The art of history, so they say, was born in the flickering of a campfire. ‘Character in Georgia,’ by Aka Morchiladze and Peter Nasmyth, returns us to this historical ethos as a litany of tales to be shared and celebrated.
In its pages, we meet Georgia’s noble bandits, such as Arsena of Marabda, and its intellectual luminaries, such as Ilia Chavchavadze. They emerge from the past fully-fleshed and ready to re-live the stories that inform the modern Georgian national character.
To the English speaker, this book is nothing short of a gift for anyone hoping to get past the curtain of khinkali, good wine, and mustachioed men in chokhas.
Character is an inspired version of Kartulis Rveulebi (Georgian Notebooks) by Aka Morchiladze, a historian and Georgia’s most celebrated contemporary writer of fiction. With the help of the talented translator Maya Kiasashvili, the text was placed in the hands of Peter Nasmyth, a well-known British writer who has lived part-time in Georgia for 30 years and authored a small collection of well-received books on the country.
The key to Character’s accessibility to the English-speaker is Nasmyth’s charming writing style and deep appreciation for his subject. Morchildaze’s original audience was, of course, the Georgian public, who require no introduction to the characters, contexts and geographies that provide the landscape of the book.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Character is the mastery with which all necessary facts and historical contexts are woven seamlessly into the original text. Over its two hundred pages, no clashing of voice or style is detectable, and the book lives up to the bold claim of its introduction as having been written by a single Ango-Georgian being, (who, now animated, we must pester to build upon its debut).
This book is like no Georgian history book you will ever read, and I struggled to find a comparison. Perhaps the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim can be of some help here. In his wonderfully (albeit partially plagiarized) book The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim explains how the formation of fairy tales is a collective social process. Storyteller after storyteller reshapes a single story, like Little Red Riding Hood, until it becomes pregnant with rich underlying meanings – anchors in the landscape of early experience.
While remaining true to historical fact, Aka Morchiladze followed not a dissimilar process. Once, long ago, he explains, he dove deeply into the events of one hundred years ago. The stories he shares are those that “clung to [his] mind.” At their core, these tales do not strive to achieve a meticulous recording but rather are the shapes forming from “impressions or essences.” What emerges is a dialogue of reflection between the Georgian writer and the Georgian past – the histories and identities that animate the Georgian character today.
In Chapter 11, for example, we learn why, as opposed to how (or worse yet, that) the muse of the theater ambushed the makeshift stages of Georgia in the late 1800s. Across the country, every imagination was captured. Georgia’s first crop of young actors were catapulted onto the echelons of celebrity. “Georgians,” we are shown, “are born with the instinct for drama running through their veins.” Today, they remain masters of the stagecraft of dramatic reinterpretation, thanks not to mimicry or cultural diffusion, but because this is a natural manifestation of the Georgian character.
‘Character in Georgia’ also offers a front row seat on the spontaneous emergence of Georgian socialism – a true form of distributed communal governance whose origins lie not in the spectacles of stuffy Marxist academics but the forested hills of Guria. We owe these inspirational models (twice crushed by imperialists) to the peasants and the anti-Czarist pirlebi (outlaws). This was a faithful form of political organization spun from “the poor man’s sense of fairness, blended with a code of chivalry – and a bit of intrigue.”
After finishing ‘Character in Georgia,’ what most surprised me was that the entire book runs hardly 200 pages. This surprise was not because the book is dense – on the contrary, it almost reads itself – but because upon putting it down, I felt as though I had imbibed a tremendous amount of rich material in almost no time, as if Morchiladze and Nasmyth had devised some sort of science fiction contraption to allow the brain to absorb realms of history in matters of seconds.
This, however, makes the job of the reviewer all the more challenging, and with some difficulty I must resist ending with a hackneyed “this book is a must read!” In ‘Character’ you will learn about Georgian nobility and peasantry. You will see a strange young Ioseb Jughashvili hiding in a hay cart. You will bear witness the poetic mountain visions of Vazha Pshavela, and mourn the tragic life of the beautiful master of Naïve art, Niko Pirosmani. You will meet a fragile Iokob Gogebashvili who ushered the Georgian language into the 20th century with his children’s primer ‘Deda Ena,’ and learn about the ever-agitating against Russian imperialism, the history of Tbilisi, the first Democratic Republic of Georgia, and, to coin a phrase, “oh, so much more!”
One final suggestion. I have heard that on special occasions, a foreigner, upon landing at Tbilisi International Airport, and after corralling through the ever-edgy scrutiny of passport control, is sometimes rewarded with a bottle of Georgian wine of welcome. This most charming of practices is one I have never timed correctly myself, but I hope one day the powers that be, in a moment of traditional Georgian big-heartedness, will elect to expand on this custom by adding a token of Georgian literature to introduce the newly arrived to the rich cultural world they are about to enter. And, should this ever happen, if I may, they will find no better choice for the honor than ‘Character in Georgia,’ by Aka Morchiladze and Peter Nasmyth.