The Most Non-Soviet Pippi
The world is full of surprises. One such surprise is the famous Canadian writer, Russian-language Georgian author Elene Bochorishvili. She belongs to three worlds simultaneously: Georgia the homeland, Russian literature, and the country of Canada.
First and foremost she is Georgian, having been born in Tbilisi, finishing school in Batumi, and graduating from Tbilisi University with a degree in journalism – Georgia is an inextricable part of her being. She worked in Tbilisi as a journalist and a script writer for various documentary films. But to us she is known by a different name. She is known as Pippi. She then earned the name of Lindgren's character when they got to know her as a distinguished, energetic, joyful, and unquestionably non-Soviet person.
Her second world is the Russian language, as she is a Russian-language author. Bochorishvili has been writing articles in the Russian language since she was thirteen-years-old, and is viewed today as one of the most well-known Russophone sports journalists.
Her third world is Canada, a country she moved to as an emigrant in 1992. She has a spouse of French descent and a son.
If we put everything together, before us is a Russophone Canadian author of Georgian descent, and the creator of a new genre - of a new kind of novel – the Roman stenographique and its humor-imbued rhythm. She is a modern implementer of Rustaveli's maxim – “A long word is stated briefly”.
Levan Berdzenishvili: What was the first book that you remember reading?
Elene Bochorishvili: Probably the most beloved one right? Well, it is right here that I really fail, because it wasn't a good piece of work... It was Yuri German's short stories about Dzerzhinsky. Yes, that was my first book in which Dzerzhinsky was portrayed as a hero; he resembled Che Guevara – principled and unbreakable, yet quite handsome. So he became a hero to me. German is a good author. His son, the film director Aleksei German wrote in his memoirs, “My father was an anti-communist.” I was quite offended, since it was precisely his father who made me a communist during my childhood. He made me fall in love with Dzerzhinsky at eight or nine years of age – before I was able to understand how horrible of a person he was. Literature has this power – if you write well, you can make someone even fall in love with Stalin.
Levan Berdzenishvili: It's quite interesting, because many people name The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers as their favorite childhood book. Now can you remember what kind of style these short stories had that you liked so much?
Elene Bochorishvili: It had a really engrossing style. The son writes that German was forced to write in the style of social realism. It turns out he was lying to us, the style he used was forced on him, but he wrote beautifully, quite simply. I loved his book so much when I was in the third-grade and when the teacher told us, “Bring your favorite books, let's create a library,” I took the book and lost it.
Levan Berdzenishvili: When did you yourself begin to write?
Elene Bochorishvili: I was a strange child. They had enrolled me at the Second Russian Middle School in Batumi, except they didn't receive 6-year-old children, not having a primary class. I so much wanted to go to school, I said at home – “I'm announcing a hunger strike. If you don't take me, I won't eat!” Now I'm not like this. Now I’m a much softer and more tender individual. When I entered school, I began writing poems:
“Доктор, я хочу лечиться, у меня аппендицит.” (Doctor, I want to be treated, I have appendicitis.)
I was nine-years-old when they published my work in the newspaper Gazapkhuli (Spring), which was issued at the Pioneer Mansion. I chose journalism as my field of study at the university, because I had already officially been working as a part-time correspondent at Молодежь Грузии.
Levan Berdzenishvili: What were you writing about as a journalist at that time?
Elene Bochorishvili: I basically wrote about sports. Because of my style, some people really liked me and others did not. It was because I wrote in a compact style, issuing a small amount of material. In the newsroom one person was brought in to help me. This person clearly wanted to spoil things for me. He sent me to cover communist party sessions, but I didn't like this because when writing about communist party gatherings, I couldn't use my authentic writing style. This was why I left Молодежь Грузии, to avoid writing about things I did not want to write about. At 16 or 17 years of age, my eyes were already well-opened and I was no longer a pro-Communist. I no longer loved Dzerzhinsky.
Levan Berdzenishvili: You are already well-known as a master of the so-called roman stenographique. You have written eight novels in this style and are now working on a ninth one. How did this form take shape, was it inherited or did you work at it?
Elene Bochorishvili: I think I had always been writing in one and the same style. Sometimes I look through what I had written earlier. My mother collected and brought everything to me when she came to Canada, and I'm confident that outwardly it is the same… it's the same rhythm. A writing style is like a dressing style – you either have it or don't.
Levan Berdzenishvili: Is there something exemplary in your work that you like when writing?
Elene Bochorishvili: I have a really hard time when I write, but when something easily comes out, I really like it. I can't remember where, when, or what was easy, but it is great when it happens. Sometimes it happens to me like this: I write about a certain main character who does something that I couldn't have imagined them doing. At this time I say to myself in surprise, “Wow, I wasn't expecting such a thing from you!”
Levan Berdzenishvili: If we were to see Elene Bochorishvili's manuscript, would there be many corrections, crossed out words, and postscripts?
Elene Bochorishvili: Yes, there would be a lot. My translators argue with me: “You've changed only a one word and why do you send the whole stuff to us all over again?” For me it is precisely this word that is important.
Levan Berdzenishvili: You began as a poet, like many others usually begin. Then you went over to prose. Why prose?
Elene Bochorishvili: I have never published a poem. Everyone wrote poems. It was not my business however. I had just recently wanted a character of mine to write a poem. I tried, but it didn't work for me. I'm a practical woman and apparently this is why I can't write a poem. Yet even my prose is rhythmic. I count the amount of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line, because everything must be really beautiful in a rhythmic way. If something is happening in a book, rhythm helps me to describe it more quickly or slowly. In my book Faïna, which is a bestseller in many countries, I have one main character Matiushenko who plays the piano. Some Soviet soldiers are bringing a piano from Berlin, it is black. Wherever they stop and demand that Matiushenko be woken up and play the piano, they wake him up and he plays. I needed this surname “Matiushenko” so I could slow down the description. Matiushenko plays the piano, everyone is drunk. They're coming from Berlin, they have won the war. Some major comes out drunk, “Where are you taking this piano. We're shedding our blood and you're stealing. What piano is it, why is he playing?” He takes out his gun and kills this Matiushenko... Red blood was spilled on the black and white keys. Here I needed a voice “и кровь красная, разлилась по черно-белому” (and the red blood has spilled over black and white). How it is heard, as it seems, “Black and white and red and this Ma-tiu-shen-ko...” I think quite a lot about such details.
Levan Berdzenishvili: Your favorite writers?
Elene Bochorishvili: It depends on the age and character. My child is a teenager and I offered him Salinger. He didn't read it. Probably because Mom offered it to him. My niece also told me, “I couldn't understand that book.” But it helped me in its own time. It helped me to discover a main character who was going through the exact same thing as I was – he thought himself to be ugly, abandoned, and unfortunate, as I somehow thought at that time... Then you'll discover Joyce and think that this is the the most powerful text. Then you will discover some writers which resemble you in the way you write. When my first book came out, I was compared to Agota Kristof. I didn't know who she was and thought she was Agatha Christie. Although when I finally read her, it really did impress me. In the end I liked the Indian writer Arundhati Roy most of all. She has written an amazing book, The God of Small Things. It will jolt you. This book even has a scent – that of a mango. It has colors, and rhythm as well – it's a miracle.
Levan Berdzenishvili: Now tell me what sort of writers you don't like. How do you perceive that this or that writer is not yours?
Elene Bochorishvili: I can't stand clichés. Look, when the novel begins this way: “He was a young boy when he went to the factory...” or this way: “They returned home tired out but satisfied...” - There are some secret phrases that indicate that the book won't be good. I almost no longer read bad books, despite the fact that many are sent to me in various languages. Right from the beginning however, I sense if it will interest me or not. If 5-10 pages are no good, I flip to the middle and read there. If a dear friend has praised it, I'll even glance at the final episodes before I give it up for good. But still, I give no one the right to “cram” a book into me. A bad book empties you out, disappoints you.
Levan Berdzenishvili: A tactless question. How do you write? Do you write directly or do you collect material?
Elene Bochorishvili: Much time passes before the first page.
In general, I think that I write old books – those that have been written long before in my head. I let them out at the time when they are ready. Somethings go really easy, for example, My Father's Head, was written in three weeks. When I write the first draft, I then need six months to correct things. When you know that you can no longer write it any better than you know that the book is finished.
Levan Berdzenishvili: In your writings, frequently the same story is observed from various different angles, sometimes they are even viewed by many different characters, or even more – through the various attitudes of one character. How do you do this?
Elene Bochorishvili: I haven't thought about this. It probably happens on its own. I don't think I have some talent for writing or that something comes from divine forces. I once met a Georgian writer who told me, “God dictates my writings to me.” No one dictates to me for some reason, I go with great labor. I always struggle, I don't sleep at night, then I sit and write.
Levan Berdzenishvili: How realistic are your characters?
Elene Bochorishvili: In the beginning they are more realistic, and then they change, like a bird beginning to fly, thus then they leave the original form. Let's say I'm describing a grandfather. In the beginning I think about my grandfather, towards the end however, he becomes such a grandfather I can no longer know who he is.
Levan Berdzenishvili: A few real women stand behind the Anna Karenina of Leo Tolstoy. They have all been counted and studied. Do you have such composite characters?
Elene Bochorishvili: Probably, yes, but I don't count them. If you split a main character into their composite parts, the entire magic is lost, they are no longer interesting. For example, Since I hadn't been in Georgia for a long time, when I did visit, many people shared their love-stories with me. They knew I would keep these stories secret, thus they told me almost everything. I then thought to myself: if I were to write in the way they told me, will it be interesting? If I join some things together like Gogol, if I begin thinking about how to cobble together a main character... - no, I don't like it. The main character is formed in my mind, all I need to do then is to transfer it to the paper.
Levan Berdzenishvili: Do you have so-called penetrating characters that cross from novel to novel like the characters of Balzac or Faulkner, like Rastignac or Sartre?
Elene Bochorishvili: In the first book I had a grandfather, a character who went about in high boots exactly like my grandfather David Bochorishvili. He went about and threw out interesting phrases. In Sokhumi he was a dentist, had two wives... Anyway, I imagined this character quite well, described him, and I placed him in my first book. Time passed, I moved on to another story, and then one day I went out on the street and suddenly I bumped into this grandfather from Sokhumi and from my first book. How can this be? I live in Canada, how can it all be revived so vividly in this totally strange environment of this new to me country? Yet, he is there, in Canada, on the street – this elderly man with a mustache, who greatly resembles my grandfather. That’s when I realized if I didn't rid myself of this man he'd take me away. So, I took him into the next book of mine and killed him there. Sometimes as a rule, you have to get rid of your characters like this. This frequently happens to me, my main character dies. I wrote one book only in order to take all the main characters to the end alive. You always have some task. The task originates from the previous book. You were unable to do the task well in the previous book and so you try to do it in the new one. As the occasion was: I had killed everyone in the previous book and the challenge for the new book was for all of them to remain alive. At this same time there must be some emotions, you must experience these feelings, you must cry, smile, laugh.
Levan Berdzenishvili: I consider you as a Georgian writer, would you agree to this definition?
Elene Bochorishvili: I'm grateful that you consider me as such, but I personally don't have an idea.
I think I belong to the reader who reads my books. Once, somebody in Italy told me: “You're practically Italian, you write about Italians,” for me there is no greater compliment than this. A reader wrote me from Brazil, “You have cleanly described Brazil.” This is also a compliment to me.
As a person, I'm really a Georgian. As a writer I have never published a book in Georgia. It was just recently translated into Georgian and published. So, I don’t know, really.
Levan Berdzenishvili: If it isn't a secret, can you tell us what are you working on right now?
Elene Bochorishvili: It isn't a secret. I'm always working. If you leave something once, then it is difficult to start everything all over again. It is now winter here, and you must not stop heating the house if you want to stay warm. Being a writer is like this as well; I practice at writing every day. I write bit by bit and when I realize that something has ripened, then I sit at my desk, log off from the mail, don't sign into Facebook, and take about two or three months to write. I don't have any hidden writings. When I was writing diaries as a child, my mother used to read them - she was interested in her own daughter's life. So she used read them and correct things for me, “You have written it this way, you should have written it that way.” That's when I gave up writing diaries and nothing that I write ever since remains secret. I now write so it may be printed.
Levan Berdzenishvili: How is a book idea born for you?
Elene Bochorishvili: I wrote the first book in Canada – I couldn't work as journalist in Canada. I know English well, probably enough to be able to write something in English too. But you must write literature in a language that you know quite well. I know Russian like this. Well then, in Canada I thought I will write a book in which I will describe our entire 70-year Soviet period. For this I will need one family and their story that will stretch out over the 70 years from generation to generation - so a 70-100 page book. The main thing for me was to have conceived the main characters in a complete fashion. I thought I would write this and that would be it. I have never thought, and even now don't think, that I'm a writer. I think I'm a person who knows writing and achieves something through this work. When I wrote the first book and it came out, it had great success, but this didn't excite me. I was stirred up by the fact I saw my mistakes. I saw what I couldn't do well. I saw that my main characters speak very little. It was my desire for them to say more, to bring themselves out through speech. So I wrote the next book to do the dialogues and monologues so I could learn this as well. Thus it went on and on.
Each sequential book is written to correct the mistakes of the previous one. I haven't yet stopped doing this - I guess because I've never stopped making errors.
Appendix (translated from the Russian)
A Novel in a Stenogram
(A response to the question – What is A Novel in a Stenogram)
The novel is a woman, although the word is masculine. It happens, you live with her for twenty years. You get up in the morning. There's a gray sky beyond the curtains. You pack a tie, some socks, and some pants in a suitcase. You exit from the entrance hall. It is a little windy. It's as if these twenty years haven't existed.
Or, you live with this beautiful woman. She throws dishes on the floor, powder on her face. You yell, she yells, the children bawl. You go, return, cry, she also cries. It's love!
It's another way as well: You sit down in a train. The journey is half the night. A woman. She flashes out from the empty platform, as from fire. You – towards the window, the door. Will you jump across? The train starts moving. What was it? You can't forget her. A finger hasn't touched her, she just threw you on your knees. You can't get up.
The novel is like a song. Whether you stretch out the accordion or not, does not matter; more important is the music to flow out of it always.