Archil Kikodze’s début novel, he says, has "nothing and everything" to do with the Russians and the former Soviet Union.
The book was released by Georgia’s largest publisher Sulakauri last year, and was popular at the tills and a critical smash, nabbing best novel prizes at the prestigious IliaUni and Litera awards. It has not yet been picked up in the English language—that may change after this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair—but the title translates to "Southern Elephant". On the surface, then, it appears to have little to do with Georgia’s bellicose neighbour and former occupier.
The action is relatively simple, taking place in a single day. A filmmaker wanders the streets of Tbilisi because he has lent his flat to a pal for the day, facilitating his friend’s tryst with a girlfriend. As the narrator rambles through the capital city, he remembers incidents from his life and confronts demons from his own past.
So far, so Ulysses. But Kikodze uses the narrator’s personal experiences to subtly look at the often fraught past 40 years of Georgian history, with the Russian bear very much ever-present in the background. Yet, perhaps the most excoriating passages are aimed at his fellow Georgians. Kikodze says: "I wrote the book this way because it is so uninteresting if you say, ‘Russia is a bad country, it is a Mafia state and they are all bad people.’ I think the moral difficulties of collaboration are so much more interesting than viewing someone, or some country, purely as the enemy. That’s why in ‘Southern Elephant’, and most of my fiction, I tend to write about everyday experiences, because even the big political issues are only experienced on a personal level."
Kikodze archly points out that many Georgians were fully engaged with the Soviet state, and at the highest levels—Stalin, famously, was Georgian, as was Uncle Joe’s right-hand man, the notorious secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria. And even when the break of the USSR came in the 1990s, Kikodze says his fellow countrymen did not all exactly join hands in harmony: "I think it was something of a test for our society, and one we did not pass. We had achieved independence, but we were not really ready for it. It was the time of angry nationalism, civil war, ethnic conflicts and war trauma."
"Southern Elephant" is definitely a city novel, and in reviews it has been compared to the heavyweight urban fiction of the 20th-century modernist masters James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Kikodze has had plenty of time for his research, having lived in Tbilisi for most of his 46 years.
His education has been eclectic, first getting a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Tbilisi State University, and later going to the national theatre and film school at Shota Rustaveli State University. (Rustaveli was a medieval Georgian poet, and is one of the giants of the country’s literature.)
Though "Southern Elephant" is Kikodze’s first novel, he has been publishing short stories, essays and articles since the tender age of 21, when he won a literary prize for short fiction. Despite the relatively early success, he "never had a real call to write when I was younger, though I read a lot. Perhaps the notion of becoming a professional writer made me feel uncomfortable."
Kikodze right in art-house film ‘Blind Dates’ (2013)
He goes on to explain that that uneasiness was not just the "am I good enough?" angst that many a writer experiences, but the cold, hard fact that "it is almost impossible to make a living solely as a professional author in Georgia". So, to this day, he hustles. In addition to the writing, he has worked extensively in the theatre and film industry, in a variety of roles. Art-house film buffs might know him from the anthology film “Tbilisi, I Love You” (with appearances from Hollywood types such as Malcolm McDowell and Ron Perlman), for which he wrote part of the screenplay; or his turn as one as the main roles in "Blind Dates", a 2013 festival circuit hit. He has been acting quite a bit more of late: "I really enjoy it, even more so if I haven’t written the play or the screenplay, because I don’t have so much of a heavy obligation to the work."
On the climb
And there are his less artistic endeavours, too. In his late teens and early twenties, Kikodze caught the hiking bug, a passion which continues to this day. He has written three books on walking in Georgia’s mountains and national parks and a significant part of his income comes from his work as a guide for eco-tourism expeditions.
There is a bit of irony that some Georgian writers might have actually been a tad better off financially in Soviet times. If one passed muster with the authorities (although doing so was dicey, and the criteria ever-changing) there were opportunities for state support.
Kikodze says: "The system did give us several great authors in the Soviet era. But because of the restrictions, they often had to limit themselves to historical novels. So there was something of a sameness about the work that was being produced. Of course, those books were often about the present day, but you had to read between the lines. Today, Georgian literature can be big and epic, or it can be small and personal. There is a diversity that we haven’t had for so long, and we can finally face up to our own country’s problems."