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The Literature Express (Georgian Literature)…

The Literature Express (Georgian Literature) (2009)

by Lasha Bugadze

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The story begins in Georgia. Zaza receives an invitation to Literature Express, where he will travel by train through Europe for a month with 99 other writers. While he receives the invitation Tbilis is bombed by the Russians and he separates from his longtime friend Elene.

The plane
In an amusing way Zaza writes about the check-in, the fears of passport controls in foreign countries, the flight of his colleague (Meipariani) and what another passenger thinks about them.

Upon arrival, they meet some of the fellow travelers. They are first brought together by region, but in the case of the Georgians, Russians, Armenians and Chechens, this leads to a rather explosive mixture, since Putin has his fingers everywhere and war is the order of the day. The German organizer hopes however that they spend a peaceful time with each other. Zaza meets Helena for the first time.

The train
Zaza writes how he fell in love with Helen. He notes that the Georgian language is not differentiated enough to describe feelings precisely. It is either dull and simple or rough. There is no in between. The train itself is a shock to him. Suddenly he sees the many writers. When the train starts, all paper, notebook or laptop come out and they begin to write, only he and his colleague do not. Their 'personal' guide does not leave a good hair on Georgian literature. He always curses them.

All the authors had to speak out something from their works, and only in their native language. The conclusion was that no one understood the other and therefore could not appreciate it. This event resembled the Tower of Babel and the frustration was great.

Under Maciek
As he drags Maciek into his room, he muses about a brief affair. He remembers, in particular, that the age difference between an early twentieth girl and him late twentieths in particular can be fatal. The sms massages are misunderstood and it requires an enormous adaptation in writing to the younger woman.

If the Eiffel Tower or the visit to the cemetery of Père Lachaise weren't mentioned, then one would have no idea that the authors are in Paris. The focus is mainly present in the description of the Georgian, character with all their anxieties, fears and reluctance. The authors have to participate in a panel discussion, with Zaza using this to point out the Georgians' oppression from the Russians, and his colleague is so drunk that he can only speak lamentably. Once again, Zaza also thinks about his relationships with the women and once more realizes that he always fails.

There they were placed in the 'Arab Quarter'. They thought they had landed in Egypt. They learned that they should write a short story for the final event in Berlin. It was a competition. The best story was published in Sipliccismus.

On the one hand, they were at the book fair and visited their 'famous' country authors, and on the other hand the Russian authors were concerned about the fact that the Georgians did not receive entry visas for Russia.

Malbork, Poland
I did not like this chapter. It was mostly about sex. The Georgians stay a few days longer because they can not travel further to Russia. The Greek Helen does not accompany her husband either. Zaza is already hoping that he can have a rendezvous with her.

Russia: Kaliningrad and Moscow
One does not know what the others are doing there. They are only thoughts and letters of other writers who are mentioned, but have nothing to do with the two cities.

All participants will meet again before it goes to Berlin to the final event. Zaza is disappointed that he has no contact with Helena. In the following he notes that this whole trip is only made for losers and well-known writers have not been invited at all.

Terminus of the Literatur Express. Zaza was the only one not to write a short story. A Chechen wins the contest. He wrote a story about Russia, which is incomprehensible to many.

I often had trouble with the story. Love life and sexual desires / activities take up a lot of space. A second major part took in the feelings of the Georgians, who always repeated (war / fear / too little self-confidence).
About the individual places one hardly experiences anything, this train could go somewhere. ( )
  Ameise1 | May 7, 2017 |
This is a story of a group of “mediocre writers” who are on a sponsored rail tour of Europe. Even in translation it’s often funny, and there are entertaining characterizations of Georgians (they aren’t comfortable in Europe, they blush easily) and people from other nations (especially Russians, but also Chechens, Azeris, Armenians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, and Romanians). The many descriptions of nations and temperaments are excellent: as soon as the narrator breathes “the aroma of Europe” (p.23) and realizes Portugal isn’t as impoverished as Georgia, he is a mass of insecurities and projections. Bugadze is unusually candid about how people encounter and invent national temperaments, and that makes the book an interesting snapshot of some ideas of Europe as seen by a Georgian born in 1977.

All that is a matter of entertainment. More engaging themes emerge when the book turns to literature. One of the writers, a Bulgarian, has had a story published in The New Yorker, and he has distributed copies so everyone can see what he’s done. The story is about a couple in Sofia at the time of the Second World War, and the narrator concludes that The New Yorker took the story because Bulgaria seems fashionable at the moment, and because of the perenially fashionable theme of the Second World War.

“Of course, if a woman sits at the window in your story and the year is 1939, it’s even awkward [I like that translation, “even awkward”] if she’s not planning on hiding a Jewish friend and, on the other hand, she’s not in love with a Nazi officer. But we face a dilemma here: your local readers are fed up with what foreigners find interesting in your Bulgarian stories.” (p. 143)

For that matter, the narrator thinks, Georgia has had some very recent wars, and maybe that’ll help Georgia to be the flavor of the month for The New Yorker. But he’d rather write about real human stories, like the love story that propels The Literature Express. Even local politics is boring. Bugadze’s narrator imagines a reader who would say, “Give me a pure woman… and give me some romance. Give me some sex and the probing hands of a man, some rain, bullets, and blood, but keep the frigging referendum out of it!”

So in The Literature Express, Bugadze has produced the book his narrator wants: it’s really about love and more or less harmless clichés of nationalities, and not about politics. For me this raises two questions, either one of which could have deepened The Literature Express:

1. It seems very right to say The New Yorker publishes based on expected narratives of national histories, and that it moves from one region of the world to another based on whatever seems fresh. But that begs the question of style. Clearly all stories that include “a pure woman,” “rain, bullets, and blood” aren’t equal, but what distinguishes them? The answer isn’t clear in The Literature Express—it would be something like passion or honesty—but from a New Yorker perspective what distinguishes a good story from one less so would be something to do with writing. To some degree that’s about the history of fiction in the last hundred years, and what counts as challenging or contemporary; and to some degree it’s the infamous house style of The New Yorker, McSweeny’s, and other North American venues: but however it’s judged, style is what’s at stake, and that is never mentioned in The Literature Express. It’s as if writing is somehow a record of passions and temperaments, sensitivities and sensibilities. That’s ironic because The Literature Express is clearly well written, even in translation, so Bugadze must think about these things. But his characters are oblivious of them, and that’s hard to understand given that they’re all writers. Where is discussion of style, manner, voice, skill, narrative, and the entire history of fiction?

2. At the end, Budagze makes it clear that the writers are all “mediocre.” They didn’t have any interesting or original ideas; they were driven by the usual ambitions. The narrator is expressly included; when he emails the trip’s organizer saying he’s writing a novel about the experience, the organizer says everyone is. He also admits he missed the central love story, because he didn’t realize the woman he was pursuing was in love with someone else—so he isn’t especially skilled in narration or insight. In a crucial sentence—which has a translator’s error, unfortunately not caught in copyediting—the narrator says:

“I didn’t know have anything more important to describe.” (p. 220)

That’s verbatim. Is the Georgian original more like “I didn’t now have anything…” or is there another thought in the sentence, left untranslated, something like “I now knew I didn’t have anything…” It makes a difference, but either way the narrator includes himself in the general mediocrity. And that, to me, is a puzzle. Does Bugadze mean he embraces his average thoughts? The book seems indecisive, even incomprehensibly coy, as a satire: it seems more likely to be the work of a man of average ideas and ambition: but then why make a point of that, suddenly, at the end? The turn in the last few pages to these thoughts of inevitable mediocrity makes the book hard to understand as a literary document. What, exactly, is literature here? And why is it worth pursuing? It seems national stereotypes and hapless love affairs are so distracting that they insulate the writer and his readers from other kinds of questions. ( )
  JimElkins | Jul 30, 2014 |
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A bevy of mediocre writers are invited to a seminar aboard a specially chartered train, and this novel tracks their progress across Europe: bitter, bickering, and self-absorbed.

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