The Most Lofty and the Most Base of Feelings

by Carmen Eller

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

“Earthquake, earthquake,” yelled the author’s landlady as she rushed out of the house. It was Christmas 1978. Guram Dochanashvili had just finished the last sentence of his novel The First Garment. After 13 years of literary toil the Georgian had remembered a regional Svaneti custom: Every time the men killed a large animal, they would perform a handstand with a backflip in God’s honour. But when the author attempted such a flip in his room, sending the dishes in the cupboard rattling, his landlady was spun into fright.

Guram Dochanashvili tells this story in an interview. At the same time it could just as well have been found in his book, which runs to almost 700 pages. And that’s not just because aside from the main story line there are countless smaller tales of wondrous characters. Dochanashvili has created nothing short of an epic, which proves to be at once archaic, as well as decidedly modern. Domenico, the son of the village elder, is the work’s central figure. The adventurous tales of a refugee inspire him to venture out on a journey of his own. But first, he asks his father for his share of the inheritance. On his travels Domenico passes through Feinstadt, Kamora, and Canudos, fictitious but symbolically charged settings. In Feinstadt the night guard yells: “It is two o’clock at night and everything is aaalright”, in Kamora political despotism is the order of the day, and Canudos appears to be the city of freedom.   

Dochanashvili’s oeuvre is not geographically set in a specific location, however it is a clear statement against state-led repression. As a high school student the author was arrested alongside other teenagers and was sentenced to prison, though he got out on bail, for the distribution of anti-Soviet flyers. Only after the Perestroika was an uncensored version of The First Garment published in Russian. The novel, which has been masterfully translated into German by Susanne Kihm and Nikolos Lomatadse, is a tale about the basest of human instincts –– the lust for power, sadism, tyranny ––, but also tells of the finest of human sentiments. One particular sentence from the novel has even gained proverb status in Georgian: “It is love which makes the world go around.”

The novel's framework is the parable of the prodigal son from the gospel according to Luke. A playfully postmodern narrator navigates through the sea of stories and repeatedly addresses the reader thus: “On my shoulder there lies the hand of a blind giant and no one knows, whether it is me who guides him, or if it's him who guides me.”

All of this makes for a compelling literary mix. A fantastical world of earthly atrocities, nestled somewhere between allegory, social satire and fairy tale. The author’s artistry lies in his ability to weave real and fantastic elements together in such a way, that one is entirely unsurprised to discover a one-legged kobold in a tree’s hollow. Other characters found in the novel include a grass-green man, the narcissistic dwarf Umberto, and the madman Ugo.

The First Garment is a never-ending story from Georgia, as the surprise twist at the end reveals. However, the inventive blend of politics and fantasy coupled with the literary richness comes at a price. Many of the characters are strongly stylized. That works for fairytales and fables, but dents the pleasure of reading pleasure when it lasts for hundreds and hundreds of pages. It is only the vagabond Domenico who undergoes a substantial inner transformation, which gets increasingly touching towards the end of the novel.

This way, the novel evokes conflicting feelings. Simultaneously, one can fall in love with the narrator, feel distanced from the characters, be delighted by the stylistic finesse, and wish for less allegory and more substance. Even if the reader isn’t inclined to perform a backflip after finishing the last page, there is plenty to marvel at –– starting from the linguistic flexibility and ending with the literary acrobatics.

Das erste Gewand. Von Guram Dotschanaschwili. Hanser, München, 2018. 

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