Monday, July 6, 2015

Book Review: A Man Was Going Down the Road by Otar Chiladze

I spent the first two and a half months of 2015 voraciously reading every book about Georgia I could get my hands on. When I learned about A Man Was Going Down The Road, I thought: THIS will be the pièce de résistance of my reading!

The book was written by Otar Chiladze (1933-2009), one of Georgia's great 20th-century writers, after all. It was supposed to be about Jason, Medea and the Golden Fleece, It was set in the Colchian city of Vani--a city that is today an archaeological treasure chest just 30 km or so from Lanchkhuti, the town where I spent a week during my stay in that country.

Instead it became something more--far more--one of the most challenging and rewarding books on any subject that I have read in recent years. Unraveling the book became for me a task akin to unspooling strings of Georgian letters or twisting my tongue into the shape of six-syllable Georgian words.

I got a little ways into the book before I left the USA for Georgia, planning to finish it on the trip. Two things came up. First, other books pushed their way into my life during my time there. Second, five pages were enough to tire my eyes and put me into dreamland. Eventually I got to where I could read fifty pages before moving on to other reading for a time, This never proved to be a page-turner. It remained a challenge.

This is what I learned while reading the book.

It isn't really about Jason & Medea
Statue of Medea in Batumi, Georgia
Chiladze has more in mind than just retelling a beloved myth. This is a book about Georgia, and when Jason flees the book with Medea and the Golden Fleece, the story doesn't follow them to Greece.

The setting is the court of King Aetes, and the book begins when the boy, Phrixos, and his ram are pulled from the sea and adopted by the king. The legend grows that Phrixos had ridden the flying ram from Greece across the Black Sea, but the reality will set in that Phrixos is merely a plant by the faraway Cretan king, Minos. Phrixos marries Aetes's daughter, Chalciope, and their relationship, initially happy enough to produce four sons, grows distant, marred by Phrixos's longing for his homeland.

Jason sweeps in. Medea beguiles the fleece from her father's throne room, and they are gone by page 130. There are 300 pages left!

The rest of the book focuses on three characters: Ukheiro, a Minoan spearman and husband of a Colchian exile named Marekhi, who is injured in the invasion of Vani and forced to spend the rest of his life embroidering a sail with images from his life; Parnaoz, the son of Ukheiro whose birth brings about his mother's death and whose star-crossed love for Ino, anchors the final half of the book and Popeye, grandson of Ukheiro whose service to the usurper, Oqajado makes him the book's bad guy.

Are these characters Colchian/Georgian? Parnaoz is half Colchian through his mother, but Ukherio's family are transplants and invaders. Parnaoz will return to Crete for a time, where he will meet Daedelus and Icarus. He will hold the hope of ridding the family--and Vani--of the despicable Popeye, but he is plagued by indecisiveness.

There are plenty of recognizable Georgians in the book, though. Medea is wonderfully drawn. Consider this scene where she is torn between loyalty to her sister and her growing obsession with Jason:
'I want to die, sister, to die!' Medea yelled through clenched lips, genuinely wondering why the whole palace couldn't hear her, why nobody was running towards her. The word 'love' made Medea tremble so much that she found it hard to enounce it even to herself. This little word, so harmless at first sight, comprised so much resistance and unhappiness, and implied such terrible visions, that Medea felt she was gasping for breath, drained of strength and dissolving in the air, becoming as light and insubstantial as air. Saying the word and feeling guilty were the same thing, as if falling in love meant you had to commit a crime, and if you wanted, you had to express and assert your love. (102)
There is a Georgian vintner, Bakha, whose stocks lie at the base of 40 stone steps and whose daughter is unromantically married off to Popeye. There is a mysterious bandit, Shubu, whose presence offers freedom to the romantic runaways, Parnaoz and Ino. Other minor characters will leap out to those who have spent more than the two weeks in Georgia on which my observations are based.

It's written by a master of classical style
I can't speak for the original format that Chiladze wrote the book in--whether it was prose or verse, or the rhythm of his sentences. Donald Rayfield--but his use of Homeric similes is striking. Consider this simile describing Ukheiro's injured state:
That is how time had passed, like a piece of cloth ripped when transfixed on a javelin tip, laing bare a country, leaving it shattered like a woman widowed at her own wedding, and then dying itself (154).
Or the vivid description of Parnaoz's reunion with his sister, Popina
Popina realized that her brother pitied her, his sympathy softened and weakened her, and she put her head o his shoulder, like a sleepy child taken into somebody's arms. Kaluka put the bent fingers of her left hand on her cheek, propped the elbow with her other hand, bent her head a little to the side and, her eyes full of tears, looking at the siblings' affection, like a sick woman looking at a tree in blossom (308).
Chiladze was fascinated by ancient forms of storytelling. Look at the country where he grew up to understand why. Reading this book really was like reading an epic like The Odyssey. It was a challenge through and through, but it really grows on me the deeper I got into it.

It has a hidden agenda
Chiladze wrote A Man in the early 1970s while Georgia was still a part of the Soviet Union. The book is allegorical. In the story of how Colchis was overrun by outsiders--and native Colchians like Popeye were turned into informants and torturers--Chiladze is telling Georgia's story.

Considering how everything was censored during Soviet times, Perhaps benefitting from the density of the early parts of the book, the allegory is always beneath the surface, and the book doesn't really get political (in the 20th Century sense) until the last chapter, when an old man named Bochia brings to light events from before the Minoan invasion and the reign of the usurper, Olaqado.
As Bochia talked, he too was amazed how everything took on a fairy-tale wonder and enchantment, things that hitherto only he had known that had been permanently deposited, together with countless other memories, in the depths of his heart and, perhaps, had thus lost their colour and meaning, like grandmother's wedding dress. But now, brought into the sunlight, taken out of the trunk, aired in the breeze, in front of so many curious grandchildren, it not only recovered its original softness and lightness, it reanimated its owner's intoxicating virginity, the quivering as her wedding was prepared. People's hearts swelled with pride, they choked on belated tears, and an equally belated regret distressed them, because they had so easily and casually forgotten such a fine, beautiful grandmother whose grave they could no longer find, if only to clear it of weeds and sit just for a minute at her feet (415-16).
This seems to call the reader back to a pre-Soviet, purely Georgian time--and this at the dawn of the Brezhnev Era!

I found a few other clues as to Chiladze's allegorical intent (and I welcome readers to teach me more--admittedly my knowledge of Georgian history isn't great).

  • Parnaoz, the main character of the book, shares a name with a Georgian prince who resisted Russia's annexation of Georgia into the empire in the dawn of the 19th Century. Parnaoz (1777-1852) led a rebellion in 1804, but he was captured and exiled, spending the remainder of his life with his wife, Princess Anna, in St. Petersburg.
  • Pharnavaz is the name of a line of kings who ruled the kingdom of Iberia (covering much of current Georgia) during the 3rd Century BCE. This would have been after the time of mythical Greece, but it is still a long-standing political reference.
  • Like many Georgians during the Soviet Era, Parnaoz is recruited to go to the seat of empire--in this case the court of Minos--where he plies his trade of stonecutting.
  • Parnaoz's end--his legs are amputated, then he is crucified--would call to mind images of Georgian iconography that are shown in churches everywhere.
  • At the end of the book, everyone is desperate to leave (as in Soviet times). The image of Daedelus and Icarus return as children seek death-inducing leaps to leave the corrupt kingdom.

There aren't a lot of full reviews of this book that I could find online. That's why I tried to make this review a little longer and more thorough. A Man Was Going Down the Road is a book I'm proud to have read, and I hope it is a path to learning even more about Georgia.


  1. Thanks, for great review. Please write about other Georgian novels.

  2. Appreciate the effort, thank you for providing with foriegn review! Furthermore, georgian ones are not many either.