BOOKS : Stalin's children

THE OLD HOUSE UNDER THE CYPRESS TREE by Fazil Iskander, trs Jan Butler, Faber pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
THE Russian writer Fazil Iskander's great work, Sandro of Chegem, deserves to be a bestseller and Faber's edition of it three years ago was a fine piece of publishing. The one problem was the lamentably kitsch cover - a stereotypical red-nosed old man of the Caucasus, his wine glass raised, his voluminous beard split by a cloying smile. This folksy image misrepresented Iskander's achievement: Sandro of Chegem is not just a simple evocation of the half heroic, half pastoral way of life of the remote mountain villages of Abkhazia, where morality revolves round the laws of hospitality and revenge, and a surfeit of belief consistently transforms the mundane into the miraculous.

A modern, educated novelist writing about an oral culture, Iskander constantly interrogates the tension between memory and nostalgia. A large part of the novel's humour comes from the shortcomings of certain Abkhazian customs, but Iskander, like Bohumil Hrabal, acknowledges that nostalgia can be an active political statement. "A man cannot help ennobling what he loves. We may not recognise it, but in idealising a vanishing way of life we are presenting a bill to the future. We are saying: 'Here is what we are losing; what are you going to give us in exchange?'."

Iskander's latest book, a brief memoir of his childhood in Abkhazia's capital, Sukhum, on the Black Sea, is altogether more personal and fragile. His Abkhazian family is just a part, along with Turks, Armenians, Mingrelians, Persians and Georgians, of an extraordinary mix; the mountains, although their moral influence is perceptible, are far away.

It's odd, therefore, that Faber have kept the same cover illustrator - another dreadful bit of whimsy - but changed translator. Iskander's memories now speak in the voice of a breathless prep-school boy: people swank, talk twaddle and roll scrumptious, jolly words on their tongues. The combination puts a real strain on the book's tone, which is reminiscent of Nikita Mikhalkov's film Burnt by the Sun. Like that film's scene where Mikhalkov and his young daughter float down a river in a boat, Iskander tenderly and meticulously excavates the most precious moments of being a child. Family life is played out in sunny courtyards and overflowing kitchens, a "constantly agitated but essentially harmless" ebb and flow of aunts and uncles. Beneath his discursive, gentle meandering between the many comic set pieces provided by adult eccentricity and taste for melodrama is a lament for the lost harmony and devotion of childhood.

But this is not mere sentimentality. The point, of course, is how brutally adulthood was forced on all who suffered under Stalinism. Iskander's father and uncle were deported and he never saw them again. Long after his father's death he was writing petitions to government departments exaggerating his father's age and illness. Given how long such wounds take to heal, this is a remarkably principled and dignified book.