual they were destined to create.
Had it been like that with Marika too? Irakli can’t even remember anymore. When they got married, they were practically kids. It all happened according to ritual: getting to know each other, meeting the parents, meeting the wider family, getting engaged, the wedding day, decorating the apartment, buying a car, visiting friends, days and nights, nights and days, one blending into the next. And no child. No new life, nothing to disturb the quiet and not much else to enliven their stagnant routine. He was comfortable with Marika, but he found her boring—she would never throw even a single pebble into the tranquil waters of their everyday life to break the surface, speed up the flow, and just occasionally generate a little turbulence in the mundane course of their existence. Tatia, on the other hand, was playful, restless, lively, emotional—cheerful half the time and sullen the other half. Her mood rose and fell like her chest when she was agitated and changed as quickly as the weather in March. Cloudy, stormy conditions would make him scared he was going to lose her, but that would only drive her into an even greater rage. Sunny days would inflame new passions in him, making him feel dizzy and drunk. When he was with Tatia, it was impossible to forecast what was going to happen. Nothing was clear. Nothing was obvious.
In bed, meanwhile, she was passionate, hot, wet, and lustful.
It wasn’t long before they found themselves in bed, although to Irakli it felt like an age between that evening in August when he had first caught glimpses of her suntanned body and the September night when he was finally allowed to view it in its entirety and put it to the test, taking her breasts between his hands and making her moan in several keys. He told Marika he was going drinking with the guys that night, and he was telling the truth, but Tatia and her girlfriends were there in the club too. They drank and danced, danced and drank, and Irakli felt like his entire body was about to explode, so intense was his desire for this woman. As he watched Tatia dance, he started to suspect all the other guys of wanting her as much as he did, so they left the club early. He walked her to her apartment block and then walked her upstairs to her door, and then she just happened to mention that there was no one else home.
They went in. Tatia poured glasses of wine. Irakli kissed her. Then he took off her bra, revealing her spectacular naked body. Irakli had lived with Marika for so many years he had no idea when she had last had an orgasm, or if she’d ever had one at all, for that matter. With Tatia, everything was different: her orgasms were as resonant as a nuclear explosion, as prolonged as the rainy season in Macondo, and as recurrent as the lives of a calico cat.
Marika had still been intact, but not Tatia. Irakli would never have countenanced falling in a love with a woman who was no longer a virgin, but Tatia told him it had broken during a minor surgical procedure she’d undergone as a teenager and explained that her mother had witnessed the whole thing and obtained written confirmation from the doctor. Irakli still had his doubts—he wasn’t stupid—but it’s much easier to believe what you want to believe than to betray your own principles or change long-held opinions.
Irakli looked over the written confirmation before they were married. It had been issued by a clinic in the provincial town where Tatia was born and grew up. Irakli could have gone to look for the clinic, if indeed it did exist, and even the doctor himself, despite the illegible signature on the certificate, but he wasn’t the type of man to stoop to such underhandedness. And besides, if Tatia had really wanted to deceive Irakli, she could simply have had her hymen sewn back up, but Tatia wasn’t the type of woman to stoop to such underhandedness either.
And so he was her first. He was the sculptor, the creator of her femininity and her sexuality, and under his direction, her body blossomed, opened up, and prepared itself for motherhood. It was only a few months later when she uttered those two magic words to him: “I’m pregnant.”
Tatia said the words as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. More precisely, she called them out from the toilet as she looked down at the strip included in the test kit and saw the two red lines confirming her pregnancy. When Irakli had still been with Marika, she had always been going on about how she thought she might be pregnant, and they would often go out to buy a pregnancy test and then sit together, waiting with their hearts in their mouths for the result, but the appearance of those two red lines was a miracle was never bestowed on them. Tatia, on the other hand, didn’t say anything about her suspicions, or when she’d bought the kit, or how she knew what to do with it . . . And then she announced the result as if it were nothing special, so nonchalantly that at first Irakli couldn’t believe that this great event—for which two mortals, Cupid, and all the gods in the universe had put in so much effort—had actually come to pass.
He was the happiest man in the world. He finally understood what it meant to be in seventh heaven. He wanted to let the entire world know that he was going to be a father, that soon his child would be born, his own child, with his genes and his surname and his facial features.
He left Marika as soon as he found out. It wasn’t easy—there were tears, fainting spells, histrionics . . . It was tough for him to get through those days, but he would have endured anything to have his pregnant Tatia by his side.
He and Marika divided up their assets fifty-fifty. He left the big apartment to Marika, and because the idea of a holiday home was especially attractive to a couple expecting a child, he kept the dacha for himself, along with a smaller apartment they also owned. The only thing they couldn’t sort out was the embryo they had created together. It never occurred to Irakli even for a moment that the procedure he had undergone for Marika’s sake—and to finally put an end to her constant whining—was also a future life, not just a mixture of sperm and eggs to be forgotten about whenever he felt like it.
On this issue, though, Marika was cold and insistent: she refused point blank to have the embryo defrosted. Nothing worked, neither entreaties nor threats. His attempt to pay her off also ended in failure. By nature, Marika had always been gentle and submissive, but now she turned into a real demon, replete with tail and horns. Irakli came to hate Marika and their shared past. He didn’t want to have to worry about whether a child of his was being brought up right under his nose, in the same city, and in the end, feeling he had no other choice, he decided to take the matter to court.
And now here he is, writing a second petition, this time to prohibit implantation of the embryo in the womb of a surrogate mother. He is in the camp that does not regard an embryo as a life. And anyway, it’s not even a proper embryo yet; until it sprouts hands and feet and sparks into life, it will remain nothing but a simple ruse, just one more experiment in a modern-day anthropological laboratory.
It’s getting dark now, but it’s still hot. There is no breeze to rustle the leaves on the poplars and spruces in the garden of the clinic. Irakli raises his head and looks out through the window. Beams of light from the lamps in the garden shine on the panes of glass, flickering on and off like fireflies, like unknown souls of the future on tracks of DNA. Soon the doctor will come back and take his petition from him. Irakli hopes they will accept this petition as quickly as they did the first one, so that he can be forever free of this place and the nightmares created here.
Marika is sitting in a café with two friends after meeting with her lawyer. Of her two girlfriends, one is married with kids, the other in love and happy, but they have arranged their faces into sad expressions in sympathy with Marika’s plight. She needs her friends now more than ever. Over dinner, they analyzed in excruciating detail the multifarious dimensions of Irakli’s contemptibility and Tatia’s sluttiness, but Marika isn’t interested in that. She doesn’t feel the need to insult and vilify her ex-husband and his new wife, and that wouldn’t bring her any comfort. All she wants is to secure her future, and for that, the support she needs from her friends right now is of the intellectual kind. She tells them all about her meeting with her lawyer and asks them how they think she should act in the courtroom, what she should say and what she shouldn’t say, but her girlfriends don’t really know how to reply. The only thing they know how to do is talk. They talk constantly, endlessly, and yet they never say the words Marika needs to hear.
“The most important thing to think about is what to do with the surrogate,” says Marika. “As well as the fee for the pregnancy itself, I’ll have to support her financially. She’ll need high-quality nutrition. Medical care. There’s no way I can do it on my salary, so I’m thinking I’m either going to sell the apartment and buy a smaller one or move in with my mom and rent the apartment out. That way, my mom can help with the baby, too.”
“Are you crazy? Don’t sell your apartment! You don’t really want to move in with your mom, do you?” asks Natalia, lighting a cigarette.
“I don’t know . . .”
“Yes you do. You know it would drive you nuts. And how would it help? Your brother’s there all the time with his wife and kids. I don’t think they’ll be very pleased to hear you’re moving back in.”
“And on top of everything else, you’ll have the surrogate with you! There’s no way Lasha will stand for that. He must have been furious when he heard about the whole thing.”
“Yeah, well, my brother has never understood me. Even less so now . . .”
“And does this surrogate woman really have to live with you?”
“It depends on the terms of the contract.”
“Anyway, surrogacy is completely weird,” says Sopo irritably. “How could you carry someone else’s child in your own stomach?”
“I know!” shouts Natalia in agreement. “How could you carry a child for nine months and then just hand it over, like a business transaction?”
“I’m sure it’s not easy, but it’s a very noble thing to do,” says Marika, trying to defend surrogacy. “It’s like taking someone else’s child into your home and giving them shelter. Looking after them and feeding them.”
“But they must start having maternal feeling toward the child at some point, though. After all, it’s living inside them.”
“The surrogate is just the vessel. Nothing more.”
“Oh, come on, Marika,” says Sopo, unable to conceal her exasperation. “I’ve been through pregnancy and I know all about it. You’re not just a ‘vessel.’ The child lives inside you. You are one and the same body. The surrogate’s genes might even get mixed up with the child’s. You better make sure you find out who she is and where she comes from.”
“Genetics has got nothing to do with it. All that happens is the embryo develops and grows in the woman’s womb until it’s ready to be born.”
“Why don’t you have another try yourself? One or two failures don’t mean anything. I know women who kept on going even after five or ten rounds, and eventually one of the embryos stuck.”
“The doctor said there’s no chance,” says Marika sadly.
The girls fall silent. And in the silence, they switch allegiance from Marika to Irakli. Compassion for Marika can still be heard through the silence, but only compassion, nothing more. Natalia and Sopo, like everyone else in the entire world, it seems, are supporters of “correct, decent, and natural” methods, and not the perversion of the natural order that Marika desires.
Messages arrive on phones, one from Sopo’s babysitter and one from Natalia’s boyfriend, and the girls excuse themselves, leaving Marika alone. She orders a coffee and observes a group of elderly ladies sitting at the table in front of her. It looks like the usual type of get-together. They probably started with a stroll in the park, and now they’ve come to the cafe for ice cream and cakes. They clear their plates wordlessly, gobbling down their cream cakes bite by bite and swallowing their soft, white ice creams with silver spoons. They jealously guard their desserts like children, prolonging these rare moments of pleasure with hedonistic zeal. Even if nothing is yet seriously wrong with them, they are old enough to be troubled by insomnia, colitis, weakness of the joints, and high blood pressure, at the very least. As compensation, they receive a tiny pension, comprehensive health insurance, and the false compassion of their younger fellow citizens . . . But what does it matter, anyway? In this country, being young and getting old are as miserable as each other—the only difference between them is the order they come in. First your parents care for you, then you care for them, and to make sure you don’t break the chain, to keep the cycle going, you must have a child. A child whom you will raise and who will be obliged in turn to repay the debt it owes you.
Marika recalls her most recent conversation with her mother. After that conversation, Marika realized her mother was ashamed of her. She didn’t reproach Marika, but Marika could tell she was hurt that things have turned out this way; that her daughter will not be able to repay her debt and complete the mission for which she was born.
“That’s the whole point of being a woman, isn’t it?” she asked, sounding almost heartbroken. “Why did it have to happen to you?”
They were sitting in the kitchen. Marika was drinking tea while her mother prepared dinner. A pie her mother had just baked was resting on a large, oval plate, still warm, filling the air with the scent of apples and cinnamon. Her mother’s sorrow—her lamentations to God and fate for making her daughter the weak link in a previously unbreakable genealogical chain, a defective link that has been poorly forged, a girl molded with too little fire and steel—was as much a part of her love for her child as the pie.
They really did have an impressively strong genealogical chain, which was not only made up of vague, dust-covered memories of ancestors’ names, half-remembered by Marika’s parents at random intervals, but also concrete visual proof that Marika had seen with her own eyes. In her grandfather’s large house, on a wall in a reception room on the second floor, was a drawing of her family tree, with numerous branches, boughs and twigs climbing all the way up to the nineteenth century. As a child, Marika would sit for hours under the tree, flitting through the shadows of the past . . .
She reads that Nikoloz had two children: Mikheil and Natalia; and Mikheil three: Margalita, Markoz, and Davit. Markoz became a monk, so his branch is short, but Davit produced five descendants, two girls and three boys. Of the patrimonial lines belonging to the three boys, Mikheil, Konstantine (that must be the Kostya she has heard so much about!), and Andria, only Kostya’s and Andria’s offspring are listed, the reason being that Mikheil’s wife Elizabed only gave birth to girls. Marika’s fingers wander between the branches to the start of the twentieth century. Plague, typhoid, famine, child mortality . . . Many of the branches on this part of the tree are leafless and bare. Marika tries hard not to overcomplicate things and lose track of her own direct line, and before long she finds her great-grandmother Agrapina, who bore her great-grandfather seven children. This must have been around the time of the Great Terror in 1937, for here the tree becomes noticeably thinner and the names of those who were exiled or shot have been written in faint pencil marks, although some unknown surviving family member has come along later and filled in the names thickly with a pen. Then it’s the Second World War, and here too, many branches have been chopped off midway. Lower down, some of the names are people Marika remembers. At last, the line reaches Marika’s own little life, and at this point, Marika, stupefied after coming all the way through this enormous genetic mystery in which she is so intimately involved, starts again from herself and works her way back up. Now she gives the names faces, clothes, voices and mannerisms. She imagines their lives, loves, and deaths, creating individual stories for each of them. It feels like resurrecting the souls of the dead, calling them up from their long-since-sealed coffins. And here they come! Some are skeletons, some have turned to dust, and some have no form at all, but still they come, each of them whispering the names of their children.
It is no surprise that among the multitudes of whisperers in this mass séance, Marika hears only male voices, for this is a patrilineal family tree on which daughters are listed only by their first names. It’s as if they never even existed, as if they were worthy of note only until they were baptized, and the moment that was over, they were hidden away with their chastity and purity, the barely audible swish of their long skirts and the veils covering their faces, and left to be forgotten. In this country, only men continue the family line. Only they have the right to bring forth new people and new eras.
Perhaps that was why later, after Marika had grown up, she began to think the gigantic patrimonial family tree resembled a giant phallus, a towering, erect phallus, hard as an oak, that has impregnated two centuries’ worth of women. The primary creative force, whose spermatozoa, shooting out by the billion, dropping like the leaves of the tree and scattering over the ground, have sired an entire family, an entire clan, the whole of mankind.
“And why you?” asks Marika’s mother repeatedly, sounding almost heartbroken as she sorts through a bowl of raw peas. Marika understands why her mother is so sad. A defective, faulty child reflects equally as badly on the mother, after all. It was probably a problem with her mother’s genes and chromosomes that caused the whole thing in the first place. Even so, she wishes she would shut up. Doesn’t she realize it’s just like those peas she’s sorting through? Most of them have smooth skins, but some have a dominant gene that has made them wrinkly and ugly. And yet her mother won’t shut up.
“Salome’s expecting her third. The Patriarch is going to be the godfather, but they’re in a hurry because he’s not well,” she says, pouring the peas into a pan of boiling water.
Who’s not well?” asks Marika, confused.
“The Patriarch. He baptizes all third-born children, didn’t you know? They really want to make it in time so they can have a child baptized by the Patriarch too.”
“What do you mean, make it in time? They’re worried he’s going to die before he baptizes their kid?”
“What’s Jesus Christ got to do with it?” Now it’s her mother’s turn to be confused.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” Marika says quietly and then falls silent. She doesn’t bother pointing out that her mother’s tale has far less to do with the love of Christ than egocentric crowd-following. Her mother continues talking, mostly in half-muttered tones, and Marika can’t really blame her. Pregnant women and newborn babies are tantalizing topics for her, and she loves talking about them more than anything else. An endless stream of words pours out of her mouth, but all the while there are only two words written on her face.
Georgian poet Lela Samniashvili on the "fatal defect" of time, and the past in the present
Listen to poet Lela Samniashvili read "A Run in My Stocking" in the original Georgian
If I leave, you will always be tortured with the feeling
of guilt that you could not leave me.
But from where I look at it,
“always” seems so short, just like the past,
or the future. The future—
What do we know about it? There are precisely as many types of futures
as we want and even more that we may still wish to be.
It is heartfelt, this marvelous silliness
which smokes like the candle on this low table
in the manner of an alien idea of heaven.
What is in store for us if everything continues anyway?
Imagine the time lapse footage accelerating
a bud newly opening, the fading of its petals,
a chick fledging, opening its wings, falling to the ground,
losing feathers, its demise secluded
without a sound
its skeletal breastbone, barely visible beneath the grass
generations of ants crawling all over it
but now see the other shots too, this time in slow motion:
a child crying, the celebration of its birth,
how the hand of a doctor cuts the cord
then it is my aunt—on a business trip to Europe
with all her cheerful superstitions—
who leaves part of that cord in the Sorbonne.
A child—in an apron. A porridge stain.
A child—with a pacifier in its mouth.
A child—with a book, a child revising its verses,
and the mother whose lips silently follow the words of these verses,
words that move with her. Her face
beaming with happiness. Then the child grows.
She moves from one year to another. She swallows facts and events
like pills as the years go by.
Then she stands at a crossroad.
The distance to the horizon lengthens. Her breasts form.
Soon a baby will grow inside her
the fruit of love or passion.
Then you can speed everything up:
Now there are two old people, arm in arm, walking in a garden.
It is a short scene as they say good-bye. The flowers are fading.
Time actually resembles a run in your stocking.
Try, imagine the first creation of God—
the beginning of the universe—a singularity. Unfractured.
Containing within itself numerous shapes
of fragmentation without cross-section. And then a big explosion.
Atoms splitting. Countless eruptions,
the fragments floating endlessly, going everywhere and nowhere at once,
departing with endless inertia,
the impossibility of free fall,
attraction, repulsion, dissembling,
the fragments forming into new shapes,
stars, creatures, ideas, directions.
Entity—completely ripped to pieces.
Time is a fateful defect.
Like finding a run in your stocking.
Nothing can help it.
So now, plant two feet firmly on the ground
and look at how kindly this trash heap of a universe smiles at you
with all its rich resources
its secondary surpluses and its fast food
—brought to you by its charitable arm—floating down into the
guts of mankind.
Rich people throw scraps and the poor pick them up trembling
alternatively, clever people will pick up scraps thrown by fools
or would rather retrieve their own pieces and let them rot.
How can I say that I love you in this garbage pile?
This place allocated to us? If we succumb to
our parents’ will, and promise to try to elbow
our way through less, we will find this place—
the cleanest, purest place possible.
We will fill our studies, our work, our house
with the tattered rags of all the minutes and years
and we will marry, and we will have a child, and we will feed it,
and the stink of garbage will bother us less,
if we can just find the cleanest, purest place possible.
I understand parents. They want only the best for us.
And their care, their prayers are grasping at this nonexistent eternity
We will find thousands of talents and curses
granted to us by them, within us, the invisible line which
goes through the skin of generations and doesn't grow old,
because parents don’t know any other kindness—
they only know how to worry about their own flesh and blood,
they can’t spare any garbage for the bonfire
and with patience they bring us up, they wait.
Imagine a lion in the circus, still a new one,
before it has learned all the tricks,
but it can’t stop the growling in its throat.
And sometimes the lion tamer uses his whip and sometimes fresh meat—
sometimes a threat, sometimes an offering,
because in the end, he must put his head into the lion’s mouth.
Life tries to make us get used to being tamed,
it teaches us to breathe deeply amid the garbage.
How can I explain to you this love?
The love that eternally fights the wish to escape,
That love that wants to shout “No!”
To all the skills and disabilities
this bag of genes has inherited, that I didn't even have the right to choose.
I could not refine them anymore than I could if I was given the right to.
They strap our flesh and blood to this existence
it has nothing to do with our will,
it reins us in with pain antennas, with the alarm of suffering,
it won’t let us go anywhere, it doesn’t leave us any real choice—
leaving is so difficult and prohibited because
staying alive is tangled around it
I know there is the curse of god and the curse of being human:
of the god who turned into god
precisely by making this choice—
daring to be crucified, and being ready for it.
In the name of love at least.
He is god and is free of this fear.
As for me, who wishes to dare,
though I am laden with thousands of doubts, like a tree of fear,
maybe with more fear, with more feeling I could
hold onto this miracle.
But to be saved I found a child,
Our child, who comes
and looks into my eyes
and repeats these questions
with more persistence and curiosity.
She says that this is normal.
I tell her this is love.
Georgian writer Gela Charkviani describes his early days as an aide to then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Listen to Gela Charkviani read "Shevardnadze and Me" in the original Georgian
My relationship with Eduard Shevardnadze developed slowly and painfully, and our first business meeting ended in complete failure. An overseas delegation was due to arrive in Georgia, and I had brought for his approval a plan for the visit, which had been prepared at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He looked over the plan, grumbled, “I shouldn’t have to do this,” and then went on reading. I could not understand what he meant by “I shouldn’t have to do this.” Did he mean I was not to bring him this type of plan from now on? Or was it that the project had been poorly conceived? He found fault with every step of the plan, crossed entire lines out, and declared that the document was completely unfit for the purpose. His reaction was so unexpected and so confusing that I was unable to defend myself. I didn’t even manage to tell him that the project had been developed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though even if I had, I don’t think it would have made any difference; it was I who had taken the paper to him, and that meant it was I who was responsible for its quality. The shock of that first meeting stayed with me for a long time. From then on, even when I was certain I had dealt with a problem thoroughly, I found myself incapable of explaining my reasoning to him without becoming flustered. Another difficulty was Shevardnadze’s way of listening: for the entire time you spoke, he would offer no indications whatsoever—no gestures, no words, and no interjections—as to whether or not he agreed with what you were saying. I don’t know if this was a deliberate tactic or his natural manner, but I’m sure it had helped him to defeat a few rivals and climb a few rungs of the ladder in his time.
One more thing that shocked me is that he never mentioned my father. Not once did he ask how he was or what he’d been up to. They had both been First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia, and one would have thought Shevardnadze might naturally wish to demonstrate solidarity with a fellow member of the club. Another reason this hurt me is that my father had fallen on hard times, and not long before, I had helped him to sell one of his three Orders of Lenin. Later, when his application for a military pension as a former member of the Transcaucasian Military Council was turned down, he was obliged to sell the other two.
During those early days, I felt a similar sense of awkwardness in my dealings with Shevardnadze’s entourage—the men who had followed him from Moscow and were now managing Georgia’s foreign affairs. Two of them made a particularly strong impression on me: Temur Stepanov and Sergei Tarasenko. I already knew Temur from afar, but over time we grew closer in spite of his short temper, and today I recall with great fondness the hours we spent in debate. I will also never forget the sunny day when they brought back his ashes from Moscow, and how we buried them in the soil of his native Tbilisi after delivering the eulogy. Sergei, meanwhile, had worked under Shevardnadze for many years as a diplomatic counsel. He was born into an average family in the Donbass, if I recall correctly, and at a young age had been recognized as a child genius. He was accepted into the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations despite a lack of personal connections and quickly mastered both English and the art of diplomacy. He worked in the Soviet Embassy in America and in the 1980s allied himself with the reformists in the new Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Tbilisi, prior to my appearance and for quite some time afterward, Tarasenko was responsible for setting up meetings between Shevardnadze and various accredited diplomats and foreign delegations visiting Georgia. He also acted as interpreter. I was never told anything about what went on at these meetings. The foreign visitors would occasionally go in to see Stepanov, but more often they were taken into Tarasenko’s office first, and then went with him to meet Shevardnadze.
One day in May 1992, I went in to see Shevardnadze and saw Mzia Chanturia sitting there. I knew her from Boris Dzneladze Komsomol City, just outside Tbilisi, where she had worked as director. Mzia told me the good news that James Baker was coming to Georgia. A visit by the U.S. Secretary of State was of the greatest political importance: it was a show of support for the de facto legitimization of the leadership, which was still considered to have usurped power illegally while the country was plunged into chaos. This process had begun with the arrival in Georgia of Hans-Dietrich Genscher from Germany and would continue after Baker’s visit with a visit by the prime minister of Turkey at that time, Süleyman Demirel.
Aware as I was of the importance of Baker’s visit, I also knew that tough times lay ahead—I could all too easily imagine the trouble Shevardnadze would give me as I tried to get him to agree on a program for the visit. I was not wrong. As soon as he finished looking over my proposal, he turned to me and said coldly, “Bring me Tarasenko. He’s a man of experience.” True, he was tough on Tarasenko, too, but not quite as tough. After making several remarks, he asked Tarasenko a question I had not been expecting: “What do you think, Sergei? Is it appropriate to have a joint press conference? After all, he’s still just a minister, whereas I’m the de facto head of state.” Tarasenko was accustomed to Shevardnadze’s jokes, which is probably why he simply smiled rather than offering a reply.
“Where’s the press conference going to be held, anyway? There’s nothing about that in the program,” he then asked irritably, looking over at me.
“I don’t know,” I answered calmly. By that point I didn’t really care, either. Sensing my mood, Shevardnadze changed the topic, which showed me that he was not entirely insensitive to my feelings.
I now believe that Shevardnadze’s unfriendly attitude toward me was due partly, if not wholly, to my stubborn refusal to work as an interpreter and my insistence on carrying out only those tasks I felt were suited to the head of the Department of Foreign Relations. I had told him directly on several occasions I would not interpret for him. I was fifty-three years old, and in view of my international contacts and theoretical knowledge, I felt I deserved a more serious role in the process of creating a foreign policy for independent Georgia. Interpreting was a young person’s job.
Baker’s visit finally convinced me I needed to change something—either find a suitable interpreter or stop being so stubborn and do it myself.
During the weekly meeting of the administration following Baker’s visit, Shevardnadze declared that the interpreting had not been of a sufficiently high standard and that this was all the fault of Gela Charkviani. Prior to this, Stepanov had let me know tacitly that if I continued to refuse to interpret, I would not be allowed to accompany upcoming delegations to Istanbul and Helsinki. Later, Shevardnadze took me to one side and told me he couldn’t care less who interpreted, but that I, as head of department, was responsible for ensuring that the quality of the interpreting was high. His words gave me food for thought.
I remembered there had been a young man of about thirty, a lawyer by profession, in the simultaneous interpretation course at the Foreign Languages Institute where I gave lectures on sociology during the 1980s. He had played an active part in class and asked questions in well-formulated English. Although I had forgotten his name, I managed to track him down. I called him up and he came to see me on June 17. We talked for a long time, and he agreed to my proposal; he even seemed rather happy about it. I told him I would be in touch and jotted down his telephone number. I still have his name in my address book, but now it is bordered in black. Dato Nadiradze was killed in front of the State Television Center in Tbilisi on June 24, 1992, one week after our meeting. As far as I know, he was the only victim of that particular clash. After that, I took on the role of interpreter alongside my other duties as head of department.
Tarasenko did not greet my arrival in the administration with a great deal of enthusiasm. He was a high-ranking bureaucrat from Moscow, and true to the stereotype, he had decided that we “local cadres” were a bunch of incompetent fools. But what did he know about me? He might have heard one or two kind words from my fellow Tbilisian Temur Stepanov, or even Shevardnadze himself, but they had evidently not changed his opinion of me as a “thick-headed hick.” Once again, I found myself in a situation I had faced several times already in my career. In the super-centralized Soviet Union, where nothing and nobody was allowed to leave the country without first passing through Moscow, a bureaucrat dispatched from the capital would never have contemplated the possibility that someone from the provinces might know more than he about Western culture. This was especially true when it involved an eminent diplomat who had spent years in Washington, D.C., and still saw Georgia as a province of Russia, even after our declaration of independence.
I knew it was only a matter of time before his arrogance would bring him down a notch or two. I had seen it happen hundreds of times before. All I had to do was wait for the right circumstances. And I did not have to wait long.
During James Baker’s visit, Tarasenko and I shared a limousine with the American diplomat Dennis Ross. Ross was around my age, highly educated, with an academic outlook on diplomacy. He had played a key role in the erosion of the Soviet regime, and, as a result, the Russians were less than well disposed toward him. He was aware of this fact, and took some pleasure in it, so much so, in fact, that he introduced himself to me as “the notorious Ross.” As we talked, we gradualy switched from Russian to English. He told me he felt he had come of age with his involvement in the student movement on the campuses of the University of California in the 1960s. Having learned this, I shifted the conversation around to the issues of those days, and started inserting in my speech the student vocabulary of the 1960s, including rare shibboleths—the identifying code words of the period. When I looked up at Tarasenko, he seemed confused. He tried to join the conversation once or twice, but ended up stuttering and mumbling. Although he never mentioned this episode to me afterward, his attitude toward me changed noticeably. A few years later, as I was chatting to Temur Stepanov—about what I can no longer remember—he told me that after James Baker’s visit, Tarasenko had said to him, “Your man Gela speaks English like a native.”
Listen to Irakli Kakabaze read his poem "The Children of Beslan (To My Children)" in the original Georgian
Georgian poet Irakli Kakabade remembers the victims and the survivors of the Beslan School Siege
Today is the First of September and
As the sun’s setting and rising,
The flowers’ budding and wilting,
The healing of open wounds,
This isn’t a school bell ringing,
It’s the bells of a church.
The mothers woke us up from our summer games,
But the fathers took our hands more sternly and
more proudly than never before.
The fathers left work for the market,
Carrying heavy bags and
All kinds of thoughts and rubbish
in their heads.
We left toys with wilted smiles on the beds,
Little sisters and brothers in the windows,
Grandmothers who had combed our hair and
Crossed us as we were leaving home,
To meet with God, or our first teachers.
Here, our empty, silent notebooks,
Here, our unopened books and flat, inanimate illustrations,
The red pens, which retain their strictness, but can’t express it,
A roster, read from the grade book with no answers,
Desks without purpose and
The boards, painted black,
On which is written our first, short history.
Here, our flowers for you, who
Were supposed to open the door of life’s wisdom for us,
But the flowers have chosen a better fate.
Again, light backpacks
Are hanging like crosses upon our weak shoulders and
Like sacrificial lambs,we make our way to the last class.
Don’t look at the road so often,
We won’t return from here,
We continued our summer games and
We are hiding behind September first.
Irakli Kakabadze uploaded a number of short poems to various social media sites over the course of several years under the pseudonym Iaki Kabe, fooling many into believing they were the work of an unknown Japanese poet translated into Georgian. His poetry became so popular on the Internet that when a selection was published in book form, the book topped national bestseller lists.
Irakli Kakabadze reads "Seventeen Poems by Iake Kabe" in the original Georgian
It’s been three years
Since my neighbor chopped down
The fig tree on the other side of the fence
It’s been three years since my peach tree hasn’t flowered
On this side of the fence . . .
I put my head under the water,
I hold my breath for a second,
I want to feel intensely
What he felt
when he took his life . . .
In my homeland,
Where priests and poets
A man’s life
Is worth less than straw . . .
In this world,
Amid such deep sorrow,
Oh, cherry tree,
You are my soul’s
Only relief . . .
It’s been one week,
The universe has been emptied,
The stranger no longer waits
At the bus stop in the morning.
There’s not a single footstep on the snow,
By my elderly neighbor’s house . . .
It’s white everywhere,
The snow covers everything, far and wide,
In my neighbor’s garden,
Only the reddish pomegranates
Glow and are covered in snow . . .
Oh, how I long, as when I was a child,
To sneak away from school to the forest
And exhausted from running,
For my mother to scold me . . .
In the tears of a child forced to flee,
Or in the smile
Of my country’s rippling flag?
It was May, loved
By my beloved,
But now from her young,
A peach tree is flowering in the Nagasaki cemetery . . .
The harsh river
Of our village,
Washed away the corpse
Of my childhood love
Like a wood chip . .
A single dream
Does not give me rest, but obsesses me—
Dressed in a white kimono,
I stand, a poet,
Before my country’s gallows . . .
Past my house, and
As I watched them, a thought obsessed me—
What in this world could be worth
The blood of these children?!
In winter, when
I sit by the fire and prepare tea,
The eyes of the boy
lying frozen on the sidewalk in Osaka
Won’t leave me alone . . .
It had rained,
The lilacs were rejoicing.
The place where blooms flourish
Is the abandoned grave
Of our village courtesan . . .
I remembered only
The one that did not bloom
In my neighbor’s garden
Heaven can be found right here,
Behind the door,
In the babbling of children . . .
Naira Gelashvili eavesdrops on the beginning of a star-crossed affair
Listen to author Naira Gelashvili read this story in the original Georgian.
I entered the tower. I didn’t stop in the front room, but took her to the second room. Here, long wooden benches stood on the right and left, and along the middle wall—a wooden bench, covered in bedding. A window was cut out of the fourth wall.
I was enveloped by a good mood, which I think came from her. I quickly turned to her, squeezed her cheeks, and asked:
“What’s your name, Little Dipper?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
"I’ll show you. Come here!” I led her to the window, which opened out onto the surrounding area. I had her gaze toward the sky. Earlier, when I was looking, alone, I had first noticed the Little Dipper. It was still there now, twinkling all by itself. “Look, do you see it?” She nodded.
“And what’s this?” I touched her neck where earlier I’d noticed a small cluster of pale birthmarks. She lowered her eyes. I could feel her trembling.
“What is it?” she asked quietly, her voice altered.
“What . . . it’s the Little Dipper. Didn’t you know you have birthmarks here?”
“I know, but I’ve only seen them in the mirror,” she answered, even more quietly. “How do you know?”
“It’s a secret. I feel bad you can’t see it. It’s nice to look at. An exact copy. Who would’ve imagined?” I suddenly bent down and kissed her on the neck. “I’ve been dreaming about this all my life, to kiss the Little Dipper. And look where I’ve found it.”
“You weren’t dreaming,” she told me quietly but emphatically (somehow she said a lot with these few words), and looked me straight in the eyes. Surprisingly, her expression melted. A kind of calm submissiveness was reflected on her softened face. I was fairly surprised at this, coming from someone who before had put up so much resistance. I sensed her anxiety, and she looked as if she were praying.
“What’s your name, for real?”
“Mertsia . . . that was the name of our doctor’s child. They wouldn’t let her play with us, and always locked her up in the yard. I think she was ill . . .”
“She was ill? With what?”
“I don’t remember . . . I haven’t heard the name since . . .” I was staring at her, “Mertsia, this is our cave, we are cavemen . . .We found a cave, and now we have to start living together . . . life, it’s good, isn’t it?” I was casting about, so I wouldn’t stop talking, because I was anxious, too.
“It’s good,” she laughed, and suddenly became buoyant.
“And yet, for this game, no, for this life, you have to forget everything,” I told her, and ran my hand over her hair . . .
“What do you mean, everything?”
“The city, the past, acquaintances . . . everything . . .”
“Oh!” She waved her hand. “I’ve forgotten, too.”
“Very good . . . What can you still remember?” I felt I was asking her something very specific with these words, because right then I remembered that I didn’t even know if she was married or not, or in general, who she was or who she had.
“What? What do I know . . . ?” She shrugged her shoulders. “I remember that . . . time passes . . .”
“Did you figure that out earlier, when you were sitting by the water, sad . . . ?”
“I don’t know,” she laughed quietly.
I took a dagger from the wall, then an old pistol, a “Berdanki” that used to belong to Aghato’s father-in-law, and put it on the windowsill. I raised the dagger, put my arm around Mertsia’s shoulder.
“My fortress, my land, my woman, my sword.”
“A fierce man from Shatili,” she laughed and moved away. I tried not to show that I noticed, but every time I touched her, she trembled. I thought she was probably very sensitive.
I set the dagger on the bench. Something was holding me back, and I didn’t know what. I hadn’t experienced this kind of confusion since I was a child, and I couldn’t explain it. It was all because of that joy . . . that she had followed me . . . as if she had no idea . . . but, why, what reason did she have? I thought if I’d had a Maggie with me, we’d probably have slept together already . . . but I couldn’t understand what was happening to me right now. When I’d entered the tower, I had felt desire immediately. But now I was simply feeling good (and it had been a while since I remember being in this kind of mood), but I wasn’t experiencing the physical desire I had earlier . . . When she went to the window and looked outside, I approached her from the back, wrapped my arms around her neck, and kissed her first on one cheek, then on the other. I should have figured out that my business was over. This kiss had a completely different flavor. I was kissing her without passion, with love, the way you caress children. She turned around, put her hands on my chest, and pushed me away. I put my hands on her cheeks again and barely touched her pursed lips. Then I moved my hands toward her earlobes, locked my fingers at the nape of her neck, and she shivered.
“Do you want me to make you happy?” I asked suddenly.
“Yes, I do.”
I threw down my nabadi. I put a sword by my head. I put a gun next to me, and stretched out on my back:
“Here, I’m dead. Bury me. You do like burying people, and digging graves, don’t you?” I put my hands on my chest and closed my eyes.
A lion lay in the tower,
No one was superior to him,
By his head, a stallion was tied,
Pawing the ground with his hooves
To the left stood a spear, its tip
Piercing the sky
To the right lay a sword, its edge
At his side sat his mother, crying
Over her child
And at his head sat a woman, her
Tears falling into the sea . . .
She spoke in a low voice. I didn’t open my eyes. Then she fell silent. I sensed her approaching me. She knelt down next to me on the nabadi. Her knees were touching my shoulder . . . She bent and barely touched my lips, and then she kissed my closed eyes . . . as if a butterfly had landed on my eyelids. Then she ran her hand over my forehead and temples . . . I was spent. She ran her hand over my cheek, paused on my shoulder . . . and gently squeezed it:
“Open them,” she told me quietly.
I didn’t move.
“Open your eyes,” she touched my eyelids, and lifted them.
I closed my eyes more tightly.
“Wake up, do you hear me, wake up!” Her voice became desperate. She bent down and pressed her cheek against my cheek.
“Aha! I caught you!” I shouted and put my arms around her.
She startled. I looked in her eyes, and it was as if tears were shining there.
“Eh! She believed it so quickly! She got into the mourner’s role so suddenly!”
“What were you reciting, ’Wake up, do you hear me, wake up?’ Do you know that poem?”
“No,” and she became sad again.
“It’s a poem by Gabriel Jabushanuri. He was a Khevsur. Vazha is wild about him. I think they’re distant relatives. He drives us crazy at work. Every time he walks by, he hurls out a verse, and the whole department knows it by heart. He was in love with a woman, Nzekali. She died young, and he has some good poems about her. I saw Vazha earlier. He was pretty drunk, stopped me, and shouted out the poem. ’Wake up, do you hear, wake up, right now,’ and he was rolling his eyes like a bullock. Do you want me to recite the entire poem?”
“Yes, I do.”
Even I was surprised I knew this poem by heart:
Wake up, do you hear, wake up, right now,
I’m coming to you, and
You need to greet me, alert,
I’ve looked for you so long,
I’ve called for you so long,
I’ve spent so much effort,
And you didn’t respond
I can’t be without you anymore
I have so much to tell you,
If you only knew,
I think it will take ten years or more
Wake up, decorate the coffin,
Call me to your side,
There’s room enough for both of us.
You do know, I have abandoned
People and the world,
The sorrows of
Passion and loneliness are trampling me,
Wake up, do you hear, wake up, now,
Aren’t you longing to be
“And that’s how he recited it. ‘God damn you, get the hell away from me,’ I told him. ‘I can’t stand this mourning and these songs about death. I can’t stand talking about the dead and death at all!’ What’s happened to you? Are you actually sad? Come on! You do understand I don’t hate this kind of stuff for nothing. What nonsense. You aren’t crying, are you?”
“It’s a harrowing poem,” she said, and her eyes glazed over.
“Of course it’s harrowing!”
“It’s a very good poem . . . he’s an amazing man.” And she added: “I love dead people.”
“Come on. I finally got you in a better mood and this poem’s ruined everything.”
“No,” she said and knelt down. She put her hands around my shoulders and kissed me. It seemed as if she were kissing me with great sorrow, with heightened feeling; as if her happiness were bordering on crying; as if we had little time left, and we had to make sure we managed to do everything. I was surprised again. I thought it was probably because we were in Shatili.
She was lying against my arm . . . I was holding her chin with my other hand, and kissing her slowly. I should have figured that I’d get into a strange situation: I wasn’t in a hurry to do anything. I wanted it to last like this, for a very long time . . .
She sat up . . .
Her dress had brown laces from her shoulders to her elbows. I slowly untied them. She was sitting and had her hands on my shoulders. First one arm was exposed, and then the other, and her dress slipped down and bunched up at her waist. I embraced her without looking at her. She was wearing nothing above her waist. That’s what I thought on the bus, too. I sensed that she was following and not following me at the same time. In the last second, she completely distanced herself from me. When everything was over, I embraced her again and tapped her on her back: “You, child, seem like you need tuning up in this business.”
She didn’t say anything. That meant I was right. This made me tense.
“Do you have a child?”
She nodded again, silently.
She covered her face with five open fingers.
“A husband? Do you love your husband?”
She shook her head, no. Then she said:
“I don’t have one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that,” she shrugged her shoulders.
“Did he die?”
“Are you divorced?
I was quiet. Something cold and unpleasant came over me. I lit a cigarette. I lay down on my back, put my free hand under my head. I felt her looking at me a couple of times. I extended my arm and caressed her head.
“Who’s the child with now?”
“My mother and sister. She’s usually with them. They don’t trust me with her,” she smiled.
“What do you do?”
“Did you love him?”
“I liked him . . . he loved me.”
“Why did you break up? Stop shrugging your shoulders.”
“I couldn’t be with him . . . I realized I wouldn’t fall in love with him . . .”
“Why did you have a child?”
“Didn’t I have the right to?” she asked me, her voice cracking: she was irritated. Then she softened and added: “I couldn’t get rid of it . . . I had it . . . I’ll probably never be able to get rid of her . . . I hate her . . .”
“So then, you’re going to have a child every time?”
She laughed. She shrugged her shoulders again.
“I don’t know, I don’t know a thing . . . I don’t think . . . what I can’t do, I can’t do. I don’t think . . . I can’t do a lot of things . . .”
“What’s the child’s name?”
“Does she look like you?”
“I think so . . .”
We were quiet. I felt distressed.
“I can’t imagine you pregnant.”
“I couldn’t imagine it before, either,” she laughed sadly, and, in a way that was somehow equally sad, kissed my shoulder. “Do you know when I saw you for the first time?
“Last fall. At the end of November. I was at your workplace. I needed a book for a buddy, and thought Ida would have it . . .”
“Is Ida your friend?”
“No. She’s my sister’s friend. My sister told me to go to Ida, that she’d have it. Ida told me, ‘I don’t have it. Someone here has it, but I can’t ask him,’ and she nodded in your direction. You were sitting on a table, leaning against the wall, and looking out the window. You were smoking a cigarette . . . I don’t know why she couldn’t ask you. ‘He has such sad eyes,’ I told Ida . . . ‘Sorrowful?’ She asked me, and then mumbled under her breath, ‘Sorrowful, my ass . . .’ ‘Is he married?’ I surprised myself when I asked her this. She looked at me and answered: ‘A wife, children . . . and all in all, there’s nothing missing in his life.’ I’ve been thinking about you often since then.”
“What book did you want?” For some reason I was interested, and at the same time, I repeated Ida’s words in my heart. ‘There’s nothing he’s missing.’
“It’s a book by some German author. I think it’s about an underground water supply, if I’m not mistaken . . . about underground rivers. He apparently has very interesting ideas. I forgot the title. My friend was telling me about it.”
“Yes, I know. I have it. Who’s your friend?”
“A girl. Her last name is Bouleishvili and we call her ’Boulei.’ She’s curious about everything on earth and she talks about it in a way that makes you crazy about it, too. ‘The connection between water and the planets is a great mystery,’ she told me once. She’s copied and gathered everything that anyone has ever said about water in this world. For a while I was painting water all the time, and she kept telling me it was brilliant…”
“Yes,” I said to myself, “Water is everything, the beginning of everything.”
“Thales shares the same opinion,” she laughed.
I laughed, too. Suddenly her expression froze, then she opened her mouth. She even sat up.
“Don’t they say that Thales discovered the Little Dipper?”
“I remember. I read somewhere that they believe he gave it its name . . . it’s so strange.”
She lay down on her back, with her face toward me.
“I discovered the Little Dipper,” I said, and hugged her. I lifted her hair and kissed her neck. “And you can leave water alone, trust me, it’s not worth making your head hot about the stars, there’s no time for that now . . .”
“Really, yes?” she whispered, “And what is it time for now?”
I kissed her.
“For minutes. You have to collect minutes, at least a few minutes, so you can take them with you as a souvenir . . . when you up and leave this world. How old are you?”
“Twenty-seven. You’re forty-two, right?”
“How do you know?”
“I asked Ida.”
“Where were you last summer?” I remembered Ida.
“At the seaside. But I got sick . . . I was in bed for a whole month, and then in the hospital . . .”
“What happened to you?”
“I don’t know . . . I had a fever, and was weak . . . and then it passed. When I came to your work, I’d just gotten out of the hospital a couple of weeks before . . .”
No, of course, I was already in love with her. Maybe I was already in love with her on the way here. I have no idea; I don’t understand anything. I think my heart sensed something right away, when I looked at her for the first time . . . and that’s why I avoided her.
The translator thanks Lia Shartava for her help in translating this story.
In the end, one sentence awaits us all—death Joseph Brodsky
Because we are all murderers, he told himself. We are all on both sides, if we are any good, and no good will come of any of it. Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream
God inscribed my grief
On my sword
I killed the man I’d sworn to be a brother to
I used a sword on my brother
They are chasing me to murder me
They put a trap for me on the road
Listen to author Beka Kurkhuli read "The Killer" in the original Georgian
The sea was calm. It stretched far away to the horizon and cautiously touched the shore with a swishing sound. It glimmered calmly under the wide-open blue deep and alien sky. An enormous cluster of clouds sailed across the clear sky like a space shuttle reflected in the swelling sea.
He was swimming in warm, slightly ruffled waves. Then he dove, opened his eyes and saw the fragmented white rays of the sun descending into the dark-greenish, yellowish sea water. They were making their way to the bottom of the sea.
Suddenly he felt something long, and thin as a thread, pierce him under his left shoulder blade. Once, twice and three times and the sun hurtled down and spread its white rays at lightning speed across the sea and it struck for the fourth time under his shoulder blade. His heart stopped. “I’m dying,” he thought and started to sink toward the bottom of the white, illuminated sea, like a white harpooned shark. He tried to get back up to the surface. “No, I can’t. I am dying!” he thought a second time and began desperately to panic. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t even move his arm. “I’ve died, you motherfucker, I’ve died!” His whole body writhed, he moved his shoulders and immediately an unbearable pain shot through his entire body like fire. He had never been afraid of pain, but he certainly didn’t want to die, especially not in a thick, sticky, treacherous white sea that had stuck a needle in his back, beneath his left shoulder blade. “You motherfucker,” he said to the pain, to the whiteness that was strangely illuminated from within, and to the treacherous sea and to his own pierced heart. He struggled again, then paddled with his legs too.
The surface of the sea was visible far above. It was a long way away, but it was there. It was definitely there. He started moving slowly and after a while he surged out of the sea, shaking his head. Immediately his wide-open eyes, crazy with terror, encountered the hot sun.
He swam toward the shore. He swam through the thick white sea and he could no longer feel his heart. The shore was black and it wasn’t expecting anyone.
Gia Ezukhbaia, a six-foot-tall, former partisan from Nabakevi nicknamed Pshaveti, sat on a seat that had been ripped out of a Ford minibus on the first floor of the long, faceless, two-story former House of Culture in the village of Akhalkakhati near Zugdidi. He averted his face from the heat coming from the red-hot stove and listened to his wife complaining.
Gia Ezukhbaia’s wife was kneading dough in an enamel bowl on the long table near the tap. She cooked maize bread in an iron pan. She was complaining in time with the thudding sounds of the dough.
“I curse you because you didn’t make me happy, you made me unhappy, me and my children, you idiot, you idiot, if you wanted a life like this, why did you marry if you were going to make us miserable? Who will defend you, you wretched fool, who’s your patron and who’s grateful to you? Here’s your Georgia, let it help you now. I’m baking the last of the bread, look at my hands, I’m peeling every last bit of dough from my fingers. You made enemies of the Abkhazians, you made enemies of the Georgians, and now everyone’s trying to kill you. The whole family’s got to sleep behind three iron gates and our hearts explode with fear at every movement. At any moment someone could pour some petrol and set us and the children on fire. Is this any kind of life? We're half a kilometer from the Enguri River, the Abkhazians could be here in two minutes. How come you’re fighting in the war? Who needed your war and who have you hurt with your fighting?”
Gia Ezukhbaia wasn’t nicknamed Pshaveti because he was one of the cold-blooded Georgian partisans on the Enguri embankment and drank the blood of Abkhazians and Russians. It was more because he was very witty and he swore a lot, unlike Mingrelians. Now, though, he sat quietly, fiddling aimlessly with a piece of wood, and listened to his wife’s complaining.
“You should have stayed behind to mind your own business, in which case you could have gone to Nabakevi, picked a few oranges, some hazelnuts, you could have given them away, begrudgingly. The whole village of Gali goes there, and they don’t touch the villagers. People work, they earn some pennies. The Kishmaris even got a kettle.”
“Yes, sure, I’d slave for those bastards!”
Gia stoked up the stove with some wood and banged its door closed.
“They aren’t slaves at all. No, you’re the only one who’s here! It’s beneath your dignity. You say you’re a partisan but I’m frightened of going out because you owe money at the kiosk. The whole of the Gali region returns home and according to you, they’re all slaves. They return to their land, they build houses, they begin their lives again, they don’t do it for nothing. They’re not for the Russians and not for the Abkhazians. They move freely. As for you, stay here and kill people . . .”
“Stop your nagging! Shut up, I’m telling you I won’t go back there carrying Russian papers, and that’s the end of it.”
“Oh, yes, as if you’re Prince Tsotne Dadiani himself, saint and martyr. Even if you wanted to, who would let you return, you miserable creature with blood all over your hands. How many sins have you committed? Your children will be answerable for them. You know that, don’t you?”
”Stop talking like that, I’m telling you.”
“What shall I stop doing? What? Kill me too and that’ll be the end of it. I’m not afraid of anything anymore, I can’t take any more, I’ve already lost my mind. This bloody war is over for everyone, except for you and your friends, all drug addicts and thieves. The whole of Abkhazia and Samegrelo is after you, you’ll never be able to go back home now.”
“What is it you want, woman? What?”
“I’ve been telling you since this morning what I want. Don’t you hear anything I say? You only want to do what you want and you aren’t interested in anything else. But we both see what happens when you do exactly what you want.”
“Shut up and bake your bread. Don’t talk when it’s none of your business.”
“I bore you four children and you say it’s not my business? The eldest is twenty-two already, if you remember? The kids have seen nothing but war and trouble. Don’t they need to study, set up home, start a family? Never mind studying and setting up a home, your children are hungry, they haven’t got any clothes. He’s a fighter so he can’t help himself . . . . I wonder who it is you’re fighting with apart from yourself?”
Gia took some wood out from under the stove, looked at it, fiddled with it, then threw it back. He lit up a cheap Astra cigarette and inhaled deeply.
“You’ve got nothing to complain about, you live as you wish. I’m the one crying my eyes out, living with you. Why did I marry you, what was I thinking? My father was beside himself, don’t marry him, he kept saying.”
“Come off it, it’s not as if our getting married would kill him!”
“Even if he hasn’t died, I’d rather die myself if I can’t go to my own cousin’s funeral. You can bury me alive and that will be that. You won’t let me mourn my own flesh and blood, Gia Ezukhbaia, may God deprive you of any mourners on account of your sins against me.”
“Woman, you’ll put me in the grave with your nagging. Ugh.”
“Who’ll put you in the grave and who’ll kill you, you idiot?”
“I’m sincerely sorry I didn’t get myself killed but what can I do about it now?”
He felt a wave of shame in front of his wife. He knew she was right, but he couldn’t bring himself to say a word. His wife’s cousin had died and she lived close by, just a few houses away, but his wife couldn’t go to pay her respects because she didn’t have any shoes. She couldn’t go there to give her condolences when all she had to wear were her red and blue striped slippers. Gia racked his brains over where and how he could get her some shoes, but he couldn’t think of anything.
Gia Ezukhbaia came into this war rather late. The main action was taking place in Kumistavi and Sukhumi, which seemed a long way from the district of Gali. At first, he didn’t think the war had anything to do with him. Now that the guys from Tbilisi had rushed in to help the people of Abkhazia sort out their business, it was for them to put it all to rights, it was their problem. What’s more, Ezukhbaia, like most Mingrelians, didn’t have any time for the so-called State Council military units, especially after the events that had taken place not so far away in the districts of Zugdidi and Tsalenjikha. Hidden in Gali and Abkhazia, loyal members of the military and supporters of the first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, told tales about the cruelty of the putschists and the Tbilisi Military Council. They didn’t actually need to tell tales as Ezukhbaia’s native village, Nabakevi, was only a few kilometres from the Enguri river and the deafening sound of shooting from across the river was clearly audible, and they could see flames too, flying high up into the sky. So Gia Ezukhbaia wasn’t that surprised when the Tbilisi people went on to Abhazeti after Samegrelo, nor was he that upset about it. He didn’t consider himself to be on the side of the government’s army, much less think that the Abkhazians were on his side—he remembered only too well the confrontation with them in the summer of 1989, when he and some others rushed the Galidzgi Bridge with his double-barreled shotgun after the Abkhazians had ravaged Sukhumi University during entrance exams. They had thrown portraits of Georgian writers out onto the streets and killed Vova Vekua and some other residents of Sukhumi. Later, it seemed everything had calmed down, he became friendly with Abkhazians and he personally had no quarrel with Abkhazians about anything. After December 1991, the start of the civil war when the shooting and bloodshed began, the confrontations between citizens in Tbilisi were immediately echoed in Abkhazia.
The Abkhazians tried their hardest to remain neutral during the internal conflicts of the Georgians, but in spite of this, war broke out anyway in August 1992. By that time Gia Ezukhbaia was already forty-eight and he had seen everything and so he didn’t trust either side. In this time of mayhem and infernos, he, his elder brother and cousins tried to protect their homes, their mandarin and hazelnut plantations and property, and somehow he actually managed to do so, sometimes by cunning and sometimes by force. He didn’t get involved in anything else beyond that.
His heart first missed a beat when, between the fourteenth and sixteenth of March 1993, Russians, Armenians, Abkhazians, and North Caucasians invaded the outskirts of Sukhumi and the Russian Air Force bombed Sukhumi several times. Refugees started leaving Sukhumi and the people of Gali began packing their bags in anticipation of what might happen. However, as it turned out, the Georgians fought valiantly and Sukhumi was saved. After that, it was only a little while before the Ezukhbaias got involved in the war.
Events developed as follows. Gia Ezukhbaia’s childhood friend and classmate Dato Shervashidze arrived from Riga to attend the funeral of his old friend Pridon Marshania. Marshania was involved with the Mkhedrioni and had been fighting from the very first day of the war. Marshania was killed near Ochamchire during the operation to open the road between Ochamchire and Sukhumi. Pridon Marshania and Dato Shervashidze had several things in common while Gia Ezukhbaia was just a peasant, with his mandarins, hazelnuts, and cattle. As for Shervashidze and Marshania, they had been running for gangsters since they were kids, to Moscow, to Rostov. Criminals, drugs and so on. Then Dato settled in Riga together with his family, took care of his business and didn’t give a thought to Georgia for a long time, even after the war began. And now he’d flown from Riga to mourn his murdered friend. He had only just managed to get to Ilori from Tbilisi, to the Marshania’s two-story house where the bullet-riddled body of Pridon Marshania lay, no longer able hear the sound of the women’s keening reaching the sky.
The Ezukhbaias traveled to Ilori in two cars as it was very dangerous to travel by car in those days. They were stopped three times on the road from Nabakevi to Ilori, but as soon as those who stopped them heard where they were going, they were allowed to pass without any problems.
Gia Ezukhbaia and his elder brother were welcomed by the men who were bustling about in the yard, and the encounter between the Ezukhbaias and Dato Shervashidze was very special. They stood for a long time embracing each other as Gia secretly wiped away his tears then stared into Dato’s impassive face.
“Dato, brother, how are you, brother? What a place and what a reason for us to meet each other, isn’t it, oh, fuck it, fuck your mother.
“I fuck everyone’s mother, whores, goats, shameful bitches and rent boys, I’ll make those murderers spit blood.”
“What can you do, Dato, what do you want to do and what can you do? They're all bastards whether they're over here or over there.”
“The way they killed my Pridon Marshania, the way they bumped him off for nothing, those whores…”
“I tried so many times to persuade him not to interfere, not to get involved. What do you want to do that for, I said, these guys are motherfuckers and those are too, both sides are coming to invade us, why do you need to get yourself killed? It’s not our fight, these jackal politicians come along, make us enemies to one another, make us slaughter each other and then carry on their business. Meanwhile, we’ll remain blood enemies and all this’ll happen because of their politics and greedy stomachs. We simple people will be made to suffer. But he didn’t believe me. You couldn’t make him listen to anything. No, he said, they are brothers. What sort of brothers, committing such horrors as they did in Samegrelo? And who are the Abkhazians? I personally have no reason to fight with Abkhazians! All those poor bastards are my relatives and have the same surnames.”
Gia Ezukhbaia and Dato Shervashidze hadn’t seen each other for years and as usual, they stuck firmly together during the whole business of the wake and mourning. They drank, Dato did some drugs, he wept quietly, tears rolling down from behind his black sunglasses. He asked Gia about local affairs, then he lost interest and stopped listening to Gia’s Megrelian arguments and swearing.
“How are the children? How’s your wife?” he asked Gia quietly when at one point they were keeping vigil for Pridon Marshania while Gia’s elder nephew was reading Psalm 90 aloud to the deceased.
“She’s all right, I dunno really. How do you think she’d be, putting up with us?"
“You’ve got two boys and a girl, haven’t you?”
“I’ve got two boys and two girls. Both boys are called Dato, in your honor.”
“Come on, what do you mean, man, both brothers have the same name?”
“I call one Dato and the other one Data!”
“You’re one crazy motherfucker!” It was the first time Dato Shervashidze had laughed during these days.
The next day after the funeral, Dato Shervashidze dropped in on Gia Ezukhbaia, taking some gifts for his namesakes. The Ezukhbaias laid the table. Dato Ezukhbaia was silent during the whole feast and he even dozed off a couple of times, but his silence was eloquent. It was Gia who began to speak.
“When are you heading back to the Baltics, Dato? We’ll see you off. You need to be seen off properly, it’s the right thing to do. It’s a very bad time here now. Ah!”
The steady dull sound of gunfire came from outside.
Dato Shervashidze had been drinking chacha, 45 proof, but he suddenly sobered up and said:
“I’m not going anywhere from here!”
Gia’s older brother immediately understood and shook his head quietly.
“Come on, what are you gonna do? What the hell is there here for you? Don’t say this shit, are you crazy? Our dear departed Pridon Marshania didn’t believe me either and now he’s lying in the ground, God bless his soul. Can’t you see what’s happening in this place full of weeping mothers? What have you lost in this hellhole, you motherfucker?. . . Come on, buddy, if only I had some place to go like you do, I wouldn’t . . . ”
“So who will I leave Pridon with? Who will I leave you with? And what’ll I do then back in Riga? Arse around having fun? Fuck the Baltics, what have they got to do with me? Am I going to leave my brother lying in the ground, sacrifice him without any revenge and run away myself? Where should I run away to, Gia? Who should I run away from? Should I run away from these rats and whores? How can I run? And leave you just like that, will I? And what would you say then if that’s what I did, eh? Dato Shervashidze is one cold dude, he wants to do what he wants to do, does he do the right thing? Eh? You’d fucking curse me!”
“I won’t curse you! Just go, be well and I swear on the lives of all my four children I won’t curse you, I won’t call you a motherfucker. I swear brother, this older one . . .”
“No, you won’t do it, you won’t have to curse me. That’s it, I’m staying, it’s a done deal. If I go, it means I’ve chickened out. I’ve never run away from anything, you know that.”
“What about your wife and children? What are you going to do with your family? Are you leaving them in Riga or what?”
“They're OK there. What about yours here? Or your children aren’t children and your family’s not a family, how can they put up with this hell? Let them put up with it in Riga as well.”
Gia looked at his childhood friend with alarm.
“Sure, that’s all clear, but what are we going to do now, Dato?” the older brother asked Gia.
“I spoke to Marshania’s brothers who belong to the Mkhedrioni. I told them I was staying. They’ll help us with everything.”
“That’s no good, I don’t like having anything to do with the Mkhedrioni. They won’t understand us. The people in Abkhazia won’t understand us either, Dato . . .”
“Who gives a shit about the people! People are the same as the Mkhedrioni, what do you want from the Mkhedrioni, what’s wrong with them, the same people join the Mkhedroni, what makes you think otherwise? They don’t fall from the sky, they're one of us too. It was people who created that Mkhedrioni, they run to them first to inform on who’s got so many flocks of sheep and who’s kicking off what problems with who. I’m certain of it. Those shitfaces, whores …”
“I know all these troubles better than you, but all the same, I won’t go to them, I don’t like those people!” said Gia Ezukhbaia.
“OK, as you like, if you don’t want to, we won’t go to the Mkhedrioni. They can just help us get weapons. We’ll stay separate. We’ll call ourselves the Gali Battalion, I dunno, what does it matter?”
“Nothing matters,” Gia Ezukhbai agreed. He was thoughtful.
“Do you have a weapon?”
“Sure, we’ve certainly got weapons,” said Gia Ezukhbaia and averted his eyes from his pale wife, who was leaning against the dresser, her hands over her mouth.
“We’re getting together in Gali tomorrow at ten o’clock. There’ll be weapons waiting for us there too. There won’t be any problems regarding any weapon. I don’t want to argue about whether you’re coming or you’re not coming, you’ll remain my brothers until death.”
Gia Ezukhbaia’s older brother sat silently. He’d already made up his mind.
“Go to hell!” said Gia Ezukhbaia, his voice cracking.
“I’m off, and thank you very much for everything. My apologies to the ladies, I’ve caused you a lot of bother. God bless you.”
They kissed each other at the gates while parting.
“Fuck their mother, those whores who put my Pridon Marshania under the earth, fuck all their mothers . . .” said Dato Shervashidze, high on drugs, getting into the car and revving the engine. The lights from the fast-moving car danced around in the dark for a long time as the car rattled away over the potholes along the road.
At ten in the morning they met up in Gali. Dato Shervashidze came along at eleven, hardly able to open his eyes. And it started. They fought mainly in Ochamchire: Kochara, Tsageri, Kidgi, Tamishi,Tsebelda, Labra. During the first battle near Kochara, Gia Ezukhbaia couldn’t lift his head. He was lost amid the roaring and shooting. “If only I could be safe now, God, I won’t come back here again,” he said to himself with his head down in the muddy earth and his eyes firmly on the green blades of grass. His older brother came running up. “What’s wrong with you, you aren’t wounded, are you?” Pale Gia only managed to shake his head to say no. "Shoot now, or shame on you,” his brother told him quietly and then, bending over, he ran back to his position and sat down near a gray wall with peeling plaster which was all that remained of the abandoned, gutted farmhouse—and carried on shooting. Gia saw how the twinkling red-yellow flame emerged from the shaking machine gun in his brother’s hands. His brother’s face was calm and he shot round after round at steady intervals. He took careful aim and fired. “My brother’s strong, that bastard, he’s always been strong . . . ach, when will all this end and when will it get dark? Ach, Dato Shervashidze, where did you bring me and what you are you putting me through? Mother, what the hell is this! God, save me now and fuck anyone who would come back here . . . What have I got to do with the war and shooting and why did I get involved in this massacre? What kind of general am I, wretched me?” Then he lifted the machine gun above his head and pressed the trigger. Even in that atmosphere of roaring, the piercing, deafening sound of his machine gun hammered on his eardrums. The red-hot cartridge cases falling from the machine gun scattered around on the ground, producing a cold, ringing sound. “Ouch, when will this cursed thing be over, I wish it would get dark at least . . .” The sun continued to shine brightly and that day claimed many lives before the night fell.
In the evening when everything was over and they got back together, Gia felt very ashamed. He was especially ashamed in front of the young guys from Tbilisi who knocked back drinks carelessly and discussed with the locals the quality of local joints and how to get hold of some hash. “When a man of my age throws away his hoe and spade and picks up a gun, nothing will come out of this man,” he said out loud. The guys from Tbilisi smiled tolerantly and a bit ironically too. ”That’s nothing to worry about, uncle, at the beginning we all pissed ourselves in terror, that’s what happens at first,” said the youngest one of the Tbilisi guys, a baby face who couldn’t be older than his nephew. “Look at him, what can you say when this kid has to defend you, man . . . I can’t let on I’m scared stiff or these bastards will never let me forget it.”
“When we put an end to this disaster, I promise you some good Otobyia hashish!”
“Is it strong?” The youngest one’s eyes lit up.
The older Ezukhbaia sat at the foot of a tree, quiet and thoughtful as usual. He shook his head unhappily at Gia’s words.
“You’re over the top, Dato, it’s not good, you know you don’t need it,” he told Shervashidze.
Dato Shervashidze sat quietly on somebody’s rucksack, he was sweating profusely and could hardly breathe.
“He was chasing the bullet, this damned idiot,” thought Gia Ezukhbaia. “It all depends on the man, but Dato and his brother fought well even though they were in battle for the first time.”
“Pridon was everybody’s brother and we all loved him a lot, but you have to do things carefully and sensibly. Just following your heart doesn’t help get things done, but hey, that’s what you’re doing,” the older Ezukhbaia told Dato.
“He shouldn’t have got involved in this cock-up, those crooked politicians start something in their offices then good guys die on both sides and nothing happens to those at the top. They couldn’t give a rip whether we die or not, they’ll even use it to their advantage. He shouldn’t have got involved. If I’d been here I would have prevented it, but now what can you say to him, he’s pushing up daisies, it’s too late now,” said Dato Shervashidaze, his hissing voice sounding strange. Then he put his hand into his chest pocket and took out a piece of silver paper folded into four and turned his black glasses toward the guys from Tbilisi.
“Hey, here it is, but be careful, it has a kick, don’t overdo it.”
The youngest one of the Tbilisi guys approached him slowly, walking with a theatrical air and took it.
“Thanks. And you?”
“I don’t smoke that stuff.”
“Dato, perhaps you can get hold of someone there in Abkhazia, you’ve got some good honest, sensible people. Perhaps we can bring this bad thing to a close . . ."
Dato Shervashidze took out a cigarette and lit up.
“It’s not going to end now,” he said eventually. “Slavika’s already been killed in Kapi. He tried to help the Georgian priest in Gagra, the Russians had put a rubber tire on him and were going to burn him. He stood in front of this priest in Kapi and shouted, What are you doing, you whores? Without any gun and with his bare heart he covered the priest. The Cossacks killed Slavika after the Georgian priest in Kapi and burned both of them together anyway. Our lot, Abkhazians, said they would find those Cossacks. Where can you find those beggars, they don’t have any breeding or sense of race or home or honor? And Beso Agrba fights on their side, the Georgians set fire to his cousin in a tank near Gumista and he’s taking revenge. Dima Argun’s uncle was killed in Gagra, his blood relative, his mother’s brother, and he’s fighting against us too. The Mebonia lot, people like ‘sukhumski,' Tatash Chkhotua and Dato Gerdzmava avoided the whole thing from the very beginning. They’re in Russia, in Moscow. They phoned me several times, they were going to visit me in Riga. There’s yet more folk but they can’t make up their mind, what can they do, who would listen to what they have to say, fuck their mothers, the thugs. They've sold everything and it’s all sewn up.”
Gia Ezukhbaia listened to them quietly. This conversation made his body feel even colder. He held on to his machine gun with all his might and tried not to pay attention to his heart, which was sinking with fear. “I wonder what’s happening at our place, how they’re getting on at home?” he asked his older brother.
Gia’s older brother shrugged his shoulders and looked away to one side.
The following day, early in the morning, Shervashidze shot up, then they went out to the crossroads to a standpipe to wash their faces.
“Eh, what’s happening at home, brother, I wonder, how are they and what are they’re doing? They’re probably nervous and worrying a lot.” Gia Ezukhbaia repeated what he’d said the previous day.
“Why are you going on about home? How do I know what’s happening there. Whose house is it anyway?” the older Ezukhbaia suddenly started shouting furiously.
“Why are you shouting?”
Suddenly, there was the sound of ferocious shooting. The sound of gunfire was coming toward them very quickly.
The village was being attacked. The fighters dispersed chaotically, running to find the most advantageous positions that were relatively safe and tactically correct. Only Dato walked because he wasn’t up to running.
Gia Ezukhbaia together with Shukria Diasamidze from Batumi ran quickly to the very first courtyard and set up an ambush in the corner of an abandoned house with broken windows. Shukria Diasamidze sat close by, near the outside kitchen.
“Have you seen my people by any chance?” Gia Ezukhbaia shouted, pale faced and looking around. He was looking for his brother and Dato Shervashidze.
His question was lost in the noise of Shukria Diasamidze’s machine gun. Diasamidze shot one round and he shot carefully. Gia Ezukhbaia shot bullet after bullet to the opening at the end of the courtyard.
A bit later, a round of four bullets hit Diasamidze in the right side of his chest. A fourth bullet grazed his shoulder. Gia quickly ran up to him, sat down beside him, and stared bewildered at Shukria’s quivering face and the pink bubbles of blood appearing at his mouth. One bullet had gone through his lung. It was the first time Gia had seen a man killed by gunshot and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw how, even though he was already dead, for a few seconds Shukria Diasamidze kept pulling at the belt of his submachine gun and how the fingers of his right hand were convulsing.
Gia Ezukhbaia felt a weight lifted from him. He got up from where Shukria Diasamidze was lying and stretched, carefully avoiding stepping in the pool of blood that had suddenly spread all around. He then leaned the machine gun butt against his shoulder and fired the whole cartridge in the direction of the end of the orchard and then, while still standing, he replaced the cartridge and fired once again. He could hear the characteristic hissing sound of the bullets whizzing past him. Only yesterday, that sound was enough to freeze his blood in their veins, but now that no longer happened. It didn’t happen and that’s all there is to it. Neither the explosion of a mine nearby nor the soil that had fallen on him, nor the hissing sound of more frequent bullets, shot one by one, could make him lower his head.
The Willys drew up at the gates near the house with a squawking noise. People got out, then carried Shukria Diasamidze back to the vehicle.
“Makes no sense, he’s dead and done for,” a voice sounded.
They laid Shukria Diasamidze’s body carefully at the edge of the road.
“Get in touch with San Sanich with the walkie-talkie, he can come with the Gazik,” said one of them, running toward Gia, bending double.
A little later, the others rushed into the courtyard as well, including the older Ezukhbaia and Dato Shervashidze. They sat down at the foot of the tree. Dato Shervashidze insisted on getting up onto his feet several times. The Ezukhbaias tried to stop him by swearing and shouting, but it was already too late. Shervashidze fell down. He was lucky. The bullet had gone through his side.
Both the Ezukhbaia men rushed to Dato Shervashidze.
”See what he’s done, insisting on having his own way. I’m the son of a whore . . .”
“Come on, bring him here, what was he doing, the bastard, really he’s not all together . . .”
“Let me go, there’s nothing wrong with me, it’s a flesh wound!”
”Shut up or I’ll kill you with my own hands. It went through his flesh, son of a bitch.”
They forcibly shoved Dato into the nearby Willys.
“Take him, take him away from here! Who’s this crazy SOB, he’s been high since this morning and he can’t feel anything anymore. You’re the one who should be worrying about him . . .”
At the end of the day, impregnated with the smell of gun powder, Gia Ezukhbaia sat at the foot of the tree and smoked one cigarette after another and thought about the blood of Shukria Diasamidze from Batumi. He didn’t remember Shukria himself very well, he had only met him the previous evening and they had soon gone to bed and in the morning they had got involved in the fighting. He couldn’t help thinking about the pool under Shukria Diasamidze’s body, the blood the color of red wine, flooding like the sea. He had the feeling that that the man’s blood was his very own. Then he got used to it. He was no longer petrified with fear.
He got used to it. He got used to shooting, but he found it more difficult to get used to things other than shooting. For a week after the battle had erupted, he hadn’t been able to touch any food. He was hungry, but he felt no hunger. On the contrary, at the end of each day when he saw how the warriors gulped stewed meat and condensed milk straight from the tins or guzzled half-raw stolen pork, he felt sick the whole time. “How can those wretches eat among so many dead people, blood and gunfire?” But not long afterward, in a manner he didn’t even understand himself, he began to use the bayonet of his Kalashnikov rifle to eat stewed meat mixed with lumps of fat straight from the tin.
"We, Day By Day" is Jin Eun-Young’s first full collection published in English. Early on, she encountered Korean poetry of the 1980s and its spirit of political protest and carried the conviction and intensity of those verses into more mysterious, interior realms.
I first encountered Jin Eun-Young’s poetry by way of her prose. Her biographical essay appeared in a booklet published by the Korea Literature Translation Institute for a conference in Seoul that we both attended during the spring of 2006. The British poet Polly Clark read the essay, too, and agreed: we needed to meet this woman and needed to read her poems. Here’s some of what that caught our eyes and ears:
I was born in Daejon in 1970. I don’t remember much about my hometown since I left before the age of four. I spent most of my early childhood in Seongam at the outskirts of Seoul. I played in my mother’s small beauty parlor, running around my hairdresser mother and the prostitutes with slender pale legs who were her steady customers. Around the time I began to make friends with the neighborhood kids, the neighborhood hill became my playground. We would run up and roll down the mounds of graves among the pink azaleas. Next, we moved to Seongsu-doing in northeast Seoul. I vaguely remember the smell of a wig factory. And the blue uniform worn by the girls from the clock factory, but this memory is not important to me because by that time I had already begun reading the red-covered story books published by Gyemong Publishers and was slowly being sucked into a strange and fantastic hole made by those books.
Here was someone who wrote with no pretension and total vivacity. The imagination at play in the phrases and sentences made it obvious: this was a true poet. And did I mention—the same writer who conjured these hyper-real, day-to-day details was also a philosopher, had published a book on Immanuel Kant?
Polly Clark and I weren’t disappointed. During a trip we took together into the mountains, Eun-Young led us through several of her poems and provided transliterations. Those have been sources for a few of my own translations. But I’m thrilled to report that a full collection—We, Day By Day—now does justice to Jin Eun-Young in English. The translations by Daniel Parker and YoungShil Ji are clear and idiomatic, showing remarkable sensitivity to line, sentence, and, most important, the Korean original.
Maybe one short lyric will work best to show the sensibility that grew up noticing such priceless details as the slender pale legs of the prostitutes and the smell from the wig factory. Take “Blue Shirt”:
He’s been falling for a while
then gets caught in the air
The branch is frail and delicate. Soon she will break.
Together or separately,
Caressing the transparent and long waist of the fall,
Both of his freed arms stir
The wound in the wide flank that gapes
Like green rose petals
This poet has a talent for making the world of subjective experience feel not only vivid but somehow inevitable. Like separate tones of a single palette, the entangling man and woman, the metaphor of the tree, the insistence of the descent that constitutes the poem’s action, and the intimations both erotic and dramatic combine into the shape of the poem. Jin has such seemingly natural command of story-telling, such tonal confidence, such perfect timing—a subtle intuition for how one image transforms into another. Even when she guides us deep into the world of dreamy association, even when she erases narrative context, she carries the reader with her.
We, Day By Day is Jin Eun-Young’s first full collection published in English, but the second of three released in Korea—the most recent, Songs Being Stolen, came out in 2012. That’s important to remember when encountering Jin Eun-Young for the first time in English: this is a mature sensibility. Early on, this poet metabolized her influences. She encountered Korean poetry of the 1980s and its spirit of political protest and carried the conviction and intensity of that work into more mysterious, interior realms. Likewise, she managed to bring all of the intellectual seriousness of her work as a philosopher to bear upon her poems and yet avoid anything that would sound like an essay.
This means that to read Jin Eun-Young is to feel, at the same moment, the mysterious singularity of experience and the necessity and possibility of human connection. This is what makes her so important to my own map of the poetry being written in the world right now and what makes We, Day By Day essential.
Guest editor Jeremy Tiang kicks off our Macau issue with a look at the contradictions of this tiny yet complex territory and its literature
Macau is tiny: an area of forty-five square miles, home to half a million residents. It was a Portuguese colony from the sixteenth century to 1999, before being handed over to China. This territory has long been a crucible of language and culture. It was here that the British missionary Robert Morrison holed up in the early nineteenth century to compile his Chinese-English dictionary, and where the Portuguese symbolist poet Camilo Pessanha was buried in 1926. It has its own Macanese creole (known locally as Patuá) that combines Portuguese, Cantonese, and Malay—though this is now listed by UNESCO as a critically endangered language, with fewer than fifty speakers in Macau.
I was in Macau earlier this year for its literature festival, an intimate affair in the town center with an impressive array of visiting authors. Every venue had an interpreters’ booth at one side of the room, in acknowledgment of the multilingual panels—most were in some combination of Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Portuguese, as was the audience. The sessions I attended were sharply put together and thought-provoking; unfortunately, this may well be the last iteration of the festival. Less than a week beforehand, the organizers announced that three writers—Jung Chang, Suki Kim, and James Church—would not be attending, after an unofficial warning from the Chinese authorities that they would probably be barred from entering the territory (Kim and Church write about North Korea, while Chang’s Wild Swans is still banned in China). As a result, the festival director resigned in protest, and it is as yet unclear if anyone is taking over.
Between events, I wandered the streets and admired the contrasts contained within this small space—cramped tenement buildings a lot like the ones I’d seen in Hong Kong, piazzas and cathedrals straight out of Lisbon, Vegas-like casinos glittering in the distance, complete with a scale model of the Eiffel Tower. Hybridity was everywhere, from the street signs in both Portuguese and Chinese, to the food that managed to bring together the best of the sino- and lusospheres. Particularly delightful was the abundance of pastel de nata, the predecessor of the Cantonese egg tart. There is so much crammed into this territory, which has found a way for its many layers to co-exist in something like harmony, even with the shadow of authoritarianism hanging over it.
Macau has weathered many storms (some literal—many parts of the territory are still recovering from an apocalyptic typhoon last August), and one hopes it will continue to thrive, despite the uncertainty hanging over the region. It’s been a pleasure to put together an issue showcasing the range of voices contained within this land of contradictions. Koh Choon Eiow and Mok Sio Chong’s play A Gambling Worldplunges us into the casinos that play such a big role in Macau’s economy, while Eric Chau’s “Work Hard” takes on the depredations of capitalism itself, with a story illustrated by Chi-Wai Un that first appeared in the anthology 亂世童話 (Fairy tales for a chaotic world).
The three poems in this issue each engage with the territory’s past in some way. Agnes Lam shows how the iconography of colonialism lingers long after its perpetrators have departed, while Un Sio San locates her fantastical landscape in the abandoned Hotel Estoril, a casino resort built in 1962 that is currently at the heart of a debate over whether it ought to be demolished or preserved as heritage. Yao Feng, an associate professor in the University of Macau’s Portuguese department, writes in both Chinese and Portuguese, the latter a manifestation of how firm a foothold the colonial language still has on the culture (although Yao himself is a transplant from Beijing, he has lived in Macau a long time).
Macau is a fascinating, complicated place. For a small former colony, it definitely punches above its weight when it comes to literary production, yet so little of its writing reaches beyond its borders. This issue is an attempt to redress this imbalance, and to give a sense of its many wonders.
The guest editors for Words Without Borders’s August feature of Panamanian short fiction discuss the project’s genesis and give readers an insider’s look at the country’s literary scene.
Pam Carmell: As often happens, this project got its start at an ALTA conference. In 2015, you read a compelling short story by Panamanian Melanie Taylor Herrera. Coincidentally I was headed to Panama on a hiking and boating trip a few months later.
Christina Vega-Westhoff: Yes, that was a fortuitous meeting! I read that night from Taylor Herrera’s “Periplo” ("Journey"), which had just appeared in Brooklyn Rail’s InTanslation. It’s one of Taylor Herrera’s longer, more novelesque historical short stories. How did you become interested in Panamanian literature?
PC: It all started for me when I began to wonder how the Panamanian writing scene had been affected by the handover of the Canal and the opening of the new locks. I’d read very little by Panamanian writers, and none by younger writers, so I decided to track down some writers during that trip. You suggested I contact Federico Angulo, who ran Exedra Books in Panama City. Inside I found a large selection of literature from across Central America and a crowded coffee shop. Federico eagerly connected me with several younger writers, including Carlos Wynter.
CVW: It was such a special bookstore—a nexus for the literary community during the fifteen years it was open. I’m so glad you got to visit before it closed in April 2016. Taylor Herrera and I first met there at a discussion on Panamanian literature in January 2008. I was living and working in Panama, where I have family and where my mother was born. It turned out we had a lot of friends in common—artists and feminists. I fell in love with her work—its range, music, and criticality, as well as the way her stories act as counternarratives.
PC: And it was also at Exedra Books that I came across the literary journal Maga, edited by iconic Panamanian writer Enrique Jaramillo Levi. In it I discovered Wynter’s story “A Hole of Light at the End of a Tunnel of Trees.” His mesmerizing voice and the story’s somewhat existential conflict immediately drew me in. The narrator almost seems to relish, even wallow in, her melancholy assessment of the relationship with her boyfriend and her inescapable, sad future if it falls apart. This story is part of the collection Pecados; spare and evocative, each story considers a challenge that bewilders the characters and seems to defy atonement.
In Cheri Lewis’s story “Open Hands,” the narrator describes odd occurrences taking place in her home in a bewilderingly calm, almost matter-of-fact voice even when the situation escalates. In the stories in the collection of the same name, familiar moments in a young woman’s life (meeting a guy at a party, falling in and out of love) take an unexpected turn, elevating the commonplace to an almost mythical level, as if some otherworldly force controls the situation.
CVW: Wynter’s story recalls Taylor Herrera’s “Journey” for me, evoking Panama City’s history, its mythology, parks, and outdoor spaces. The streetcar exists in both as a central character and raises questions about transportation’s role in how we think about and relate to place. And we feel the city too in Lewis’s piece, but in an entirely different way, through a house that though filled seems strangely empty. Taylor Herrera’s story “Dance with Death” also plays with emptiness and gestures outward, multiplying possibilities. “Dance with Death” is drawn from her collection Camino a Mariato, a book whose female protagonists wrestle with negotiated peripheries and notions of otherness.
PC: These stories do have a lot in common. We chose them because they are good reads with an engaging cinematic quality; the plots unfold like tightly edited short films. But they’re also cautionary tales whose camera pulls back to reveal the universal quality of their characters’ flaws and missteps.
CVW: Yes, in all three I sense an exploration of waiting, continuity, solitude, and destruction. I find depictions of the personality of Panama City. They strike me as vignettes do, with shaded edges of invitation and the thinking and questioning that live there.
Panamanian writer Melanie Taylor Herrera looks on as two assassins kill time at a nightclub.
Two men head for the table in front of the dance floor. They sit down in the aluminum chairs silently and in unison. The man wearing the skintight black shirt orders two drinks. The bar is empty. It’s almost nine on a Wednesday night—a lazy night that slips through the waitresses’ and bartender’s fingers like thick wet sand. The men watch the few couples moving on the dance floor. Both men are light skinned and average height. The man in the black shirt’s small, sunken eyes notice everything. He has a small nose and fleshy lips. The other man has gray eyes rimmed with thick lashes, a broad nose, and very thin lips. When the waitress arrives with their drinks, they reach for their glasses without shifting their gazes from the dance floor. The man with small eyes drinks whiskey on the rocks, and the man with gray eyes, rum with lemon. They take a few sips, stand, and head for the exit, leaving their glasses on the table. The man in the black shirt tells the waitress something. She nods in agreement. As the men leave, two girls barely twenty years old enter in jeans that reveal their lower back tattoos; their tank tops show off their youthful cleavage. One girl drags her feet as she walks; she thinks she’s too tall. The other bounces forward; she’s wearing towering heels to make up for her short stature. As the waitress clears away the rum with lemon and the whisky on the rocks, the girls order a soda and a glass of ice. The waitress purses her lips in response. The girls exchange a look and purse their lips too, nervously touching their hair as they do so. They look at the nearly empty dance floor, the neatly arranged tables and chairs, and wonder if they’re wasting their time. Half an hour later the two men return, sit down, and order another round. They drink and cast a sideways glance at the two girls sitting at the next table, sharing a soda. The man in the black shirt likes the redhead and the man with gray eyes takes an interest in the tall blonde with the bun. The man in the black shirt sighs in frustration and the other checks his watch. They can’t get distracted, not yet. They need to leave one more time to complete this first phase. When they finish the job, they’ll disappear from the scene as quickly as possible. The short girl likes the man in the black shirt; his mouth twists slightly to the right and he looks like he’s smiling even though he’s not. The tall girl also likes the man in the black shirt; he’s slightly taller. A bachata comes on and the tall girl closes her eyes and moves to the beat in her chair, as the redhead quietly sings along. The men get up one more time. The girls watch them leave and they both let out a sigh. The bar feels even emptier than before and they order one beer and another glass of ice. The men drive an old, unmarked dark blue 4x4 truck with tinted windows and stolen plates. They drive to a high-rise building called Roca Vieja in the upscale Punta Paitilla neighborhood and park on the sidewalk across from the building. The security guard for the building is distracted as he talks to a housekeeper walking her dog. Finally a red car, an Audi A4, drives up and pulls into the parking lot. The men make a mental note: 11:20. Phase one is over. The man they are monitoring does exactly the same thing four days a week. He leaves the parking lot, but instead of going directly from the elevator to his apartment, he walks to the front of the building to smoke a cigarette. A very convenient habit.
“Think his wife won’t let him smoke in the house?” asks the man with gray eyes.
“Who cares?” responds the other.
The man with gray eyes says nothing. He thinks the other man is arrogant, pretending not to be curious. He starts the car and drives back to the bar. They walk in, and without exchanging a word, they each ask one of the girls to dance. The girls stand up, neither one looking the men directly in the face, and follow them to the dance floor, synchronizing their steps with the men’s steps even before they begin to dance. The man in the black shirt holds the redhead firmly. She finds his hand warm and soft. He leads her with conviction, as if he’d been dancing with her forever and knew how to direct her, when to turn, when to swivel her hip to the right or to the left, when to move on the dance floor. He manages all this with the light pressure of his right hand. His left hand sits on his partner’s hip, right on the curve, making her tingle inside. As he turns her, she unconsciously memorizes the man’s cologne. The man with gray eyes leads the blonde by the hand. They try dancing cheek to cheek for a while, but then let go of each another. He admires the way she moves her hips to the rhythm, syncopating and swaying with the music. The song ends and the men lead their partners back to the table and leave the bar, this time for good. At 11:15 the next night motorcyclists speed past the front of the Roca Vieja building. They swivel around, spot a red Audi, double back to spray the car with bullets from a mini Uzi, then disappear into the night. The security guard and the housekeeper walking her dog run toward the car, which has crashed into a line of parked cars. The man driving the motorcycle thinks they should have waited until the man had smoked his cigarette and killed him in a single shot, but the one with the mini Uzi had disagreed and in the end the shooter calls the shots. They ditch the motorcycle and flee in a car where they have everything prepared. At 11:30 the redhead ends her shift as a clerk in a fast-food restaurant, puts on high heels, walks slowly over to a table in the restaurant, and lingers over a coffee before taking the bus home. As the black coffee steams around her face, her gaze wanders, and she recalls the previous night’s dance, the warm hand that guided her, and the other that rested on her hip, his cologne . . . . She wonders whether the man goes to the bar regularly and wants to go back another night to see if she’ll run into him. At 11:45 the blonde wakes up to the sound of her youngest son, just six months old, screaming and crying. With sleep nagging her and an unbearable heat that the fan can’t disperse, she turns on the television. As she’s fixing a bottle, she hears the midnight news announce that assassins have just killed an important businessman in his car outside the Roca Vieja building.
Panamanian writer Cheri Lewis observes a household inexplicably deluged with infants.
The babies started arriving that summer. I remember the first one so well. I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth when, in the mirror, I spotted the reflection of a shadow making its way down the hall. I leaned out the door and saw a baby, naked and covered in dirt. He crawled right down the center of the living room and headed straight for my sister, who was sitting on the couch, reading a book. He rested against her knees and hugged her. She tenderly lifted him off the floor and, for the rest of the day, they were inseparable. When my mom came by, she immediately treated him like a member of the family. She and my sister set up a makeshift cradle in my sister’s bedroom and that’s where he slept that night.
One morning, a few days later, the twins showed up: a boy and girl. Like the first baby, they arrived naked and dirty. We found them sleeping in the garden. None of us had spotted them entering the garden, so they must’ve slipped in at night or in the early morning while we were sleeping. My sister insisted that the new babies sleep in her room too, so she and my mom got to work settling them in. She said that they kept her entertained and that she’d take care of all three of them. I have to concede that, as babies go, they were almost no trouble. I never heard them cry, or fuss, or laugh. They didn’t topple vases or break anything valuable. They just crawled all over the place, as if they were searching for something. When they were overcome by exhaustion, they went straight into my sister’s arms. She looked after them without a word of protest.
A week later, four more babies showed up: three boys and a girl. Sitting at the breakfast table early one morning, we felt a cold breeze. We turned and saw four silhouettes standing in the doorway, sunlight at their backs. Four faceless shadows studying us from outside. These babies were older, and they entered the house walking upright. They fanned out around us, opened the cabinets, and rummaged through them. My mother picked up the basket of bread and butter sitting on the table and offered it to them along with some oranges. The babies grabbed the oranges with their grubby hands and devoured the fruit in just a few minutes. Their fingernails were long and caked with dirt, so we figured they’d been wandering on their own for quite a while. That night we rearranged the furniture and bedded them down on the living room floor. My mother, sister, and I went upstairs to my room to talk.
“This situation’s getting out of hand,” I told them. “We can’t have all these babies in our house.”
My sister disagreed. “Since they’ve come to our home, we should make them feel welcome. How can we turn our backs on those innocent children?”
Mama kept her thoughts to herself as she listened to our arguments. She looked worried. She had lit a cigarette and was standing by the window, smoking and staring outside. “More are on their way,” she told us with conviction, “and that can’t be good.”
My sister and I looked at each other with fear in our eyes, but we didn’t say a word. That night the three of us slept upstairs in our mother's room, huddled together in her bed, like we’d done when we were kids: Mama in the middle and my sister and me on either side of her. I didn’t sleep well. I thought the dawn would never come. I felt sick to my stomach, but I didn’t want to get out of bed. I knew that, even if I did get up, the nausea wouldn’t go away.
My eyes were still open when the sky changed color. When I heard noises downstairs, I bolted upright in bed. My mother and sister reacted the same way. I could tell they’d had a bad night, too. As the sun’s first rays were filtering through the curtains, we resolved, with just a look at each other, to get out of bed and go down to the living room.
The house was silent. The only sound was our footsteps creaking on the wood floors. My heart was pounding so loud it drowned out my breathing.
When we reached the staircase, we saw the seven babies we’d put to bed in the living room the night before. They were standing stock still in the front of the room, next to the bookshelf, looking up, waiting for us. Behind them were twenty, thirty, maybe even fifty babies. Too many to count. Through the big picture window that looked out at the garden, we saw even more, their eyes trained on us. The house wasn’t in disarray, but judging by the way the drawers hung open, it was clear the babies had searched through them.
We slowly descended the stairs under the children’s implacable gaze. When we reached the last step, one of the babies approached us. He was the first baby to arrive at our house. I recognized him from the dark birthmark close to his left shoulder. As he walked toward us, I was surprised to see that he wasn’t crawling anymore. He passed between my mother and me, took my sister’s hand, and drew her away from us and over to his group. The other babies immediately encircled her and grabbed hold of her skirt. The girl baby who had been the last to arrive the day before latched onto her other hand. My sister gave us a frightened look. A single tear pooled in her eyes and, without rolling down her cheek, splashed onto the carpet. That was the way my sister cried; it always seemed strange to me. Gradually, the babies started to leave, taking her away with them. I tried to stop them, but when I took my first step, they all stopped, turned their heads and fixed their gaze on me.
My mother grabbed my shirt and yanked me back. “It’s inevitable. There’s nothing we can do.”
“I want to say good-bye to her,” I told her. “Let me say good-bye to her!” I shouted to them, louder and louder, but they pretended not to hear me. My sister left with them without so much as a backward glance. Her shoulders were shaking so I knew she was crying. When they’d all left the house, I broke free of my mother’s grip and ran outside. The last memory I have of my sister was her silhouette fading in the distance, surrounded by those tiny heads.
That was the last time we welcomed anyone into our home.
An anxious woman awaits her lover in Panamanian writer Carlos Oriel Wynter Melo’s exploration of jealousy and doubt
If you look at the park head on, stare straight at it, look with more than your eyes, imagining it or linking it to a memory, you’ll see a tunnel of trees that ends in a hole of light. If your gaze is colored by some melancholy thought, that spot of light might suggest several interpretations. One possibility is that everything comes to an end.
On the corner of the park you might see men in snow-white hats, children in their Sunday best, and maybe a woman looking off into the distance.
To the right, just beyond the park, peering down at the park is a hotel. It’s wedged in between other buildings as if they were a group of friends, their arms draped around each other’s shoulders, looking down from high above. At street level, smaller friends, little grocery stores and general stores, look on, their doors flung wide open. In the background, a ways away, the sun stretches out for a rest behind the park and the town.
Streetcar tracks, like parallel lines in a drawing, make a turn at the park and continue along one of its sides. The people are standing right at that corner, waiting. They have no choice. At least they think they’re waiting. They’re not really waiting for anything.
She’s waiting, and yet she isn’t, she doesn’t believe she’s waiting, she’s sure that she’s waiting in vain. He’s supposed to show up on the next streetcar, but she doesn’t believe he will. Love has been a tightrope lately.
That’s why she’s not waiting: she’s pretending to wait. She lets the inertia of the days carry her along and bring her to the day, to the hour, to that corner of the park, to the meeting she doesn’t believe will actually take place.
She looks at the hotel and almost crosses over to it. She looks at the grocery stores and general stores. She looks at the people lined up next to her: children, men in white hats, and a couple of overdressed women. She looks at the tunnel of trees and at the gradually disappearing light at the end of it. She looks at the curved lines and parallel lines that the streetcar has to travel along.
But in fact, she isn’t looking at anything; her memories distract her.
For a moment she wishes she were wrong, that she’d misjudged. She wishes he’d show up at the time they’d agree on and that the streetcar would continue along its intrepid tracks and that they could go on with their day, not suspecting that anything had changed.
But no, she argues with herself, she’s wary. She betrays so she won’t be betrayed; forgets so she won’t be forgotten. And her next thought is nostalgic, prophetic, it fills her to overflowing with an inevitable death.
She imagines that years later, many years later, the spotlight no longer shines on the corner where she now waits, on its curbs and benches, and they’re covered by the mold-ridden shadow of disuse. She imagines that the streetcar has disappeared or looks different: made of metal and painted bright colors. Cars drive over its iron footprints and no one waits on the corner where there once were white hats (no one wears white hats anymore), children, and women in elaborate outfits.
She imagines that someone is indeed waiting, a lady, a woman who looks like her more or less, a spinster who agreed to meet someone at a specific time but doesn’t think that meeting will take place. And she imagines that the woman’s clothes are different from hers: She pictures baggy pants, sandals, a linen shirt.
She imagines that the woman is waiting, wondering if she should stick to the plan.
And that vision, that certainty that nothing will be left—just nostalgia—makes her feel alone, alone even with herself.
And with all her might she starts to long for him to come today, to keep his promise today, to show up, climb down off the streetcar, embrace her knowing how little time they have left before the future steps in and ends it between them just as they’re getting to know each other.
But she doesn’t know if he’ll come and that’s the worst part. She doesn’t know if he can justify coming, the way she has, if he’s seen what she saw in that park, in its tunnel of trees and the light at the far end. She doesn’t know if they ever agreed, or if it was just the illusion of agreeing.
She imagines the lady in the baggy pants, sandals, and linen shirt waiting, in good spirits, looking forward to the meeting with high hopes; waiting as if she could will everything to go the way she wanted; waiting as if she were praying.
And she waits, but something frightens her, something chills her blood as if her patience has stretched over the years, dying little by little, resigned to dying without realizing it.
Then she imagines that the hours have caught up with the woman and that church bells chime the time she’s to meet—that church is still standing in the distance, the same church that now tolls the hour—and one last hope lights up those invented eyes, but as the bells chime one, that hope starts to die away, utters death rattles after two, lies down and breathes its last at three.
Again she’s filled with nostalgia because, in her vision, she can clearly make out an inevitable death, an early death, an omnipresent death, a timeless death that will lay waste to that park, the tunnel of trees, the buildings, that hotel, those stores, the distracted pedestrians.
Then the streetcar stops and her stomach contracts like a fist clenched tight, like a newborn curled up like a snail.
And the passengers get off one by one, one after another, until the streetcar is almost empty. And she braces herself for the imagined woman’s pain, the future pain of a future woman that’s reproduced in her since time can’t change what’s really important, can’t change the axis it keeps spinning around.
But one last passenger gets off the streetcar, he gets off the streetcar, the last breath of the weary streetcar. In the end, the moment passes and she survives.
And she kisses him eagerly and he doesn’t understand why she’s so eager; he doesn’t understand her explosive happiness: Love has been a tightrope lately. But she kisses him, certain that by kissing him she protects the park, that park that will never be the same.
CHORUS Ken’s girlfriend is Sara, Macau born and bred.
She’s studying hotel management.
Became a casino promoter in her first year of college.
One of those girls you see at customs and the ferry terminal, with the good-fortune cars.
Bet, call, hit, double, split.
Time for a commercial break. Here is Ken and Sara’s Macau love story.
Ken and Sara at their separate jobs, speaking to each other across the stage.
SARA Hey, Ken, Malaysia has casinos, too. Why aren’t you working at Genting?
KEN Genting is boring, and if I were there, I wouldn’t have met you.
SARA Hey, Ken, Singapore has casinos, too. Didn’t you say everyone from southern Malaysia ends up working in Singapore?
KEN Singapore is boring, and if I were there, I wouldn’t have met you.
CHORUS Their words are full of joy-nuggets.
Small, concrete pieces of happiness. Murakami said:
“A person with no dreams is no different from a piece of salted fish.”
No, that was Stephen Chow.
Without these joy-nuggets, life would be a barren desert.
SARA Wow, a Rolex! Gorgeous!
KEN I’ve just paid off my student loans, so I bought this to celebrate. Am I swell?
SARA So swell you’re fit to burst! What about me?
KEN Next, I’m saving for a round-the-world trip.
SARA That’s my dream too. I don’t want to be stuck in Macau, I want to go everywhere.
KEN Good. We’ll go together, when I’ve earned enough.
SARA We’ll ride a hot-air balloon round the world!
KEN Yes! When we have money, we’ll ride anything we want!
SARA Then I want a horse-drawn carriage!
KEN All right, I’ll get you one of those Cinderella coaches!
SARA So cool! I’ll die of happiness.
KEN This world is our pleasure palace.
CHORUS Ken and Sara are in an oasis.
In order to find the joy-nuggets of life, we need a certain amount of something like self-restraint.
Like if I hand you a glass of water, it’s nothing special. But if you’ve been jogging and you’re dying of thirst, then I hand you one—
Wow, this is amazing!
I understand. You have to give up in order to gain. It’s only valuable if there’s a price.
I understand. You have to put up with suffering today for happiness tomorrow.
I understand, self-restraint, or in a word—
Customers try to get Ken’s attention.
CHORUS Ken! Kenny! Hey, Ken boy . . .
KEN OK, OK. A coffee, beef noodles? I’ll get that for you, Miss!
OK, OK, LV, Gucci? All yours.
OK, OK, I’ll deal with it, you keep playing. I hope you win!
OK, OK, the hotel’s booked, everything’s arranged. Don’t worry, it won’t be a northern girl, I’ll get you a Korean. Gwiyomi!
OK, OK, it’s that time of month? No problem, no problem, I’ll go get you one. Back in a minute.
SARA Why aren’t you answering my calls?
KEN I’m busy.
SARA You don’t care.
KEN Not true.
SARA I saw on the news that a woman . . . she jumped . . . from the old Hotel Grande.
SARA The building’s been closed a long time. How did she get in?
KEN She had two legs, she walked.
SARA You don’t find it strange?
KEN You think they hauled her up there, then she jumped?
SARA The building’s boarded up. How did she get to the roof?
KEN What’s your point?
SARA I heard that people used to jump from there all the time.
KEN You think it’s haunted?
SARA Aren’t you frightened?
KEN People die every day. They jump off buildings, drown themselves, hang themselves, take pills, slit their wrists. One more death or one less makes no difference to the world. Earlier today, a customer lost everything, howled and wailed and wanted to die. Luckily the security guards got him outside quickly. Just a little fuss, then it was like nothing had happened. Everyone went on gambling. (pause) I tell you, people at these casinos only think of winning. It’s only when they wake up that they realize they can’t afford to lose. You need money to be here. When the money’s gone, you get thrown out like trash. Garbage. Lucky I don’t gamble. (pause) Was she from Macau?
KEN Malaysian, like me?
SARA Taiwanese. Didn’t leave a note.
SARA Ken, Macau’s so small, and though we’re together, this feels like a long-distance relationship. Don’t you think?
KEN It’s like that for everyone.
SARA I want to go to your place tonight.
KEN No way, the landlady doesn’t like me bringing people home. Didn’t you have another promoting job?
SARA Yes, I shouldn’t have signed with two companies, it’s too much! Holding up all those signs, smiling constantly. My classmate works at the racecourse. Only works three nights a week, and there’s air conditioning. So much better.
KEN But sweetheart, she earns much less than you.
SARA That’s true.
SARA Macau is so fucking boring.
KEN I know, I know. Didn’t we say, just a few more years, till we’ve saved enough. Macau has so much money. We should earn while we’re young. Anyway you haven’t even graduated yet.
SARA When I finish school, I’ll go full-time, and then I’ll never leave.
KEN So quit your job.
SARA I can’t, everyone wants this job, there’s a long line of people waiting for me to go.
KEN Then let’s have some fun before you go full-time.
KEN If we have money, we can go anywhere.
SARA I don’t want to go to Malaysia.
KEN Malaysia’s fucking boring too.
SARA I want to go to Europe.
KEN Great, Europe is bankrupt now, they have even less money than we do. We’ll go live there when we’ve earned enough.
SARA I want to go to Poland, the city of music.
KEN Darling, the city of music is Venice.
SARA When we have money, Poland will be the city of music if I say it is.
An ambitious young woman learns the hideous secret behind the success of her cutthroat Macanese company in Eric Chau’s tale, illustrated by Chi-Wai Un.
There was once a little fishing port, nestled between two little hills. On the eastern hill was a lighthouse, its beam piercing the stillness of the night, lighting up the west.
One day, the fishing port started to change.
All kinds of skyscrapers began to spring up, blocking the hills. The lighthouse disappeared from view. These strange new buildings were nothing like the low-rise structures of bygone times. Standing by the sea, looking up at this resplendent city, a young girl was filled with excitement for the future.
In the south of the city, rising from a cluster of tall buildings, towered the most vulgar of them all: an enormous gold monstrosity. From a distance, it looked like a giant, glittering safe.
On top of the safe was a star-shaped logo. Everyone knew that these were the headquarters of the Bright Star Corporation.
The source of the Bright Star Corporation’s wealth was hotly debated, but this was a city where the line between black and white was far from clear. Good people did bad things. So long as you earned more money and spent more extravagantly than anyone else, you were a success. To make a better life for herself, Trixie decided to join the Bright Star Corporation.
Within three days of submitting her application, Trixie received a call from Bright Star to set up an interview. This remarkable efficiency made her hopeful. Even more remarkably, the executive chairman of the whole organization, Mr. Cai, was going to interview her in person. She started to daydream about this Mr. Cai.
At her interview, he was nowhere near as dashing as she had imagined. He glanced only briefly at her résumé, then turned his attention to her looks.
“How’s a pretty thing like you going to hack it as an accountant?” he said, chuckling heartily and embarrassing Trixie. But once he’d finished laughing, he hired her on the spot.
When Trixie started work, she quickly realized that the Bright Star office was nothing like other workplaces. Mr. Cai was a tyrant, and every department of his company was as chaotic as a battlefield.
Trixie’s colleagues were all frantically busy and unfailingly rude. In this company, the more cutthroat you were, the more your opinion counted, and the more authority you had to make decisions.
As Trixie learned how the company worked, her workload grew and her hours increased, almost without her realizing. She went from one hour of overtime a day to four or even six.
After three months of this, she was a shadow of her former self. Not only was she spending every waking hour at the office and sleeping far too little but her appetite was completely gone. Her complexion worsened by the day. She lost twenty pounds.
Yet her colleagues seemed entirely unaffected. They were as quick and uncomplaining as the wind. No matter how tired, hungry, or put upon they were, they forgot themselves in the wholehearted pursuit of money.
Mr. Cai was fond of saying to his employees, “If you want a long career here, you’d better make ‘extraordinary’ your new ‘ordinary.’ When the company prospers, so do you.”
Late one night, when no one else was in the office, he walked up to Trixie’s desk with a big grin on his face.
“Little Miss Trixie,” he murmured, “everyone else has gone home, how come you’re still here? Do you enjoy staying behind at the office?”
“I want to make the company proud,” said Trixie. “The company operates twenty-four hours a day and I’m working as many hours as I can to keep up. Anyway, sir, you’re here too. I’m younger than you, so I should be able to stay even later.”
“Seeing as you love the company so much, how about I let you in on our core business?” he replied.
Trixie almost jumped in the air with happiness.
“Thank you, sir! Thank you so much!”
She picked up her bag and followed Mr. Cai from the room.
“No need to thank me,” he said. “Hardworking youngsters aren’t easy to come by. I should be thanking you. I have always believed that people are the key to success.”
So saying, he led Trixie into his office, where he made her stand in front of his enormous safe.
After opening the safe, he roared with laughter, telling Trixie, “Our core business is finding the greediest, most ambitious people in the city and harnessing their abilities, making them sign their lives over to the company for all eternity.”
At this, Mr. Cai reached for the top of his head and groped around for a seam. Then, in an unzipping motion, he pulled open his own scalp.
At last, Trixie understood how the company had been able to expand so fast. On the surface, it seemed to be staffed by people, but in fact they were monsters, every one.
A creature unlike any ever conjured by human imagination wrestled his way out of Mr. Cai’s skin and sprang in front of Trixie. She screamed in horror.
The monster emanated a golden light so intense that she could not look directly at him. He resembled a dragon, but also a crab, with the compound eyes of a fly and arms like two enormous pincers. Standing there before Trixie, he was the most terrifying creature she had ever seen.
He said, “I invite you to become one of us! It’s not about dying, it’s about helping you live your very best life.”
Trixie made every effort to resist, but the monster was simply too powerful. Meanwhile, other monsters had gathered behind her. “Resistance is futile!” they urged. “We are the masters of every soul in your city. No one can escape our clutches. Join us, and be granted powers of your own, evolve into an omnipotent new being! Resist, and there can only be one outcome: unimaginable torment followed by certain annihilation. You’re a clever girl, you know what to do.”
Mr. Cai’s diabolical pincer, which had been pressing on the crown of Trixie’s head, now began drilling into her skull. But at the very last moment, just before it bored through to her brain, Trixie burst out, “Wait! I came here to work hard. It’s all the same, no matter what form it takes. So I agree, I’m willing to join the company’s core business and transform into a more productive worker.”
The monsters’ thunderous laughter reverberated through the building.
Soon after, Trixie was promoted to head of human resources for all of Bright Star Corporation. When giving presentations, she was fond of saying, “Here at Bright Star, we have always believed people are the key to success.”
Once upon a time, she had been a young girl determined to work hard. In the end, she turned into a monster.
Poet Agnes Lam turns a cold eye on contemporary Macau.
1. Two Worlds
this city I come from
when I come here
its deep recesses
wield twilight like a knife
slicing the world in two
the world begins with a slot machine
but its end is nowhere to be found
within the world
someone detonates the night
knocks at the gates of ruin
a flash of fortune
and the night is purgatory hot
in the city's heart
people and fire are as one
“Save me! Oh, save me!”
the flash bulbs no longer neutral no longer recording no longer capturing
“Save me! Oh, save me!”
chroniclers become victims
history can be like that
unclear whom to blame
beyond this world
unclear who belongs where
we remember only
within the world
chatting at a harbor-view bar
perfume fancy clothes hair spray and English-Chinese-Portuguese
mixing like makeup melted on a face
hard spirits at Opiarium
vodkas at Casablanca
ice cubes leaching color then spilling over with it
wave after wave of neon
faces mixed up like melted makeup
cologne-scented men raising glasses
to toast the slow procession of headlights
merry christmas and a happy new year
welcome back, happy reunion
happy twenty-first century
down this drink and we're happy
amid the happy sounds
people sing raucously in Kun Iam’s bay
urinate beneath her lotus dais, a drunken stream
toss glasses in the water, an arc of laughter
at the harbor-view bar, our laughter drowns the song
atop her lotus dais
beautiful as a mermaid
out of place as concessions and colonies
history can be like that
while gods can switch their faces
we remain the same
2. The Last Night of Hotel Bela Vista
this city I come from
when I come here
at its high points
in an old sea-view building
Westerners are reminiscing
Chinese are disputing with foreigners
reunification or handover
we raise half-glasses of red wine
to mourn Bela Vista
thinking of a hundred-year-old hotel
on this new page of history
kept chaste as a young maiden
for a single representative of a single country
the jazz musician can't help but
play a sad postcolonial tune
waiters in starched white uniforms
approach the walkway’s pale-yellow pillars
to water oleanders redder than wine
the blossoms count lamp shadows
that come with the falling mist
obscure the lanterns at the end of the walkway
and high above
a white ceiling fan sheds no color
still as days not yet begun
there is no today, no tomorrow
no need to weep or say good-bye
but the days will start with this sad farewell song
before the tune is over
secret lovers drain their cups
dry, red-eyed glances saying
let’s keep hold of this night
let’s linger beneath the oleanders
like a clichéd war romance
history can be like that
a constant cycle of invasion and retreat
thinking of tomorrow
they return to the long table
forget that intoxicating floral scent
and with the red-jacketed musician in the background
sit as wooden as colonial ladies
among the glint of glasses
a silver knife traces scar after scar
men and women are careful, gracious
meat juices on snow-white porcelain are
we clink glasses
drink up the scenery we cannot fall in love with
3. That’s how it goes
this city I come from
when I come here
across its wide expanses
the century says good-bye
to the insatiable desire of flash bulbs and zoom lenses
for shot after shot of wiped-away tears
gone then here again, here again then gone
the lone eye of the lighthouse must stay silent
he long since saw through
all this it's nothing but
the money-making game of the chroniclers and chronicled
when the lone eye blinks once again
beneath the flash bulbs and the zoom lenses
the Chinese Westerners Macanese will be as one
chroniclers and chronicled as one
reunification, yes, reunification
across the wide expanses
within the century
night mists whip darkness across the sky
the glimmer in the lone eye dims like God's glory
it can only rally, never meet
where the black mists settle
the night is as heavy as history
weighing on my eyes
it aches, how it aches
and I'm sleepy
thinking of before the mists
of the flash bulbs and zoom lenses
and the city they sought
the chroniclers and the chronicled
in a flash, a few fleeting moments
forget that era
forget that city's name
to forget, oh, to forget
the chroniclers and the chronicled
this city I come from
has no name
that’s how it goes
neither do I
that’s how it goes
Leading Macanese poet Un Sio San considers an abandoned hotel and the demolition of a city’s history.
Was born in a barn
Vanished with the summer
Becoming an octopus, a peacock
While his heart turned holy
Setting down its complex baggage
To embark on
Sermon of the world
A cocktail of enlightened spirits and sweat
The choppy world has no buoys
No lifeguards, no lanes
His nakedness is naked
His laziness is lazy
Soaking in youth, intoxicated from it
His erections have erections
Eighteen feet across
“Hormone floods ahead, mind your step”
Seduction is globalism a la mode
Bruised flowers bloom at the foot of the wall
Don't kiss too quickly, that’s a poem without line breaks
Rubbing new pistils together
And perhaps again in twenty years
The dampened soul dries in the shade
He’s thought of ending it
And leaving this place
Giving up on the dawn
Salmon fighting the current till death
Many years later he brings his daughter
To Piscina Municipal for laps
Soaking in time he sees fallen Estoril
Remembers how, by new-glazed windows
He made vivid, short-lived love
Adulthood’s cruel threshold
Watching Jacob wrestle the angel
Growing practiced, the tiger returns to the hills, time’s warning
He once lived bright as a brass band
For him, pianissimo
For memory, a mosaic
Mrs. Robinson overlaid on every nude woman
Also whales, satin ribbons, birds, a ship’s mast
Wine glasses, foliage
He longs for the enclosure of happiness
Ignoring the vast spaces in the scene
Desirous of prime numbers, divisible only by one and themselves
Soaking in silence, watching fallen Estoril
Stillness now is good
Witnessing time the thief stealing treasures
The crane of death stands ready
So new people can replace the old
New buildings enliven old districts
Gratifying the so-called majority who loved disappearances
The permanently changed
Fengshui's fatal lack of foresight
Mrs. Robinson, dear Mrs. Robinson
He's still seventeen, still in you-topia
Frantically plucking raspberries
Passing the square I see curvy women, identical builds
I eloped with him so I must strive to be different to you
Passing by Estoril, its profane invitation, I see
The desperation of loving a city
Is to draw endlessly from indecision
I see him look at me
The way he looks at
Thousands of naked women, strangers
Dipping bamboo baskets in the river of love
And coming up empty
In her novel "Wait, Blink", Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug devises a whimsical, yet earnest probe into the human condition, filled with a dizzy range of topics. From golf books to “the essence of life”, from Tarantino to Dante, passing though fictions about the dream life of president George W. Bush and the childhood of literary theorist Paul de Man, it’s all equally worth a moment of curious observation.
“You have the perfect golf swing in you, you just have to find it.” That’s the set-up line of choice for writer Kåre, one of the protagonists of Gunnhild Øyehaug’s novel Wait, Blink, to pick up girls and make audiences laugh. Golf can’t be this simple is the title of the self-help book he likes to quote derisively during dates or lectures, before remarking that “life is not always as simple as golf” and turning to a preferred subject: his own work.
There is a certain coyness about Kåre’s seduction methods, but don’t worry—this is not a book about writers and their neuroses. In the lecture described right at the beginning of Wait, Blink, Kåre quickly moves past his comedy routine and gets closer to something at the core of this novel and its underlying aesthetic. He quotes PJ Harvey’s “This is Love” and praises the lyrics for their “simple straightforwardness,” their “simplicity and directness.” “Kåre believes that every sentence should be like that, be it pop or literature,” we read. And while Kåre is no simple mouthpiece for the author, the quote still echoes an aesthetic relevant to the novel. No line of separation is drawn between pop and literature, film and philosophy, in a book that treats all man-made expressions with the same kind of earnest curiosity.
From the beginning of the novel, each short chapter presents us with new figures in what initially seems a dizzyingly large cast of characters. After a while, however, a plot as tightly woven as a Hollywood romantic comedy reveals itself. Øyehaug is a prolific writer, with seven books published in Norwegian. Wait, Blink is only her second book to be translated into English. Readers who became acquainted with her work through the short-story collection Knots, published last year by FSG, might be surprised to find this novel compared to a commercial, decidely non-avant-garde genre of film. The comparison is not unwarranted, however, even if it does call for some qualification.
There is some distance separating Wait, Blink from the short minimalist stories found in Knots, the kind that made Øyehaug’s writing resonate with a writer like Lydia Davis. She is quoted on the cover praising Øyehaug’s “wit, imagination, ironic social commentary, and fearless embrace of any and every form of storytelling.” The exploration of a seemingly more traditional structure in Wait, Blink can be understood as one such embrace. It can be described, perhaps, as a peculiar use of convention, one that still contains deeper philosophical concerns and an earnest attempt at understanding even the smallest building blocks of the social fabric and the way we create meaning. In this regard, although it is constructed in a more conventional manner, the novel will still seem familiar to readers acquainted with the kind of thinking about the large through the small that Davis has made her trademark.
The title of the novel, Wait, Blink, comes from a story in the book about a woman who was lost in the wilderness and survived by using the light on her cell phone to signal for help: “Wait, blink, survive.” Her use of a cell phone as a semaphoring system of the simplest kind can be read as a stand-in for the more complex communications and signaling systems being set into motion by the characters in the novel.
For it’s all about interpretation, in a novel where the romantic misunderstandings, and thus the fate of the many characters, hinge on interpretations of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2, and other similar references.
One of the main characters in the book is Sigrid, a student who’s writing an essay on a ubiquitous phenomenon exemplarily expressed in Sofia Coppola’s film: “she’s started to notice that whenever women are supposed to come across as fragile and vulnerable in films or literature, they’re always wearing oversized men’s shirts, with bare legs. And they often also have tousled hair.” Trying to understand the aesthetic underlying this trope, and why it makes her so uncomfortable, leads Sigrid to some pretty complex situations with male friends and potential lovers. Just as a seemingly innocent discussion about the role of Uma Thurman’s character, The Bride, in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 turns explosive enough to cause a couple’s break-up.
The main love triangle in the book is that between the writer Kåre, his ex-girlfriend Wanda, and his new love interest, the younger (by two decades) Sigrid, who decorates her room with posters of literary theorists and struggles to escape the seemingly endless labyrinth of her own thoughts. Still, a deep “will to connect” is Sigrid’s ideal, one she struggles to live by. Whereas the man of her dreams, Kåre, lives by the maxim “Just be yourself!” Kåre is upset when Sigrid (as Wanda before her) does not conform to his ideas of what that self should be like: assertive, self-assured, stating opinions loudly and clearly. Turns out the universality of that ideal is not as obvious as Kåre thinks:
But, Sigrid had said on the phone, what if being careful is part of being natural? If shouting and screaming is not the way one does things? Her mouth had been a little dry. Then you have to change that, Kåre said.”
An investigation into the paradoxical imperative “Just act natural!” follows, as each of the romantic storylines take unexpected turns, and the questions of interpretation, meaning, connection and communication become dazzlingly complex, making two people discussing a Tarantino movie read like a crash course in language philosophy.
Wait, Blink was itself made into a movie, Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts, in 2015, and film is a leitmotif throughout the book: the narrator speaks in terms of zooming in and out of different character’s perspectives. When trying to describe the novel, comparisons with movies easily come to mind. Just as the wager presented by Queen Elizabeth in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love centers on whether a play can adequately represent “the very truth and nature of love,” so Øyehaug’s romantic comedy is a philosophical inquiry into the question of whether it is possible, in writing, in thinking—and more acutely, in everyday communication with the people we care about—to convey “a perfect picture of inner life,” as the subtitle boldly asserts in the tongue-in-cheek style characteristic of a novel using a hyperbolically omniscient narrator to full effect.
At one point, for example, we follow a salmon swimming from the seabed off Greenland to the coast of Norway and with this journey transporting the reader from one plot line to another. As the narrator follows the salmon further and further, the story takes a deep dive into the origins of photosynthesis in the ocean depths 3.7 billion years ago, thus coming close to the beginning of “what we simply have to call ‘life’” before breaking things off with a light shrug:
But now we have well and truly digressed, even though it’s a beautiful thought: that we’re extremely close to the essence of lifehere, the answer to a couple of humongous mysteries, but unfortunately we’ve only brought along a limited amount of oxygen to sustain us for our stay on the seabed and must concentrate on our real reason for being here: to see the salmon swim, with its inbuilt navigation system, all the way to its small river in northwestern Norway, where the fishmonger’s daughter’s father is standing one Sunday, his only day off, in 2002, fishing for salmon.
The passage is representative of the whimsical, digressive yet serious style of the novel, and the range of topics covered by it: from golf books to “the essence of life,” from Tarantino to Dante, it’s all equally worth a moment of curious observation for our omniscient narrator’s gentle probing into the world of human beings, of salmon, of rocks on the seabed, and of romantic daydreams. Fictions about the dream life of President George W. Bush or the childhood of literary theorist Paul de Man also dot the main narrative, ensuring a constant infusion of unexpected perspectives.
A footnote near the end tells us the narrator’s voice is really a small choir: the dual voices of Dante’s Beatrice and Cervantes’ Dulcinea, classic literary counterparts to the modern-day mirages of vulnerable women in oversized men’s shirts. In Øyehaug’s novel, women created as male fantasies take on a life of their own—and an agency infused with humor and a playful attitude towards most things in life, including storytelling, feminism, and literary history.
In one chapter we even see Dante himself asking Virgil whether he has lost his way when he trips on something in the snow, digging away at it until he finds the heads of sinners frozen in time. They appear to be Sigrid, Kåre, Wanda, the fishmonger’s daughter, etcetera, people we know intimately but whom Dante has never seen, concluding: “This isn’t where we’re meant to be!” before hurrying off with Virgil.
Even though “a perfect picture of inner life” might be an unattainable ideal, the stories of the meetings between these characters become proof that it is possible at least to partially convey what is on one’s mind and once in a while experience “one of those moments so rarely shared between two people: when both have naked eyes.” Whether or not communication is perfect is not the question, the novel seems to tell us: less-than-perfect communication is communication nonetheless. At its core Wait, Blink can be read as a gentle warning against the dangers of skepticism gone rogue, embracing a will to communicate, while being fully aware of all the obstacles inherent in language and in the inevitable separateness of minds.
A brief note on the translation: As I had read the novel in Norwegian when it originally came out in 2008, I was initially slightly thrown off by the translation. After a few hiccups in the early chapters—overly direct translations of everyday Norwegian phrases that seemed forced or too offbeat in English to fit the down-to-earth style of the original—the translation found its pace and tone, and a few chapters in it felt as easy to read as the original.
Overall Wait, Blink is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, one that delves into eternal questions regarding human communication, love, and the mysteries of infatuation, with a distinct philosophical attitude, in a form of storytelling so seemingly mild and pleasant it could almost be considered beach reading.
If Lebanon can be said to be a collection of fragments that cohere uneasily, mirroring each other in unexpected ways, Lebanese literature can be called a kaleidoscope. One turn of the wrist this way or the other, and suddenly an entirely new abundance of writers comes into view, a sweeping array of cultures, politics, wars, exiles, religions—and, of course, languages: French, Arabic, even English.
Consider Etel Adnan, now in her nineties, whose 1977 novel Sitt Marie Rose (written in French) was one of the first to describe the devastating Lebanese Civil War that endured for fifteen years between 1975 and 1990. For many, she is the quintessential author and artist of her country—trilingual in her work and in her life. Her background, too, while unusually complicated, is typically full of the layers of nuance that so frequently define the lives of Lebanese. In a recent interview with Bookwitty, she said, shrugging:
People talk a lot about one’s “mother tongue.” Mine was Greek. My mother was from Smyrna; my father was Syrian, but had grown up during the Ottoman Empire; and my parents spoke Turkish together.
Her father, who was Muslim, attended the military academy in Istanbul with Turkey’s Atatürk; her mother was Catholic.
Politics are the story of our region. At home I lived with two survivors from the shipwreck of the Ottoman Empire. My father was thirty-eight years old, and was an officer when his raison d’être vanished.
(Adnan’s mother, too, was living with loss: the Greek and Armenian neighborhoods of her city, Smyrna, had been utterly destroyed in a fire in 1922.)
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon came under French Mandate rule until gaining its independence in 1943. Periods of regional and local political instability followed, gaining momentum until the civil war erupted.
Lebanon has played a defining role in Arab literature, and, as the Syrian-born French publisher Farouk Mardam-Bey observes, it has been involved in all of the regional revolutions of the twentieth century. Now in his seventies, he has helped transform the literary landscape in France as the director of the Sindbad imprint of the publishing house Actes Sud, overseeing contemporary Arabic fiction and nonfiction in French translation.
With few exceptions, Mardam-Bey says, Lebanese literature preceding the civil war represented “a friendly place, a land of milk and honey; the Mediterranean …” The war “swept all that away”:
There was a very important evolution in the 1980s and '90s, which, like everywhere else, saw a decline in a politically committed literature. There had been many intellectuals and writers who were politically engaged, but in their writing they became more interested in everyday life. They were no longer afraid to show the most sordid details of daily life, because war reveals these kinds of things.
This civil war generation, as it's called, includes many of Lebanon’s finest contemporary authors, such as Rashid al-Daif, Hanan al-Shaykh, Hoda Barakat and Najwa Barakat, Jabbour Douaihy, and Elias Khoury—all published by Mardam-Bey. He adds that women writers such as al-Shaykh and the two Barakats have authored some of the country’s best books in recent years.
Yasmina Jraissati, who founded the Lebanese literary agency RAYA, affirms that this wartime generation “is still leading the pack.” She, like Mardam-Bey, attributes this dominance to the capacity of that cohort to continuously breathe new life into their work. This issue of Words Without Borders includes an excerpt from Hoda Barakat’s latest novel, Barid al-layl (forthcoming in English as The Night Post), which is built around six letters that are each intercepted by an unrelated person. “It’s extremely modern,” says Jraissati of the novel. “She has a young readership.”
Jabbour Douaihy is also constantly reinventing himself and is in “full bloom,” according to Mardam-Bey. The excerpt in this issue from his novel Charid al-manazel (Chased away) plays with Lebanon’s numerous paradoxes and recounts the story of Nizam, born a Muslim and raised as a Christian.
Of the Lebanese authors writing in Arabic (as do Barakat and Douaihy), another stands out, twenty years younger than the war generation but old enough to have experienced it: Rabee Jaber, a talented, prolific, and reclusive writer (and in addition inaccessible even for professionals such as Mardam-Bey and Jraissati). So far, his impressive literary production in Arabic has met with only a handful of translations into French or English.
Work by the maverick author and poet Charles Chahwan (whom Vice magazine has called “the Arab World’s Answer to Charles Bukowski”) appears in English translation for the first time in this issue as an excerpt from Harb al-shawari‘a (Street wars)—a collection of short stories that was a huge success when it was published in 1991 but is now out of print. The stories depict the lives of rival militiamen during the civil war whose euphoria is driven by violence rather than by political ideology.
But the civil war would have yet another effect on the country’s literature: the actual language in which stories are written. Although Lebanon has always been a country from which people have emigrated, during the civil war forty percent of the total population—which at the time was estimated at around three million—fled the country. Emigrant children were schooled, more often than not, in French or English, which became their main written languages.
In a recent BBC radio documentary, World Book Café: Beirut, various Lebanese authors who write in English gathered at a Beirut bookshop to talk about storytelling. The author Nada Awar Jarrar said she felt that English was more accessible as a language; even if she wished she could express herself as well in Arabic. Some of the writers said they felt freer when writing in English; freer to address subjects such as shame, gender-based violence, or abuse.
The challenge, said Dima Matta, who founded “Cliffhangers,” a public storytelling community in Beirut, is to sound Lebanese in English. Another participant, poet Rewa Zeinati, who founded Sukoon magazine, had remarked in an earlier interview that her primary motivation in developing Sukoon was to help redress what she perceived as an absence of Arab narratives in English. “There weren’t many, or at least enough, platforms out there that sought to publish Arab Anglophone writers; it was mostly Arab literature that was translated into English, or literature by Arab-American writers, which is great, of course, and incredibly important; but what I was missing was what more closely represented me: the Arab story in English, and not only in the American context.”
Hoda Barakat was educated in French but made a conscious decision to write in Arabic and has had a love affair with the language ever since. Arabic was, at first, “a pleasant discovery,” she says, “and afterward it became essential”:
… As far as the notion of Arabic being a sacred language, for me there is no sacred language; but this was sometimes a discourse held by Francophones who didn’t really know Arabic, and perhaps it wasn’t their fault because they had lived in and learned the French language first, given the colonization. And for others, Arabic was linked to reading and learning the Qur’an. For me, the Qur’an is a book among other books, and I always circle back to reading it because it teaches me Arabic—it helps me to deepen my Arabic language, but it is an exercise in style and doesn’t go beyond that. So there are sacred books, perhaps, but language is not sacred. I use this beautiful language that I continue to admire and discover the way we discover a space, a country, or a landscape, and it never ceases to astonish me.
Lebanon had already played an important role in the revival of the Arabic language since gaining its independence from France, says Mardam-Bey, because of its healthy media industry, which needed a modernized Arabic to write about events that hadn’t been described before in the classical variant of the language. Then there are Lebanese authors who began to write in English while in exile, such as Montreal-based Rawi Hage and the masterful storyteller and San Francisco resident Rabih Alameddine, who chose to write in English because, although he grew up in Lebanon, he was taught “mediocre Arabic.”
Of course, there are authors who write in French. Charif Majdalani’s work was finally translated into English last year, to acclaim, by Edward Gauvin (translator in this issue of Lamia Ziadé’s excerpt from Ô nuit, ô mes yeux): his novel Moving the Palace is now available to English-language readers, though he has long been widely read in France and Lebanon. Majdalani’s relationship to French is similar to that often described by African and North African authors, for whom it no longer belongs just to France: “I don’t write in French,” he says, “I write in my own French. I take the French language and I do what I like with it.”
Sabyl Ghoussoub is a young Lebanese writer who grew up in France. His first novel, written in French and from which we have published an excerpt, is called Le Nez Juif (The Jewish nose). Though Ghoussoub writes in a delightfully irreverent comic style, he is actually examining serious subjects: how his physical attributes provoke simplistic racism or how the Lebanese view their bellicose neighbor to the south and the danger of conflating “Israelis” with “Jews.” But it is also an examination of his search for identity in a world of exile and prejudice.
The artist and author Lamia Ziadé lives in Paris and also writes in French—but she spent her entire childhood in Lebanon during the civil war. After fifteen years working on subjects that were unrelated to the Middle East, she says that now it’s her only subject. Her art and her writing are historical and nostalgic, requiring meticulous research and stemming from a personal need to document a world that has all but disappeared. The excerpt in this issue is from Ô nuit, ô mes yeux (O night, o my eyes), an illustrated novel that describes the history of Lebanese and Egyptian divas throughout the tumultuous mid–twentieth century.
Finally, we feature work by the writer and illustrator Lena Merhej, whose comics appear in Arabic, French, and English. Merhej is one of the founders of the nonprofit collective Samandal, dedicated to the art of comics. At its founding twelve years ago, its members felt that comics were marginalized in the Middle East, and so they created a platform to tell the region's stories in that medium. Merhej and her colleagues were at the forefront of a movement that went on to inspire other comics collectives in the Arab world, which explore issues such as homosexuality, homophobia, sexual harassment, feminism, poverty, and everyday struggles. She also represents what Yasmina Jraissati believes is a tendency, among the new generation of Lebanese in creative fields, to tell stories via graphic novels, illustration, music, and cinema, thus allowing more flexibility for mixing languages.
Jraissati feels that Lebanon’s younger generation is underrepresented among the literary submissions she receives: she is “still waiting to read the new, emerging generation.” The civil war is no longer the central topic, and she is interested in how younger Lebanese writers see their country. “We have always had an identity crisis, and then the war gave Lebanese literature substance and a certain meaning. But now …”
Farouk Mardam-Bey says his readers are “a little tired of all these war stories.” He, too, is looking for “a new tone,” and has found it in Egypt for now; but he is also waiting for young Lebanese authors to surface.
We are confident they will emerge, and in this issue of Words Without Borders we're pleased to present some evidence of the younger Lebanese sensibility alongside that of their self-renewing elders. We hope that translators, publishers, and readers will continue to seek out the work of still other writers as it comes to light.