The cult novel that defined Georgian independence 30 years ago

The cult novel that defined Georgian independence 30 years ago

As Georgia celebrates 30 years since its break from the USSR on 9 April 1991, we look back at one novel that tried to make sense of both the Soviet past, and the first years of independence.

8 April 2021

“Nine is the Georgian number,” says the narrator in Georgian author Otar Chiladze’s novel, Avelum. He is referring to 9 March 1956 and 9 April 1989, two historic dates which saw mass demonstrations in the capital, Tbilisi. Both events triggered a brutal response from Moscow, which had controlled then-Soviet Georgia since 1921. There were 22 fatalities in 1956, and 21 in 1989 (most of whom were civilian women). On that second occasion, Soviet troops used “toxic gas and sharpened shovels” to break up the peaceful crowds and arrested leading activists —including Zviad Gamaskhurdia, Georgia’s future president. It became a major moment in crystallising reform in Georgia and securing its eventual secession from the Soviet Union, and is marked each year as a Day of National Unity. Thirty years ago, on 9 April 1991, Georgian independence was restored.

These two events bookend Chiladze’s novel which tells the story of Avelum, a Georgian writer living in the USSR, whose private and public worlds crumble as Georgia hurtles towards independence. Published in 1995, it is Chiladze’s first novel written in an independent Georgia, and “in mood his grimmest, in themes his most topical, and in discourse his most European work”, according to its translator Donald Rayfield. Refused by publishers in Russia for its anti-Soviet spirit, Avelum received relatively little attention from Georgian readers on publication — particularly when compared to his other novels The Basket and A Man Was Going Down The Road — due to its demanding style and complex mixture of social commentary and myth. It is a book more widely discussed in universities and academic settings than among the general public, and one of only two of Chiladze’s works translated into English. Born in 1933, the writer played a major role in the development of Georgia’s late and post-Soviet literary culture, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 for his numerous novels, plays, and collections of poetry.

Unity Day celebrations on 9 April 2009, commemorating the events in 1989. Image: gipajournos via Wikimedia Commons

Avelum opens in 1989 and Tbilisi is a labyrinth of despair: “antediluvian trolley-busses, so old that they list to one side, vibrate as they splash through torrents of sewage” while “pavements are strewn with drowned rats, their bellies bloated, their legs splayed”. This hellish tableau, writes the narrator, is the result of the “dead, petrified model of life” of the “Evil Empire”, a term first used publicly by Ronald Reagan in his landmark speech of 1983 to describe the Soviet Union. (Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze would use the same term in a letter to the UN Secretary General during the war in Abkhazia.) Living under the “Evil Empire” meant “making the existent non-existent; tottering non-stop, endlessly towards non-existence”.

In this apocalyptic mood we find Avelum, our protagonist. He is suffering from a crisis of imagination, seeing only a sea of mistakes behind him, and war ahead. His biography is a litany of failed relationships. He is estranged from both his daughters, one of whom is caught up in the revolutionary fever of Georgia’s independence movement. Avelum is a kind of troubled twin to King Midas; everything he touches turns not to gold, but to ashes. Underneath this disillusioned surface, or perhaps the kernel of his disillusionment, is his self-styled identity as a saviour. (It is no coincidence that the novel’s timeline from 1956 and 1989 is 33 years, equal to Jesus’s lifespan).

But from what Avelum might save his followers, and to where he might lead them, is unclear. Just as “squabbling and disunity” characterised Georgia’s political scene in the early 90s, according to journalist Suzanne Goldenberg in her book Pride of Small Nations, Avelum cannot cohere his thoughts into a realisable vision for the future. Instead, his conflicting thoughts turn over and in on themselves, becoming more anachronistic and out of sync with the world around him. He is a member of the “society of former people”, to borrow from Irakli Samsonadze’s post-Soviet novel The Cushion, struggling to make sense of his place in a rapidly changing Georgia. Writers have become smugglers, sportsmen have morphed into politicians, and the steady arc of progress looks more like a series of zigzagging hairpin turns.

Portraits of victims of the 9 April 1989 demonstrations. Image: George Barateli via Wikimedia

Chiladze’s prose is obsessive, digressive, and, above all, outrageously lifelike. Though narrated by a third person (a curiously similar figure to Avelum) we are stuck inside Avelum’s consciousness, a claustrophobic place of haunting images and scattered thoughts. When Virginia Woolf said: “The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms,” she might have been describing the ecstatic rhythms of Avelum’s pages. In one example, Chiladze writes:

Human beings are, after all, an inseparable part of the emptiness which surrounds them from the day they are born, or they are the emptiness through which everything passes, not just water and nourishment, but light, darkness, heat, cold, snow, wind, knives, bullets, savagery, railway trains, aeroplanes, buses, trolley-buses, the underground, all makes of car, ordinary passers-by, any sort of radiation, any sort of -ism, -mycin or -cyclin… in short, everything we try to tip into the emptiness or, ever since Abel was murdered, Abel’s grave…

This dizzying passage contains several of Chiladze’s characteristic traits: obsessive detail, the collision of earthly and abstract matter, the sudden intrusion of myth. The manic listing of objects has a similar effect to the prose of Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai whose words are “murdered into unmeaning”, as described by critic James Wood. But it is this stuffiness to Chiladze’s prose, this directionless, destructive energy that allows him to inhabit Avelum’s mind so completely and capture the external mood so convincingly. In doing so, he creates “a very vivid recreation of the physical, cultural and psychological trauma that Georgians have undergone in the post-Soviet catastrophe”, writes Rayfield.

“These events, naturally, didn’t happen as easily as they can be recounted”

The novel is propelled forward by an apocalyptic energy, but it never descends into nihilism. Its ruthless treatment of death and destruction is precisely what makes it feel so alive. The passages that describe the pro-independence demonstrations of 9 April 1989, that see the dead as “hunted fish” and the tanks that descend on Tbilisi as “fossilised corpses” are stomach-churning, almost physical. Take Chiladze’s description of the collective trauma that followed and lingered in Tbilisi’s streets like an invisible beast:

Frightened people huddled in darkened flats, watching the street, waiting for armoured personnel carriers to roll in, for a machine-gun to start rattling. Rumours appeared, then multiplied like rats, and scuttled unhindered down the deadened streets of the deserted city … Sometimes you wouldn’t be surprised if an army of women came out onto the streets, stark-naked (probably so as to ward off the occupiers and shame their own menfolk), or a battalion of young children took up positions in one of the city’s outer suburbs, from where, armed with empty lemonade bottles, they would mount a surprise attack on the tanks that wait with bated breath like crocodiles under 9 April’s troubled sun.

This is Chiladze’s writing at its most dramatic, his images cascading into one another to form nightmarish collages of human suffering. The empty lemonade bottles echo Samsonadze’s The Cushion, in which a character uses a Coca Cola bottle to warm herself as power outages grind post-Soviet Georgia to a halt. Lemonade bottle guns and Coca Cola heaters – these are the tragic symbols of a future capitalist ideal that could never be fully realised during Georgia’s rocky transition out of communism.

Andropov's Ears in the 1970s/1980s. Image: Jelger Groeneveld via Wikimedia
Andropov's Ears in the 1970s/1980s. Image: Jelger Groeneveld via Wikimedia
Georgian street in 1982. Image: Jelger Groeneveld via Wikimedia
Georgian street in 1982. Image: Jelger Groeneveld via Wikimedia

Underneath the story that Chiladze tells is a subtler story about narrative and media; the book’s subtitle is A Survey of the Current Press and a Few Love Affairs. In the opening pages, the narrator warns us early on that “these events, naturally, didn’t happen as easily as they can be recounted”. But it is not just the paucity of narrative that Chiladze is inspecting, but its malleability. Later, describing the authorities’ framing of the 1989 protests, Chiladze writes, the Empire “was forced to defend itself from the people it had itself fooled, provoked and set free, who hadn’t properly learnt their parts as they ought to have … Above all, this episode can be considered ingenious drama: the killer defends himself from the victim”.

This muddling of victim and aggressor, this twisting of narrative is precisely what Georgia, and Avelum, is suffering from in the novel. What Chiladze shows so mercilessly, is how this erodes truth to a place of senselessness, indeed a non-place altogether. Trauma arises from a lag between present experience and a future understanding, but understanding can’t happen while facts remain as flimsy as Tbilisi’s power sources, as pockmarked as its bullet-riddled buildings. Avelum, like Georgia, is precisely in this purgatorial middle ground, where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”, as Antonio Gramsci famously put it in 1930.

“Virtually every Georgian had supported the independence struggle in the late 1980s,” writes Goldenberg in Pride of Small Nations, “but there was no accord on what it meant in terms of democratic practices, minority rights, or relations with Russia.” This splintering is echoed in Avelum, on a more existential scale: “One Georgia was in a bunker, setting out a ‘New Year’s feast’ on empty ammunition boxes; the other was in the street, hunched with cold, trying to get warm … A third Georgia worried in its bed, barely able to tell reality from dream.” Georgia today is a dramatically different picture than in the early 90s, but some of these same internal issues persist; its two main political parties have been locked in political stalemate since November’s contested election.

Chiladze’s novel then is far from any kind of blueprint towards a more unified future, but a warning against what happens to the individual, and to society, when narrative coherence falls away. The past cannot be changed but it can be retold, in ways that make us reassess the present. The significance of the number nine, for Chiladze’s narrator, is far more than a date on Georgia’s calendar, but a shorthand for the irreducible Georgian spirit, perhaps, a number around which people might assemble shards of collective identity. “My veins have got blood that’s been trampled underfoot,” says Avelum in one memorable scene — a sobering recognition of Georgia’s past and enduring defiance.