IN THE UNREMARKABLE VILLAGE of Alkhal Sopeli outside of Tbilisi, there was a gate with a small gold head of Stalin stuck on to it. Unremarkable. Past the gate into a courtyard where an old Lada was parked with another Stalin head fixed to the radiator grille. My eyes moved up; the courtyard was wide and paved, a hedge ran along one side and at the end was a large full-length, silver-painted concrete statue of Stalin. This was Temuri Kunelauri’s private confection; his garden, his place; the statue was the beginning of a Stalin theme park.
It had taken him twenty-three years to build it out of the favourite materials of communist nostalgia: mosaic chips, concrete caulking and red paint. A series of interconnecting secret gardens, each swathe of hedge was hung with old bas-reliefs of Stalin, hammered metal portraits of Stalin. Crude painted slogans gave way to a gate which gave way to something else and more incredible. In one garden a gold statue of Stalin stood on a plinth surrounded by light bulbs.
Apparently when there had been electricity the statue used to rise with the sun in the morning and then descend at night inside its plinth, to sleep, and the lights used to flash. In another alcove there was a Stalin fountain (not working) that fed into a small rank pond next to a small kiddie Ferris wheel (not working), rusted, pastel-coloured. There was a traditional Georgian hut made from woven branches, full of antlers, desiccated bearskins and moulting stuffed birds of prey in various violent poses. There was a grand multicoloured tile monument to friendship between the different Caucasian nations. There were paintings and placards and artillery rounds wedged into a plaster frieze surrounding gold bas-reliefs of fighting Soviet soldiers, missiles and cartridge belts. There were benches to sit on and admire the stage-set scenery. Strangely, the air was filled with the buzz-hum of worker bees.
In the museum room, where it was damp, cold and dark, the walls were covered with oil paintings and pencil drawings and marquetry portraits and photographs of Stalin. These had been brought by veterans and old Soviet heroes. Plaster busts of Stalin, images of Stalin and Lenin conferring, Stalin visiting the wounded during the war, Stalin kissing Asiatic children, Koba the bank robber. Temuri also had a large collection of phonographs of Stalin’s speeches and piles of yellow crumbly newspaper clippings about Stalin.
I was with Thomas. We made noises of impression; we were impressed. Stalin repeated, always the same old Stalin, with the moustache and the thick brushed-back hair and the eyes in which we tried to catch malevolence but which were just eyes in a picture and unremarkable except for their repetition, which followed us around the room.
Thomas and I fell silent as Temuri led us through another series of Stalin grottoes. At the bottom of the garden was a doorway hung with a length of non-colour-rotting felt. Inside it was dark and we could not see anything; it smelled of must, attics, dead flowers and rain.
“Have you got a torch?” Temuri asked in a whisper, adding, apologetically, the single word, ‘shuki,” as explanation.
Thomas handed him a small pencil torch. “The battery is low,” he apologized. A faint narrow beam illuminated the wall which was encrusted with something brown and friable. I held Thomas’s hand.
Through the gloom came a small patch of wobbling glow; it came into slow focus. Stalin’s head, pale, waxen, recumbent, shone out. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. Thomas curled his fingers around mine. Stalin’s features were slightly misshapen in death, his nose misaligned, his moustache touched up with mascara, his lips too red. He was horrible; the torch beam moved down to reveal him, laid out in an open coffin, his chest heaped with dusty plastic carnations.
“All religions are weird,” I told Thomas, as we came out into the daylight and blinked at each other with a strange expression on our faces. “It’s their job to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. We should go home and drink a glass of wine and make love and realize that corporeal is more important.”
Shashlik, Tamada, Supra
THERE WAS A MAP of the world on the wall in my office and for some reason I had stuck a pin in Tbilisi. Nina had stuck one in Pamplona – she wanted to go and see the running of the bulls. We used to lounge under our escape fantasies, chatting instead of working. Nina would halt her reverie of tapas, sherry and Hemingway and shake her head at me and say, “Yeah Wendell, but why the hell Georgia?”
I could only offer scattered answers. A lonely epiphany watching the Vltava, black ink at night, flow beneath me, a strange affection for concrete Khrushchev housing blocks, rumours of wine and orange trees, milk and honey; Lermontov, a breakfast meeting with Shevardnadze in New York in 1994, a snowy happy winter in Moscow curled up in a garret writing my first great unpublishable novel. These triggers were half-identifiable (Nina would nod, nonplussed but kindly), but they belied a reservoir sunk deep out of explanation. To be honest, this was my own sinkwell. Who knows from where it sprang; spirit, soul or only runaway.
In any case, I got on a plane.
In the beginning all I did was walk. Past faded grandeur and cracked fa”ades, crumbling swags and cherubs and dilapidated marble entrance halls, wooden gingerbread balconies, old apricot-coloured paint daubed with bits of graffiti, rusted tin roofs and filigree tin gutters housing small shrubs. Little basement shops selling stacks of bread and piles of tomatoes, newspaper twists of sunflower seeds, left-over rubble of bomb damage around the Parliament building, hexagonal Orthodox church steeples, the rusted-out funicular that went up the mountain. I walked up the steep cobbled streets and around the dusty squares; I walked past the carpet-seller’s shop and up to the Narikala Fortress. I drank Turkish coffee in the shabby caf’s. The sky was blue above; the river flowed in a swathe underneath the city’s bridges, below the Metechi cliffs overhung with sagging houses, towards the ancient capital of Mtskheta.
I was a guest, an honourable occupation in Georgia. I reflected in those very first days, October 1998, when I woke up in the morning and found that the electricity was off which meant that there was no hot water, how very lucky I was to have fallen so randomly into Tbilisi’s warm and easy embrace.
To celebrate my arrival, Dato the First, my first friend in Tbilisi, but not the last to bear that name, decided that we should go to Kakheti for the day. Lela and Kakha came too. It was perfect autumn weather, the sun was hot on our backs but our faces were cooled by the breeze. It was as if the earth was still warm from the baked summer and the air was soft and sunlit. The vineyards striped away from the hills along a rolling plain. We sat in the car driving through villages and ate the last summer raspberries out of a wicker basket.
Dato had an old friend from the town of Telavi who had arranged a barbecue in the woods. There was a table in a clearing – a piece of lopsided battered metal which we covered in paper; someone took the long seat out of the back of a Lada and rested it on the ground for us to sit on. Dato’s friend had brought his friends and there were about ten of us. A fire was built out of dry logs, which burned down in a burst of flame into embers. Four skewers laden with well-salted pork, the shashlik, were balanced over the embers on stones and the table spread with rough-hewn tomatoes, green chillies, mustard greens, thin white onions, sheep’s cheese, flat lavash bread, fiery red chilli sauce, pomegranates, pears, grape–resin walnut sweets. The cook, the acclaimed shashlik king of Telavi called Omari, squeezed pomegranate juice on to the pork as it fired crusted fat into sharp burned edges. The tomatoes burst with tang and fruit and salt. We drank young rough red wine decanted from a petrol can that scraped the roof of our mouths dry. Pomegranate seeds spilled on the table gleamed like rubies.
Lela and Kakha and I were polite as guests, gave our compliments to Omari with our mouths full, ate his shashlik with our fingers and teeth, rubbed torn pieces of lavash around our plates to absorb the residual mulch of tomato water, gravy and flecks of chilli.
And then the toasts began, as they had for centuries. The largest man, rotund with a beaming red face and a mayoral disposition, rose with his glass in his hand and began to speak.
“Today we are here to welcome new friends and old friends. I have known Dato since he used to come and visit his grandmother here when he was a child. We’ve had a lot of good times! A lot of wine! And a lot of love has flowed between us. And so I was very happy when he told me that he would be bringing his friends to Kakheti today. Kakha –” and our master of ceremonies, tamada, raised his glass to Kakha, “is someone I have always admired. I know he is a very close friend of Dato’s and I am honoured to welcome him here. I feel –” the tamada put his hand on his heart, “that we are very good friends now that he has come to visit me in my own village, here in the woods where Dato and I have spent long hours –”
‘drinking!” cried out one heckler.
‘drinking sometimes!” replied the tamada, laughing. ‘drinking often! And always happy.” Then he paused while he shifted his subject to me and Lela. “I should also welcome Lela and Wendell. Lela I know is very talented, a journalist for Radio Liberty! That means she can say whatever she likes! And our guest from England or America – I don’t know which – or both places – Wendell – has come to Georgia to write about us. She tells me she is looking for stories. Well we have many stories in Georgia, old ones, good ones, stories about friendship. She is welcome! We may not have luxury, we may not have electricity, but we are friends and friendship begins with a glass of wine, a toast – conversation comes later; interviews we leave to the experts. Here we have a few things, we have wine, we have our stories and these things we would like to share.”
Our glasses were held poised. The dry rasping young wine made us thirsty but we were unable, as procedure dictated, either to drink or put the glass down on the table while the tamada was still speaking. And he was still speaking.
“We are here together,” said Otari, circling his hands wide in munificent gesture. “A special day,” he touched his heart, “that my very good and old friend Dato has honoured me by bringing his friends to our village, to our woods, to share with us our wine and our hospitality, and to bless us with their company. Gamarjos!”
We drank our full glasses and thumped them empty on to the table. Dato the First inclined his head in a little bow to me and drank another glass of wine in one ceremonial gulp. The trees around us shook down their dry leaves. Dato the First stood up and we quietened.
“Otari is a very good friend and a fine tamada –” Dato held his glass outstretched; around the table the refilling ritual went on, puddles of wine forming under glasses that were filled to overflow –
Dato spoke, intoning Otari’s virtues. Otari’s grin was filled with a piece of lavash held in two fingers, as the compliments were returned.
Then another man got up to speak, to propose a toast to the sacred grape that he was drinking, “I want to drink for wine, for the fruit that grows here in Kakheti and for which the whole of Georgia is grateful! Our wine, our country. The things that grow friendships and foster peace: we should remember to respect these things always. Drink! Be merry! Wine is a thing to be shared, like the bread of sacrament. As a gift, as a gift that we give each other.”
We drank. The wine was passed around and glasses replenished, cigarettes lit and we leaned back from the table, looking at each other’s content and smiling faces. Kakha was leaning with his arm around me –
“Another glass, another toast!” he groaned. “You should eat the peaches. They’ll be the last of the year – they are wonderful from Kakheti!”
Lela had her arm linked in mine, “And now they’ll drink all night – you watch! Pass me some more wine, for God’s sake! And a cigarette. I can’t eat any more – that’s probably the best shashlik I’ve ever tasted.”
Otari the tamada regained the floor and began an elegy to women, benediction, dedication, acknowledgement. After women, Otari elaborated his toasts into a series on the family, on children, on wives (everyone laughed – wives were, after all, a necessary evil), grand parents (one of his daughters had recently given birth to a boy), to sons (to grow up strong and take your place in the future), on love, on happiness (which does not depend on money but only on the things that had been previously drunk to).
One of the men fetched another petrol can from the car and decanted it into an old plastic Coke bottle. Otari continued to honour life with his glass of wine. He rested his glass on the great belly curve of his stomach. My eyes blurred; I focused on fleeting vignettes: the edge of Kakha’s smile, a blonde curl of Lela’s hair, a half-full glass of wine, a bowl of grapes, the perfect interior blush of a peach segment. Time distended and hung about us in a premonition of memory.
The fire burned brightly when we tossed dry leaves on to it, the beech trees swayed like a living cathedral above us. At first their leaves were yellow against a blue sky, then leaden against grey as evening fell, and finally black against a deep purple night. The moon came up very clear and lit shards of clouds silver. Each person was toasted and included: to friends, to friendship, to marriage, to children, to women, to parents, to our teachers and mentors, to our country, to Stalin, to the Queen, to love, to understanding, to remembrance, to dead people. We shared the satisfied smile of well-being. My stomach gurgled, sloshing full of shashlik and sharp red wine and friendship. I was happy; charmed, drunk and beguiled, like thousands of guests and invaders before me, in the land of hospitality.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Kakha told me months later when we were sitting around at a birthday party, bored by the rigmarole of the banquet, the well-laden table, the inimitable Georgian feast, the supra. “Thirty years the same idiots sit around a table and repeat the same toasts. They are only words and insincere.”
The tamada culture was honour; it was Georgian, old and entwined; it enshrined wine and poetry. But it served another purpose too, this exaggerated hospitality; a point-of-honour hospitality. Always the raised glass, the exhortation, ‘drink!” In the mountains in Svaneti once I stood on the table and drank chacha, distilled grape, from the hollow of an elkhorn, cheered by twenty local men with faces rubbed red with sun and alcohol. High up in Khevsureti an old woman with a deep-creased face held my chin to force vodka down my throat and followed it with a glass of molten butter. And on a festival day one summer Zaliko and I drove out of a village with several inhabitants running after us brandishing bottles of clear liquid. “God they are all madness,” said Zaliko, looking over his shoulder and accelerating, “if we stop we’ll never be allowed to get away.”
It was a kind of aggression. When they did not know you well, they filled your glass and filled it again and carefully watched how you drank it. This was their measure of you; this was done to disarm you. Georgian to Georgian, between friends and family, at funerals and birthdays, for meeting and for parting, the toasting was less belligerent. The quantities, however, were still fairly large and could provoke either love or violence. This was the Georgian way, friend or enemy with nothing in between. History was lost in tradition, drinking a way of remembering and forgetting at the same time.
©2002 by Wendell Steavenson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.