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Caucasian literature: the best contemporary fiction to add to your reading list



Caucasian literature: the best contemporary fiction to add to your reading list
A road through the Caucasus mountains. Image: Konstantin Malanchev under a CC licence

Although the Caucasus has a long history in literature, almost none of the most celebrated books about the region seem to be written by Caucasians: Tolstoy, Pushkin and more recently Anthony Marra have been the undisputed arbiters of Caucasian fiction. From ancient legends to the supernatural, here are 10 of the best recent books in English translation

25 April 2017


The Literature Express by Lasha Bugadze, 2009 (Georgia)

Translated by Maya Kiasashvili (2014)

“Your local readers are fed up with what foreigners find interesting in your Bulgarian stories. And the other way round: what excites your countrymen remains absolutely impenetrable for the foreign readers.” More a comment on the “state of the art” than art itself, The Literature Express takes its audience on a wild ride of black humour and self-deprecating wit. We follow Zaza, whose biggest (and only) hit has been a singular book of short stories, as he takes part in a pan-European train journey with a horde of other B-list writers. His romantic interest in the blandly attractive wife of a Polish translator seems as unlikely to succeed as his career, and while denouncing the brazen opportunism involved in using politics to garner international attention, he too relishes in dropping political breadcrumbs. Much more than satire, this literary locomotive is a droll and withering critique of the stratification of the European culture industry – you’ll be both cleverer and more depressed having read it.

Requiem for the Living by Alan Cherchesov, 1994 (Ossetia)

Translated by Subhi Shervell (2005)

Traditional crypts in the North Ossetian region of Dargavs. Image: Sergey Norin under a CC licence

Traditional crypts in the North Ossetian region of Dargavs. Image: Sergey Norin under a CC licence

In a remote Caucasian village, a young boy irrevocably disturbs the status quo when he returns a horse stolen by his family to its rightful owner. Fearing a blood feud, his parents flee the village and the boy is left to fend for himself. Blessed with ingenuity and good fortune, it isn’t long before his survival makes him a target of suspicion and contempt. The author gives free rein to meandering storytelling in this beguiling novel, which benefits both from the baroque force of his writing and the richness of Ossetian mythology. Although teeming with ethnographic detail, he neither plays the tourist nor panders to Western audiences, developing instead a fresh and distinct voice.

The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, 2012 (Dagestan)

Translated by Carol Apollonio (2015)

The Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. Image: Un Bolshakov under a CC image

The Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. Image: Un Bolshakov under a CC image

Touted as the first Dagestani novel to be published in English, Alisa Ganieva’s The Mountain and the Wall offers a penetrating exposition on how to keep living in the face of destruction. The novel follows Shamil, a young and apathetic reporter in Makhachkala as the Russian government threatens to build a wall isolating the Muslim areas of the Caucasus. Our unchivalrous anti-hero is about as likable as Camus’s Meursault, but is unable to ignore the catastrophe bubbling up around him, eventually forced to choose between two evils. Deftly evoking rising tensions and the divisive mechanisms of borders — through constructed nationalist fervour, the appeal of religious fundamentalism and the brutal puppetry of a distant government — Ganieva covers the deterioration of a community in the face of extremes. Undeniably well-written, her clear commitment is to creating dialogue between Russia and its own peripheries.

The Orphan Sky by Ella Leya, 2015 (Azerbaijan)

Ella Leya’s debut novel is a feat of tender introspection. The lush and intimate coming-of-age story follows Leila, a young pianist, as she comes to understand her political indoctrination and the corruption of those closest to her in late 20th century Azerbaijan. The book is ripe with musical metaphors, taking full advantage of a whole lexicon of emotions in the works of Rachmaninov and Wagner without compromising the painful naivety of a teenager caught between a dissident lover and the trappings of upper-echelon Communist party life. While Leya’s soupy prose may dissuade more minimalist readers, her commitment to embellishment often succeeds in polishing brute circumstances into moments of surprising beauty.

A Man Was Going Down the Road by Otar Chiladze, 1973 (Georgia)

Translated by Donald Rayfield (2012)

Soviet-era relief in the Georgian town of Gori. Image: orientalizing under a CC licence

Soviet-era relief in the Georgian town of Gori. Image: orientalizing under a CC licence

One of Georgia’s most important and influential novelists of the 20th century, Otar Chiladze first published A Man Was Going Down the Road in 1973, but it has only been available in English since 2012. Based on the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, it is a compelling allegory for the Soviet annexation of Georgia and the suffering of those left behind in the wake of heroic crusades. In his reimagining of the occupation of Colchis and the transformation of its benign natives into informants and persecutors, Chiladze tested the limits of Soviet censorship and reinvented Georgian postmodern literature. This dazzling first novel from a prolific national figure challenges the reader with its an abundance of Homeric similes and emulation of classical style, but is equally generous with its rewards – a flawless account of the human condition through pity and terror.

The Fleeting City by Hovhannes Tekgyozan, 2012 (Armenia)

Translated by Nairi Hakhverdi (2016)

The Armenian capital Yerevan. Image: DubeFranz under a CC licence

The Armenian capital Yerevan. Image: DubeFranz under a CC licence

Keen on leaving behind “traditional” themes of corruption and economics, Hovhannes Tekgyozyan’s commentary on social interaction and cultural differences mines the cavernous stronghold of Armenian taboo to find a cache of lively, honest humour. In what has been described as a “virtual movie novella”, protagonists Gagik and Grigor strike up an intimate friendship with a Turkish traveller, setting a whirlwind narrative of sexuality and the supernatural in motion. Tekgyozyan’s fantastical and cartoonish style creates an Alice in Wonderland-like world where the human becomes animal and objects burst into life – a talent which no doubt feeds to his cult status and favourable comparisons to Tim Burton.

Dagny, or A Love Feast by Zurab Karumidze, 2006 (Georgia)

Revised edition (2014)

Longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award, this unconventional literary “feast consists of two parts. The first is a wild gambol through Tbilisi in 1901, documenting the last three weeks of Dagny Juel-Przybyszewska’s life before her murder. A real-life model for such figures as Edvard Munch and August Strindberg, Dagny was shot by a lover at the tiny Grand Hotel just before her 34th birthday. The second part is a phantasmagorical mix of myth and politics, shamanism and the art of the fugue, enchantment and linguistics, all bound up in a “Love Feast” – an event meant to restore the cosmic purpose of human beings as the custodians of peace, and thus prevent the totalitarian disasters of the decades to come. Both deadly serious and seriously funny, you’ll hardly realise you are consuming a work of genius until you are up to your ears in the achievements and horrors of Modernism at the turn of the century.

Solar Plexus: A Baku Saga in Four Parts by Rustam Ibragimbekov, 1996 (Azerbaijan)

Translated by Andrew Bromfield (2014)

Nizami Street in central Baku. Image: Jens Aarstein Holm under a CC licence

Nizami Street in central Baku. Image: Jens Aarstein Holm under a CC licence

Known for his shrewd tragicomedy, Academy Award-winning screenwriter (for Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1995 Best Foreign Film Burnt by the Sun) Rustam Ibragimbekov has a rare ability to find humanity in peculiar situations and then tease it out. He does precisely that in Solar Plexus, which tells the individual stories of a group of friends bound by a shared courtyard in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. Tackling the Second World War, mid-century “Russification” and the rural-urban divide over several decades, the book can be a challenge for those not well versed in the country’s history. But the spacious, thoughtful storytelling from this narrative master privileges human relationships above all. Funny and sad in equal measure, this book is one to cherish.

The Legacy of Lost Things by Aida Zilalian, 2015 (Armenia/US)

“You’ll find that when you can’t find the answer to something, you eventually have to forget about it.” New York-based Aida Zilelian’s debut novel follows an Armenian family’s difficult settlement in the United States, decades after the genocide that displaced them. Forbidden in the immigrant community from marrying her childhood love, an Arab, Tamar is wed by convenience to the insecure Levon. But after the disappearance of their eldest daughter, the uneasy peace of Levon and Tamar’s loveless household unravels in a cautionary tale of generational tensions and hereditary trauma. With no clear villain or victim, each character grows more complex and contradictory – that is, more human. Using plain realism to quietly expose a family on the edge, Zilalian shows how difficult histories may never be fully expunged.

A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya, 2002 (Russia/Chechnya)

Translated by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky (2003)

Protest outside the Russian embassy in Helsinki following Anna Politkovskaya's murder in 2014. Image: amnesty Finland under a CC licence

Protest outside the Russian embassy in Helsinki following Anna Politkovskaya's murder in 2014. Image: amnesty Finland under a CC licence

Finally, an example of vital non-fiction writing. Moscow-based Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated more than ten years ago in the elevator of her apartment block, a testament to the grave danger faced by journalists committed to exposing brutality and injustice. An ardent critic of the Russian government, she wrote countless articles on the first and second wars in Chechnya and faced detainment, poisoning and mock execution in return. A Small Corner of Hell is her second book on the Chechen War — a torturous but compulsory read for anyone interested in the recent history of the North Caucasus. Her focus lies not on Russian death squads, complacent politicians, or even the Chechen resistance, but the civilians caught in the crossfire. These brave, unblinking dispatches are an irrefutable denunciation of the destructive forces of war and a harrowing evocation of what is at stake.

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