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the death of bagrat zakharych
26 february 2023
Vazha-Pshavela (1861-1915) was an eminent figure in the development of Georgian literary nationalism. He was born into a European generation when speakers of minority languages in the great multicultural empires produced new literary traditions in their mother tongues.
Not exactly a household name in America, but well worth discovering, and the excellent series of miniature translations by Paper + Ink offers several of Vazha-Pshavela's stories, as rendered in English by scholar/translator Rebecca Ruth Gould. The title character Bagrat Zakharych is a crashing bore of a functionary who dies as dully as he lived, leaving behind a legacy of his formidable knowledge of grammar – Russian grammar, the grammar of the official language that rules Georgia through Georgians like him.
"Memories" is subtitled "A Christmas Tale" and one expects cozy hearths and general jollity. Narrated by someone remembering a Christmas vacation at his rural home during a break from a miserable boarding school, "Memories" does have some Christmas cheer. But the heart of the story is a character-sketch / vignette of a hunting trip with an old uncle, who expounds his grim philosophy to the boy. "Everything returns to the dust We humans are cruel beings" (34, 40). Yet for all that, "Christmas that year was one of the happiest days of my life" (41).
Not being Georgian – and not finding much ancillary material in this little volume – I was at a loss to understand the other two pieces in the book. "Batura's Sword" is a prose story about a sword that leads a haunted existence after the death of the hero who wielded it. After reading "Bagrat" and "Memories," I get the sense that "Batura's Sword" is loaded with ironies. The sword is too good for anybody to own it; it has a mind and life of its own. The rhetoric of memory has overtaken even heroic reality. But it's hard to infer tone in a stylized narrative from a culture you aren't close to.
The final piece is a poem, called an "epic" on the back of the book but only 22 pages long, about warriors and exploits, and I have no idea what to make of it.
I would be interested in reading more by Vazha-Pshavela in prosaic and realistic modes. But even knowing he exists is an interesting find.
Vazha-Pshavela. The Death of Bagrat Zakharych and other stories. Translated by Rebecca Ruth Gould. n.p.: Paper + Ink, 2019.