SOVIET Georgia is a curious mix of California, Texas, and Greece. When I arrived in Tbil isi after a damp, chilly three days in Moscow, it was evening and a dry, warm wind was blowing from the mountains, A fleet of gleaming white Volgas full of Georgian writers and writers' union officials raced out onto the runway, to greet me. At my hotel, though the hour was late, they opened bottles of Georgian wine, piled baskets of grapes, figs, peaches, and pomegranates on the tables, and began to tell me about their literature.
Georgians are obsessed with their history and their language. On the slopes of Holy Mountain, high above the city of Tbilisi, there is a huge monument called Deda Ena or "The Mother Tongue" and a tiny church called the Mama David where a pantheon of Georgian writers is buried. Here lie Ilia Charchavadze, called by some the father of the modern Georgian nation, and the lame 19th century Georgian Byron, Nikolos Baratashvili, who died at 27. Here also lies the poet Galaktion Tabidze, who committed' suicide in 1959. "Some said he went mad," said Inga Paliani, my interpreter, "but I don't think so ... well, he got disillusioned ? with the new life." (Since my visit there, demonstrations of nationalism, even stronger than those in the Baltic states, have been reported by Pravda. Georgians have staged factory sit?ins, protest marches, and even a mass hunger strike to protest against changes in the Soviet constitution that give Moscow more power over the republics of the Soviet Union.)
Georgia is an ancient Christian country. Its literature dates back to the 4th century A.D., and even the kings have been writers and philosophers. Perhaps the truth is that all Georgians are poets ? Stalin wrote poetry; even the current Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardenadze once wrote some verse. They can't stop themselves. In the midst of an extended formal interview the Georgian philologist Vakhushti Kotetishvili managed to dash off a poem on the beauty of my interpreter.
The first piece of Georgian writing ? still studied in schools today ? was a hagiographic prose work called "The Temptation of Shushanik," written by a monk, Jacob Tsurtaveli. The Georgian national epic poem The Knight in the Panther Skin dates from the 12th century. What's interesting here is that ancient Georgian, unlike the ancient Greek language, is still accessible to modern Georgians; their literary past is deeply woven into the fabric of the present just as in the old city of Tbilisi people live in beautiful l9th?century wooden houses standing on foundations that were once the walls of medieval castles.
Statues of writers and literary figures abound. Rustevili, the knight in the panther skin, stands across from, the Georgian feature film studio where the celebrated Georgian movie Repentance was shot. The lame poet Baratashvili broods over the river Mtkvari as it winds through the city. Driving outside Tbilisi (dodging insane Georgian motorists as well as goats and sheep grazing on the highway), I passed a statue of Lermontov that stands in a field, near a ruined monastery about which he once wrote a poem, and yet another statue to mark the spot where Ilia Charchavadze was killed, as my interpreter said, "by enemies of the people,"
Today, the godfather of Georgian literature is Chabua Amiredjibi, whose novel Data Tutashkia, the story of a philosophical peasant who (according to my interpreter), "fights for the truth and tries to find the essence of life," is loved and revered by the whole country. Amiredjibi is a tall, slim, asceticlooking man in his late 60s, with a raspy, ruined voice and peasant moustache, the scion of a once noble Georgian family. He spent 16 years in concentration camps in Siberia (managing to escape four times). His business card bears the following legend: Chabua Amiredjibi, Writer, Overthrower of Rulers, Best Tenor of All Times and People, A Maecenas of Homeless Dogs, Capacity One Litre (of Wine).
'Me Georgians are old?fashioned hosts. As soon as you complete a piece of business, they drive you off into the mountains to some secluded village to eat one of an endless array of national dishes. I ate once such "lunch" in a place called Shindisi, standing at a table with my hosts, Amiredjibi and the philologist?poet Kotetishvili, our driver and interpreters. Huge mugs of beer were swept away as soon as you were even half finished, and replaced with fresh ones. The main dishes were gula kababi (kebabs wrapped in flatbread) and khinkali (highly spiced ground meat wrapped in dough).
Amiredjibi orchestrated everything, gave instructions on the proper way to eat (by, hand), took turns making toasts with Kotetishvili and regaled us with peasant jokes (a village kkinkali?eating contest ends with the winner saying, "The last one is in my mouth and I'm sitting on the first one").
Georgians hold banquets at the drop of a hat. I averaged a banquet a day (not to mention those little "lunches") while I was there. These are lengthy formal affairs, with countless national dishes and courses involving the slaughter of what must be huge numbers of sheep, cows, quail, and chickens. Small talk is frowned upon. Instead, the Georgians take great pleasure in long, elaborate, and rhythmic toasts punctuated with the clinking of glasses and the, imbibing of massive quantities of vodka, Georgian wine, and cognac. The Georgian toast?master knows that wine is his ally. The toasts grow in narrative content and emotional intensity as the evening wears on. At a certain climactic point, they cross the border into art.
One banquet at the House of Journalists in Tbilisi peaked when Kotetishvili toasted Amiredjibi's 16?year "vacation" in Siberia. Amiredjibi told a story about the day he was put up against a wall in front of a firing squad, only to be reprieved at the last moment. Then he toasted Kotetishvili's family the mother who died a month after Kotetishvili's birth, the father who was shot by the Russians, the 13?year?old sister who brought him up (and is now dead).
Kotetishvili, a huge, florid man with a deep, raspy voice (perhaps they ruin their voices making toasts), who was once invited to teach at the University of British Columbia (though the Soviets side?tracked the invitation in Moscow), rose heavily to his feet in reply and gave a long, emotional toast to the dead, to death ? "a good death" ? and revenge, shouting at the last, "Brothers and sisters, take out your swords. The crows are eating the flesh of your dead fathers."