A IS FOR ABKHAZIA
I read it in Russian and wish it was more popular among English-speaking people with a knack for world lit, because it’s just as insufferably delicious as some of the best Latin American novels, like Lezama-Lima’s “Paradiso” or “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to which it draws comparisons for themes and year of publication. It was my favorite, life-transforming book as a young adult and rereading it now I understood more things, and was peeved by some things, but loved it none the less.
I have no idea how editing in publishing houses worked in the USSR, but while reading some parts of the book I was aching for a blue pen. The narrative drifts and shifts, there are random observations from the narrator which take away from the plot, and some fact checking omissions, like Paul Robeson being called Roy Royson, are glaring. However, the stories that Iskander tells are simply remarkable, unique, covering the history of Abkhazia from sometime in the Byzantinian era to USSR circa 70s, all through the lens of the history of one big family, its happiness and pain, the births of children and untimely deaths of others. There is Stalin and collectivization, a magical quest for a princess in a fortress, slavery, displacement, blackness, heroin addiction, corruption, crime, a bunch of wars, endless romantic dramas, a sassy mule, a determined buffalo, and a bunch of lovesick donkeys. And of course in the middle of it all, Sandro Chegemba, Abkhazian feast MC extraordinaire, a skilled dancer, and a man who never doubts himself, although this self-assuredness is not offensive but endearing.
It’s essentially 31 novellas loosely linked by plot. Some novellas are perfect, others take time and patience to get through but the rewards are worth it each time. Abkhazia may not be a known destination on the literary map of the world but it sure does have its Great Abkhazian Novel.
Sandro of Chegem by Fazil Iskander
Translated by Susan Brownsberger
Published by Vintage Books in 1983