BOOK REVIEW / At home and homesick in the Caucasus: 'A Captive of the Caucasus' - Andrei Bitov; tr Susan Brownsberger: Harvill, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
ALTHOUGH A Captive of the Caucasus is subtitled 'Journeys in Armenia and Georgia', don't be misled: this isn't an account of a backpacking trek 'dusty and hollow-cheeked along deserted roads'. Andrei Bitov has long since ditched the formulae of travel writing. Landscape descriptions, anecdotes, autobiography, meditations on history and literature are whirled together in the rapids of his narrative.

The first section, entitled 'Lessons of Armenia', is divided into entries on language, history and geography and parodies a traditional travel guide. Bitov explores the deceptions involved in such reductive generalisations and openly acknowledges the hyperbole to which travel writers are prone. 'When you write, how can you keep from lying?' he asks.

According to Bitov, encounters with foreign cultures are inseparable from thoughts of home and his impressions of Georgia are interspersed with details of a visit to a Russian zoo with his daughter and of numerous recollections from his childhood in Leningrad. His journeys are as much about Russia as they are about Armenia or Georgia. 'I'm no longer journeying in Armenia, or in Russia,' the author declares, 'but in this book of mine.'

As he journeys through the Caucasus, Bitov retraces the steps of writers who have passed before him. If he feels estranged from his homeland, there is also a sense of homecoming as he heads off into a literary territory that stretches from Pushkin (from whom the title of Bitov's book is taken), to Lermontov, Tolstoy and Mandelstam. For each of these writers the Caucasus was an exotic frontier territory; both a place of exile and of rediscovery.

A contradictory sense of estrangement and homecoming pervades the book, which was written in the years before glasnost: the trip to Armenia in the late Sixties, the later sections in the Seventies and early Eighties. As Bitov's translator observes, just like Pushkin, who crossed over into Turkish territory only to find that it had already been won for Russia, Bitov finds himself under the Aeroflot- blue sky of a land that is foreign and yet part of the Soviet Union. In the Armenian capital, shop windows are decorated with posters celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution, while the town of Gori in Georgia is the birthplace of Stalin. 'In truth,' he says, 'only in Russia can one feel homesick without leaving one's country'.

There are times when the reader risks losing his way in the tangled undergrowth of Bitov's travel memoirs. The intensity can be too much: especially in the book's second section, entitled 'Choosing a Location', where the narrative is propelled largely by associative anecdotes. Buffeted by impressions, the reader is deprived of a firm grip on any real geography. A Captive of the Caucasus, however, is a daring exploration of the travel writing genre. It is often humorous and sparkles with arresting metaphors. From the mountains above Lake Sevan, the distant expanse of water resembles a 'pelt stretched to dry, with white petals of shrivelled skin curling up along the edges'. The wind catches among ruins 'like a musician's breath in the mouthpiece of a trumpet' and the gleaming new car of a train is described as 'sucked as smooth as a piece of hard candy' and shining 'like a dental crown in a ruined mouth'.

The shifting focus of Bitov's narrative owes much to his involvement with the cinema, as the title, 'Choosing a Location', suggests. Indeed, a version of this section was published as an essay on Georgian film-makers in 1973. There is, however, something solipsistic about Bitov's cinematic technique. Whatever else might constrain him, the author is clearly captivated by his own intelligence. If A Captive of the Caucasus is produced and directed by Andrei Bitov, it also stars Andrei Bitov in the leading role. Members of the audience might be forgiven for asking: is there anyone else out there?

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