I recently attended a presentation about non-Georgians' perceptions of Georgia. Essentially, we're talking copious drinking, banquets, war, hospitality and Stalin. It's probably a fair summation of what most in the UK know, or think they know, about the country. Now Dalkey Archive Press has attempted to widen our perspective, publishing an anthology of contemporary stories by 20 distinguished Georgian writers. Georgians are proud of their literature – but how many writers can you name?
Yes, food and (especially) drink do feature. Yes, Stalin's name is invoked in three stories. There's friction with Russian neighbours, a bit of perestroika. But – just as we'd never expect an anthology of British fiction to be wall-to-wall Routemaster buses and Churchill – the stories here are perhaps at their most interesting when they least subscribe to this cultural shorthand.
Stylistically, they're as diverse as any showcase collection should be – first-person and third-person, even (from Maka Mikeladze) a sexual encounter written in a genderless second-person. Sometimes they are very short and crisp, bound within a little room – and, in David Dephy's story, narrated by a guilt-stricken piece of furniture. Others are broad and rambling, exploring cultural traffic with the west: all Sergio Leone, Robert de Niro and Rambo.
Zaza Burchuladze gives us heroin craving on a movie location, in a strong voice that collapses into theology; Zaal Samadashvili, a sorry tale of bookselling and fighting for survival. Some are sweetly sad, sentimental, almost nostalgic; some sharp-edged and cynical. Linear, old-fashioned tales sit alongside postmodern confusion, the gentle alongside the ferocious. Unusually for this kind of anthology, all 20 stories are rendered by the same translator, the variety allowing Elizabeth Heighway to exercise 20 voices – fresh and modern, or archaic, on occasion almost mythic.
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