I was raised in Sokhumi in a solid Stalinist home with a facade embellished with neon inscriptions. I learned to read and the letters on the wall transformed into the phrase I could read: “You Should Love books - the source of knowledge.” As to who decided to decorate the main intersection of Lenin Street and Peace Avenue in Sokhumi with these words, I don't know, but I entirely agree with this prescient person...
1. ”...But they can't kill the spirit.”
During the treacherous Abkhazian War in a derelict and dishonored Sokhumi, I stubbornly read Meister Eckhart's Spiritual Sermons and Discussions, despite the death and destruction that had settled in everywhere. I was really young at that time. These were the years when you intensely experience everything. However, despite my young age, I had already received an enormous amount of life experience. I didn't let go of the book by the 13th century mystic (happily for me, published in 1990). During a time of war, you “find time” to think about God. It's enough for your spirit to ascend to the horrors that unfolded before your eyes that it makes you fall face-first right then and casts you into the stench of human misfortune.
A seed of spirituality quickly sprouts-up through the unimaginable contrast of peace time, the thunder of artillery, and the screeching of tanks, but what was it that remained within me after months spent with Meister Eckhart's book? I was left with this phrase, without which, I wouldn't have survived: “Don't be afraid of those who kill the flesh, for they're not able to kill the spirit.” Sometimes even one phrase of a genius is sufficient... I hadn't gotten scared in Sokhumi even once circa 1992-1993. “The spirit is eternal!” I would say over and over again in my head when I was seized by doubt about whether or not the knots of war would ever be untied and the universal wound would heal over...
2. ”...Flowers don't bloom at my place.”
I ended up in Tbilisi in 1993 and handed all the family's gold to a pawnshop located on Pushkin Street. Two full pockets became precious coupons (the temporary money of a temporary government), but it gave me the means to rent a bed for one week in a cellar situated on Meunargia Street. The apartment was dirty, dark, and dangerous. Merchants at a market stayed in that house – rich, dimwitted fools. Thus it happened that I got to know a frozen Tbilisi where a warlord's militia went around looting, through a house cellar belonging to an Armenian, where Azerbaijani greengrocers categorized the stock, “parsley - separate, coriander – separate.”
Like a wolf baring its teeth, Tbilisi had brandished a “Kalashnikov”, but a Kalashnikov would not surprise me. I was in a trance state. I could in no way believe that after the signing of a peace accord, Sokhumi was falling. “Fuck them... A person's shamelessness has no bounds...”
"By night, I lay on a creaky bed in the pitch-black damp cellar and thought about what to do in the future. The wisdom of the entire East had been concentrated in that bed – during the snoring of an on-duty greengrocer from Marneuli, I realized that it isn't necessary to do anything. Everything essential and important will take place on its own. “In the end, mines and shells surely don't explode, thus it is possible to endure it...”
Then when I ran out of coupons, I roamed around here and there, sleeping on the floor, stealing potatoes from a military warehouse, going hungry, smoking “80” and “Astra” cigarettes. But I bought my first Tbilisi book – Gumilyov's poetry – with coupons left over from the gold. I always had the collection in a military backpack and read it entirely. The compiler of the book had scattered an abundance of salon pearls of a poet, traveler, and soldier.
“Flowers don't bloom where I am,
Flowers don't bloom where I am,
I'm momentarily mislead by their beauty,
They bloom one day, wither away at night,
Flowers don't bloom where I am.”
I went to the Art Academy with an empty khaki backpack and Gumilyov's book to take the entrance examinations. A vacuum was briefly created around me at the academy. I was a strange, skin-headed bogey-man. I smoked, nervously bothered with the book, constantly repeated one line of Gumilyov in my mind, and thought myself to be more unfortunate than the lyrical hero of his poetry.
Gumilyov's hero had a world in which he could say, “Where I am... They bloom for one day.” For me, those places where flowers bloom and wither, the rooms, the room corners and shelves, apartments, houses, and cells – “To hell with them!” They no longer existed. How must you think yourself to be more unfortunate than a poet who was first cursed and then executed by firing squad of the scoundrel Bolsheviks? “But, it's possible my dears, it's apparently possible...”
3. ”...A dove struggled with a wicked leopard, at five in the afternoon.”
On a cold November day when they had robbed off my leather jacket, I was told I could receive a room in the remote town of Tskneti. I had taken the jacket along with me from Sokhumi, but had forgotten to hide it for one second. “What is this Tskneti, I wonder?” I was telling a fortune, although I was in agreement with everything beforehand, even if they had given me a bed in hell, a corner in the bathroom, and a shelf in Paradise. “Wherever God lets me go...” I thought to myself.
It turned out to be the last unoccupied apartment on a vacation house belonging to the Georgian Artists' Union. I only had to go in to its president, the famous sculptor Elguja Amashukeli. It was drizzling that day, I had to go to the studios of the Artists' Union, the desired office, from the city center in my shirt. I got soaked, torrents of water came off me, but following some torturous explanations, “Yes, I'm young, but already a member of the Artists' Union”, I was given a card with the inscription: “Tsitso, take this young man into the fifth apartment. Elguja Amashukeli.”
I left a small puddle of Tbilisi rain in the office – the first conceptual gesture in the Union building. I exited happily by Delisi subway station. Despite the slushy snow and the overcast sky, people were doing business, buying, stealing, and losing their minds by the station – like in The Last Day of Pompeii... At this time, I spied a few books under some plastic wrap on a marble parapet. “Lorca!” A black volume with elegant strokes of the poet's brush. A book exactly like this had remained in the apartment in Sokhumi.
A starving old man with an intelligent complexion was selling the books. His cheeks had sunken in. He pleaded for 10 coupons with his eyes, which you could exchange for a bukhanka (a large loaf of bread) an hour later in the bread line. My last, beloved 10-coupon note jumped out of the pocket itself. Then I sat on the floor, already in Tskneti in an empty room without panes on the windows, where water didn't flow from the tap, and the steam radiators refused to heat-up, and opened up Lorca's book. The black Lorca and the blue Gumilyov were my entire wealth – poets massacred by scoundrels. I no longer paid attention to hunger pangs, having stared fixedly at “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”.
“A dove struggled with a fierce leopard,
At five in the afternoon,
And the chest was ripped open by a sharp horn,
At five in the afternoon,
Somewhere a bell suddenly tolled...
Exactly at five in the afternoon...”
I read this long, beautiful, mysterious poem louder and louder, a poem dedicated to a matador gored by a bull, bleeding out in the arena... The voice became an organ. Lines of Lorca were echoed by the empty room. In Tskneti, in a blackened, abandoned burrow where the wind puffed in from all directions, I was happy – I had a personal space, yet instead of the fancy, “impressive” Sokhumi on the Black Sea coast, the town, clinging to hills in Tbilisi where the odor of manure wafted around, seemed to me like an injustice of cosmic proportions.
“God, why… why?” But the death of the young Mejias was still a greater travesty:
“How blood-red does the moon rise.../Oh, stop the river of blood/Ignacio is cast there on the sand...”
“If we turn grieving and pain into art... Then...” The first timid thought flashed before me and departed. But Lorca, the radiant, tragic Lorca had granted some sense through his rhythmic poetry during my first lifeless days of exile...
4. ”Comrade Petrov works at an office. He lives near the office...”
I found out many things about myself in Tskneti: I'm a person that remains without a classification, a loner, the main acting role of a play written in a vague language. I lay on a caved-in bed covered with a military blanket from the Americans (a part of some timely humanitarian assistance). The parade of characters from Tskneti had still not disappeared from my sight and I don't know, if it was from fear or weakness, because I couldn't change anything. There were times I laughed loudly. “You must learn some languages... Life here is unimaginable, you must pack-up your bag and coat and go far away from here. A fiasco, a complete fiasco – look, the reputation of my homeland...”
On one ordinary gray December day when I woke up and looked out the window, I noticed a dog in the snow-covered yard yelping joyfully because of the snow, which horrified me. I had to go get bread in summer loafers - “like Picasso and Hemingway...” Some consolation was to be found, but these geniuses used to wear the loafers on the hot beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. I however, had to go for almost a kilometer through snowdrift half a meter in height. But in one instance, when I was on Queen Tamar Street to get an oven-baked bread enough for a day, and was cursing December, Shevardnadze, and the dog that was senselessly barking from joy, my wheel of fortune slowly began to turn. As it happened, I reached the bus stop.
The town was silent. Here and there only smoke appeared above the chimneys. Bent like a black question mark from the cold, I remained alone in a landscape written by someone. Meanwhile, the sun had shone out from the clouds, illuminating everything around, and something flashed out from the whiteness – at first you would have thought it to be mud – a coverless book opened up on the snow. I hopped like a kangaroo, picked up the book, shook off the snow... This was Бонк Н.А. Учебник английского языка (Bonk N.A. An English Textbook). I placed the book in my pocket and traversed the road to the bread shop skipping all the while. “Bonk, Bonk...” I repeated in my head. The fact itself – the appearance of an English language textbook – was a reflection of hope for me that I would spend the long, dark, unbearable evenings in study. “Maybe the mechanical repetition of English words might make me forget the barking of the hungry and vicious neighborhood dogs and focus my attention on something else?” My enthusiasm increased. I got down to arranging my plans, “I must restore my school English. "Water stands without motion under a rock," I said deep down inside of me.
From that day on, Comrade Petrov came into my life – a mind-numbing Soviet idiot, who upon going to London, asks first and foremost how to get to the Central Committee of England's Communist Party. Petrov doesn't know what he should do in this beautiful city.
Football, concerts, museums – these were secondary things to a Soviet person living in an English language textbook. More important was the taking off directly for the central committee of the Party and talking about work, the workers' class, and the superiority of the socialism of the Soviet system:
“Comrade Petrov works at an office. He lives near the office. He usually walks there. He only works five days a week...”
The roar of the 90s was already heard, I however had gotten stuck with Comrade Petrov, who tells his wife while having dinner that he is going on a business trip on March 8 (Women's Day) and shows the heartbroken creature tickets for a Ty-154.
These were the sort of texts I translated and because of them I was ready to riddle Petrov and his entire family with bullets. “გადაშენდი, საბჭოთა მაკულატურავ...” I thought to myself and tried to translate this phrase into English, but nothing came to my mind other than “Die, Soviet garbage.”
5. ”June 16, 1904”
The topography of the town of Tskneti is simple: a few streets and a resort zone – A, B, and C. Like the remaining towns of Georgia, streets were named in honor of kings, generals, and dubious heroes of history. I lived on Queen Tamar Street, but almost throughout the entire course of 1995, I slept every night in a house located on Saakadze Street. I had breakfast and lunch on a street bearing a queen's name, but had actual dinner on another street bearing the name of a national hero. How did I live simultaneously on two streets? I just did. People enfeebled and bothered by the heat came up from Tbilisi to vacation in Tskneti for the summer. “We've taken the children out into some clean air...” Tbilisians would reiterate. In one week the locale resembled a palimpsest: the first layer was simple, local poor people used to cliffs and accustomed to not having drinkable tap water; the second layer – exiles from Abkhazia who lived in a world of fights carried out in a line of humanitarian assistance; the last layer was the pampered, rich, tired out Tbilisians. “Kortuebi (the Georgians in Mingrelian)...” my Mingrelians would grumble when they saw some inaccessible Tbilisian beauty off with a gaze.
Sometimes parallel lines are made out in the space. Through someone's means I was recommended to be a guard with some rich Tbilisian auto inspector – a “gaishniki”, where really easy work awaited me. Every night I had to sleep in a gigantic, three-story summer house located on Saakadze Street.
I was looked up and down by the head of the family resembling a fat, rotten carp and he announced to me: “You'll get twenty lari. You'll sleep in my bedroom. You'll take nothing, you'll bring no one. Is that OK for you?”
“What the hell, twenty... Fuck you...,” I nodded my head as a sign of agreement.
“You'll come in September...”
This was a decorated vacation house devoid of beauty and taste, full of the same unsightly and dull-witted people. Neither was the family helped by the noble surname – Tabidze. “Hopeless characters...” I thought, when an employee of the border police, a corporal, handed me an advance – an unusually new 10 lari banknote, so new, it was as if the owner of the vacation house had printed it out himself a half hour before.
Just once, the neighbor's thin son came into possession of a rich, iridescent, three-volume set of Joyce. He had a slight aspiration to be a writer, but he couldn't get beyond strophes suitable for a Georgian feast. The neighbor's imaginary world was settled with kings, female beauties, grape vines, warriors, and landscapes of the homeland – in short, with everything that has already been rhymed in Georgian. Joyce however, had real things. In the very beginning, he gave the books to me to pass my hand over them. I turned pale from envy.
“Never mind, dear, read a little bit and then you'll bring these books to me yourself...” I decided, convinced that Ulysses was no pickings for a “poet”.
All throughout 1989, “Иностранная литература” printed Joyce's masterpiece in installments and gave me the means to read a few chapters, but I had no success in collecting all twelve issues and reading them in peace. Now however, “my Joyce” lived close by. Like an experienced fisherman, I flicked out a hook and calmly began waiting on the riverbank.
For the sake of Joyce, I began to “get physical” with the entire family – with the father, mother, the unsightly sisters, and of course, the “poet”. I became part of a “domestic still-life”, the family's close relative, a friend who you can depend upon, who understands what horrors these people have been through and one who is prepared to listen to you and share in your worries. I really wanted to read Ulysses. I was almost cast as the family's future son-in-law. My forays to their apartment, to “Zone B” were with enviable regularity. The three-volume set sat in the corner for a great length of time and I constantly waited for when the “poet” would touch it. On one cloudy autumn day, something amazing happened – I went into the “poet's” room and saw Joyce's second volume opened. If you begin reading Joyce's Ulysses, the wandering, the agony and torment to be experienced while wandering will come to an end; which means that you had the time and the place for this extensive and mind-bending process, to lower yourself down into the abyss in order to travel through the expanse of the longest day in the history of European literature. June 16, 1904 – this literary day of a long time before stretched over the entire year of 1995 for me. The paths of two main characters – Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom - embroiled in everyday problems (a mother's death, a wife's betrayal, city gossip, new stories from the newspaper) come to heads right at an intersection. Ulysses is the wandering of literary heroes in Dublin with microphones in their heads. The writer used “stream-of-consciousness” in this novel for the first time.
You must read Ulysses aloud so you can “listen” to the text and because the interior of the vacation house didn't suit the novel, I would resort to meditation, using all means available to me to get the Chinese vases full of plastic flowers standing in the corners of the bedroom surrender a place for the cobblestones of Dublin. I discovered that the petty bourgeois of Tbilisi had almost the same style of furniture at vacation houses as in their homes – heavy, deferentially “antiquarian”, which differs from the furniture of a vacation home only in color – whiteness. Here, from such a white armchair, or in such a white pseudo-Baroque bedroom belonging to Tabidze the militiaman, laying in a bed bedecked with angels during the evenings, I tried to delve into the novel, about ten pages every evening, with half an hour however for the commentary. A reader of Ulysses involuntarily sinks into a literary stream-of-consciousness, through modernist literature that had forged ahead of the other disciplines of art and gained glory. Neither a painter, artist, sculptor, nor a photographer can convey the currents of a person's thoughts, neither that of proximity of the divine to something lower; they can't simultaneously convey thoughts about eternity and the flavor of a belch or soup. The writer however, was able to penetrate into the most intimate part of our existence, where we are alone, giving ourselves the right to ponder and consider that which we will never be able to dare speak about, and to emphatically reflect the waves of our thoughts.
That winter in the Tabidze vacation house, I tried to imitate stream-of-consciousness. I had written a few paragraphs down in a notebook, but the entries of that time went out with the summer. They burnt up in the flames of time. What survived? A memory about my first literary experience and a promise given to myself that along with freeing myself from the claws of being a refugee, I will set off for Dublin to wander on the streets of Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, Leopold, and Molly Bloom...