My heart sank as I began to read: the author had decided to plunge me in medias res, which meant a dunking in all the usual clichés about Georgia and its tipsily trigger-happy, chauvinistic inhabitants. He was keen to project the quixotic anti-heroism of his quest with a beloved (now deceased) chum, whom he was determined I should love. "Boys' own" histrionics, bad enough in a newspaper's travel pages, are unendurable in a serious tome. Yet when I finished Bread and Ashes - hanging on every word - I could have wished it twice as long. A remarkable turnaround? Sure, but it is a remarkable book.
Tony Anderson set out to explore the southern Caucasus, starting in Azerbaijan and working west to breakaway, hostile Abkhazia. He already knew Georgia well, and had spent years boning up on its myth-woven history in the London Library, where he familiarised himself with two notable Victorian travellers. The first was the indomitable Douglas Freshfield, who climbed snowy peaks in his London tails and bequeathed a Caucasus map still unparalleled in its precision and beauty; the second was the magisterial John Baddeley. Anderson's constant references to these precursors, as he toils over ice and snow, reveal how little has changed, from the Khevsur blood price for murder (40 cows now, 60 in 1901) to that still standard means of transport, the horse.
You soon realise you're in the hands of a clever writer. His terse, stream-of-consciousness prose is so vivid that you can see and feel the landscapes, as well as the physical hardships he endures. He modestly downplays the nocturnal robbery - stripped naked at gunpoint - to which he falls victim in lawless Svaneti, later admitting that his privileged presence was itself an affront. His observations on the way these mountain tribes preserve their culture in the face of an increasingly uncomprehending world are sharp-eyed, unsentimental and often very moving.
Much of this book is solid history, but, interwoven with the travelogue, this underscores Anderson's central point. As a once splendid imperial power, subjugated in turn by the Mongols, the Tsars and the Soviets, the Georgians desperately need to relive their myths as present-day reality.
If boys in pagan Khevsureti are still being christened Amiran, that's because this Georgian Prometheus is still a role model. If the Svans pin fleeces to river-beds where gold is washed by, that could be a conscious echo of the tale of the golden fleece, which they regard as their own. Anderson's reporting on Georgia's present plight - skint, riven by civil war, eyed-up by oil barons but politically friendless - is sympathetic and well-informed. His literary digressions into Tolstoy, Lermontov and Shota Rustaveli, Georgia's epic poet, are unassuming but apt.
Part of this journey was made in 1991, but most of it took place in 1998. Although Anderson did not go far into Chechnya, he would not even be allowed to reach its southern border today. But as one who has already witnessed the Edenic beauty of Khevsureti, and the unsung splendours of Georgia's medieval churches, I can't wait to follow in Anderson's intrepid footsteps.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies