By Tara Isabella Burton
Dalkey Archive, January 2014
It’s fitting that I read Lasha Bugadze’s The Literature Express—a 2009 Georgian novel newly in translation from Dalkey Archive Press—on a train. Comings and goings, stations and borderlands, form the psychic backdrop to The Literature Express, as well as the literal one: the Express itself is a locomotive pan-European writing seminar, Breadloaf via the Orient Express. Choosing two delegates from every country, the organizers have attracted some high-profile talent (one Bulgarian writer papers his comrades’ compartments with copies of The New Yorker issue in which his short story appears), along with just as many unknowns, barely read even in their country of origin.
Such an author is the hapless Zaza, one-half of the Georgian delegation (the other half is Zviad, a reeling, staggering, bear of a classical Georgian poet with a particular affinity for cheap souvenirs from shady European street peddlers). The second choice for the delegation, Zaza has penned exactly one short-story collection in his native Tbilisi, where selling a thousand copies is sufficient for “bestseller” status. Now, however, Zaza is expected to sell himself as the voice of Georgia abroad.
Complicating matters is the recent 2008 Georgia-Russia war: a war that immediately grounds literary concerns in the political. But Bugadze’s relationship with politics is a tenuous one; Zaza’s concern with his country’s political situation is as pragmatic as patriotic. His successful Bulgarian colleague, after all, has managed to court an international audience (and alienate his local one) by forcing his work into a political paradigm. So to does Zaza find that the literary agents and editors he meets believe that “the selling point was Georgia itself, not my stories.” As a Georgian author entering public life so soon after the 2008 war, Zaza is expected to speak on behalf of his entire country, a tall order when he’d rather be focusing on his quest to bed the pneumatic wife of his would-be translator.
The Literature Express is at its best when embracing the literary cacophony of its setting. The characters and their furious battle to out-do one another professionally gives the book its bleak humor, and a degree of uneasy edge. Are we, as Western readers, meant to grab on too easily to those nuggets of political context Zaza offers us—this is a book about Georgia, about 2008, about politics—or see them as a shameless ploy to court international attention? (The more unreliable Zaza’s narration gets, the more plausible the latter theory seems).
Less successful, though not entirely unengaging, is the story of Zaza’s relationship with Helena, his translator’s wife. A writer’s affection for a relatively enigmatic, beautiful woman is by no means novel, and the relationship verges on prerequisite, even cliché. Only once we start wondering about the reliability of Zaza’s narration does what happens between the two of them feel, if not sincere, then at least compelling.
Maya Kisashvili’s translation is utterly elegant and succeeds in conveying outlandish guffaw-worthy humor without ever sounding mannered.
Less philosophical, perhaps, than Morchiladze’s Journey to Karabakh, Bugadze’s Express nevertheless feels more polished; a book all too aware of its curious role as a rare translated example of contemporary Georgian literature, and willing to subvert the expectations placed upon it with a wink and a nod (and more than a few jokes about the former Soviet Union). Like Zaza, the book is knowing, a bit cynical, and willing to challenge its readers where it hurts.