Me, Margarita Shows Georgia Through Female Eyes

Review of Me, Margarita by Ana Kordzaia-Samadashvili, published in English in 2015 by Dalkey Archive.

Georgia is a patriarchal society, so we’re told. The Georgian family and community is ruled by Mama (“father” in Georgian, ironic to most foreigners) a man’s man with a bushy moustache, barrel chest and swollen stomach.

Mama is tough but fair, and his stewardship is what keeps the household and village safe and calm during the storm. Mama is the backbone of Georgia. So we’re told.

Mama is tough, most of the time. But standing behind – and sometimes in front of – Mama is Deda (“mother”) who is just as tough, more resourceful, and probably more instrumental in holding the home, community and country together. There’s Mama with his bold words and sound and fury, then there’s Deda with her calm strength and innate sense of responsibility.

Georgia’s story is usually told with male voices. It is written by male writers and features mostly male characters. It’s like stories told in most of the world.  But in Me, Margarita, Georgian author Ana Kordzaia-Samadashvili has created a different narrative. Her Georgia is a story about women.

Me, Margarita is a book of short stories chronicling the experience of being a woman in Georgia. Each of the book’s 22 chapters features a female protagonist (or group of them) enjoying the raptures of love, sex, friendship and motherhood. They also feel the pain of disappointment, loneliness, alcoholism and suicide.

This book is bleak. But the tears are softened by black humor, like in this excerpt from An Insignificant Story of a Failed Suicide: “She ruled out the idea of hanging herself. She couldn’t possibly climb a tree to do it … The truth is she could barely climb the stairs. Never mind hanging herself, she’d never even managed to hang a picture.”

Even the book’s most tragic moments occur without these women feeling self pity. In Nina, a story told by the critical voice of the titular character’s only friend, Nina is an ageing former debutante. She’s tired, drunk, and eventually discarded by a lover “who likes young women.” The decision she takes to end her life isn’t a display of strength, but it is carried out with wilful dignity.

Me, Margarita is not a linear historical narrative. It tells Georgia’s story in fragments; a series of character studies where time, place and voice are often unclear to the reader. There are direct references to historical periods, however, such as in the first story, Me Margarita. The narrative begins in 1871 and charts the lives of a line of mothers and daughters stretching all the way to the 1990s.

Later, we spend time in an apartment which withstood Tsarism and war, and later changed hands during Stalin’s collectivization drive during the early 1930s. Fast forward to 2004, and we’re given the chance to see Georgia through foreign eyes. The protagonist, whose name and country of origin are never provided, has this to say about the country:

“In this country, no matter who you ask, everyone says that everything will be alright and wishes will all come true … There are constant wars, or elections, they curse politicians the whole time, beggars are always running in the streets … It’s totally depressing, but still they are always happy.”

This excerpt will resonate with anyone who has experienced Georgia as an outsider. It’s also an example of Kordzaia-Samadashvili’s bittersweet tone. Life is hard, and everyone wants something better than what they have. But in these stories, a stubborn optimism grows out of the gloom.

This is a book that breaks many taboos. Lesbian love and sex are treated as natural and acceptable. Drunkenness, lewd language and wanton sexuality are feminine behaviors. The book also contains an essay titled When A Parrot Flies Over You, offering the author’s views on love and sexuality. According to her, Georgia’s main contemporary problem is that the sexual revolution of the 1960s passed it by.

Male characters also make an appearance in Me Margarita. And they aren’t villains. But the men usually aren’t present when the story begins, and they certainly aren’t there when it ends. They invariably lack strength. Notably, we rarely read dialogue spoken by a male figure. They often play key roles: father, husband, lover (usually absent or unreliable, in any case). But they rarely speak. They are merely spoken of.

The greatest achievement of Me, Margarita may be that it succeeds in being feminist without being snarky or caustic. This is not a polemic. It’s arguably not even social criticism. These women aren’t heroes. They’re people. Plainly.

This is a complex collection that not everyone will enjoy. The deadpan writing style won’t appeal to all readers, and the grim subject matter is difficult to stomach at times. But it is powerful, relevant and unique. Ana Kordzaia-Samadashvili doesn’t just tell Georgia’s story using female voices. She does so compellingly. If you plan to read a book by a Georgian author this year, Me, Margarita should be near the top of your list.

Joseph Larsen

24 September 2015 21:03
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