Remnants: The Way of the Womb by Hagop Oshagan

This is my book from Armenia for the Read The World challenge. Oshagan was born in 1883 in what is now Turkey — then the Ottoman Empire — and this novel is set in the Armenian community in Turkey before the genocide. ‘The Way of the Womb’ is actually just the first volume of a three volume novel; the third, unfinished volume tells the story of the genocide itself.

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The Way of the Womb works well enough as a stand-alone novel, but obviously it would be a very different experience to read the whole work. Even without any explicit references to the approaching horrors, the context is unavoidable. It creates both dark foreshadowing and an elegiac note for a lost world. Not that Oshagan presents the lost Turkish-Armenian life as a golden idyll — his characters are feuding and manipulative — but there’s a certain amount of stuff about straight-limbed, strong Armenian youths living simple, honest lives among the olive groves, contrasting with an (understandably bitter) representation of weaker, more degenerate Turks.

This volume tells the story of a woman who, desperate to produce a grandson to continue the family name, is scheming to persuade her daughter-in-law to sleep with the hired help. That is used as a framing device to look back at the history of her family, the Nalbandians; once wealthy and powerful, built up by one man, Hajji* Artin, and in terminal decline in the generations after his death.

I would like to be more enthusiastic about this book. The story itself, the characters, and the setting, are striking and interesting. But reading it was really hard work. The prose is quite dense and difficult anyway; I often found myself having to reread sentences several times. But it is made much harder by a lack of white space. The framing story has some pretty long paragraphs, but at least it’s frequently broken up by dialogue. The flashback to tell the story of the Nalbandians is 60 pages without a single paragraph break. 60 pages! I assume that’s a reflection of the original Armenian, but it was a real struggle to get through it.

It’s a pity. I can see why this is an important book for Armenians, and there really were things I liked about it; but it was just too much of a chore. It’s possible that’s the fault of the translation, rather than the original text… but either way, I won’t be picking up the next two volumes, if they get translated. For once I can see the appeal of a Reader’s Digest Condensed version, just for sake of the story, if anyone feels like producing one.

* ‘Hajji’ is obviously a term they picked up from their muslim neighbours, but in their case it was apparently used to refer to someone who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

» The photo is of the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, Turkey. It was abandoned at the time of the genocide; it was restored and reopened as a museum in 2007. The photo is © Adam Jones and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Kvachi by Mikheil Javakhishvili

The original title of this book was Kvachi Kvachantiradze; presumably the publisher of the English edition thought that was a bit intimidating. With names like Javakhishvili and Kvachantiradze, it is of course my book from Georgia for the Read The World challenge.

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It’s actually my second attempt for Georgia; I tried reading Avelum by Otar Chiladze, but didn’t finish it. I wondered at the time if it was a problem with the translation, but this had the same translator, Donald Rayfield, and was much more readable.

It’s a big fat novel — 523 pages; my heart sank slightly at the sight of it — but the blurb was promising:

This is, in brief, the story of a swindler, a Georgian Felix Krull, or perhaps a cynical Don Quixote, named Kvachi Kvachantiradze: womanizer, cheat, perpetrator of insurance fraud, bank-robber, associate of Rasputin, filmmaker, revolutionary, and pimp. Though originally denounced as pornographic, Kvachi’s tale is one of the great classics of twentieth-century Georgian literature — and a hilarious romp to boot.

And on the whole it lives up to that blurb. Obviously it’s not actually ‘hilarious’ — it is after all literary fiction — but I’ve long since learned that literary reviewers have very low standards for humour, and I know to make allowances. I would describe it as lively and entertaining.

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Kvachi is quite an appealing character just for his dynamism and inventiveness, but he is a complete shit: he makes his way in the world entirely by lying, cheating and stealing, and has no redeeming qualities. The narrative largely consists of one swindle after another and a sequence of seduced and betrayed women, which would be too repetitive to sustain a 500 page novel; what keeps it interesting is the regular changes of backdrop.

So he starts from a humble background in Georgia in the 1890s; works his way up, via university in Ukraine, to the highest circles of Russian society, and ingratiates himself with Rasputin; things get difficult, so he moves on to France; he returns to Russia in time for the Great War and the Russian Revolution; he initially works within the revolution but in due course flees back to the briefly independent Georgia; soon revolutionary politics catches up with him and eventually he flees again.

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The author, sadly, did not manage to escape Soviet politics himself. He was not sufficiently willing to keep to the party line, and was tortured and shot during Stalin’s Great Purge. It’s tempting in fact to see Stalin as a model for Kvachi; a Georgian, Ioseb Jugashvili, of humble origins, with intelligence and charisma but a complete ruthlessness, who worked his way to the top of Russian society.

But perhaps that’s a bit facile; there are no shortage of literary and historical models for a character like Kvachi. The blurb mentioned Felix Krull; you could think of Jonathan Wild or even Becky Sharp. A more recent parallel is Rácz from Peter Pišťanek’s brilliant (and genuinely funny) Rivers of Babylon.

» The photos are all from Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky’s amazing colour photographs of the Russian Empire in the 1910s, created using three separate black and white images, each taken with a colour filter, which can be recombined into a full colour image. You can find them at the Library of Congress website [woman, fish, bamboo]. I picked examples from Georgia, although the woman is stretching the point: she is in Armenian national dress and from a town which is now on the Turkish side of the border.

How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov

I wouldn’t normally rush to read a chess-themed self-help book, which is more or less what How Life Imitates Chess is. But, you know, it’s Garry Kasparov! The Beast of Baku!

Kasparov seems to have impressed himself on my imagination surprisingly powerfully, considering I’m not much of a chess player. Although I’ve never taken chess seriously, there was a time when I played quite a lot. At school there were a limited number of places to go at lunchtime when the weather was bad; I used to go to the chess room. Even at the peak of my chess-playing powers, I was pretty rubbish, but there wasn’t a great depth of talent at the school, so when they were short of people I would be drafted in to play board eight for the chess team. As far as I can recall, the chess team didn’t win single match in my time at the school, so it wasn’t much of an achievement.

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At that time Kasparov was the towering figure in chess, and however casual my own chess was, it was hard not to be aware of him. He was the last of the great Soviet chess champions, with all the Cold War mystique that came with that, and he looked the part with the incredible intensity of his gaze and his heavy eyebrows. On top of that there were the matches against a sequence of IBM supercomputers which seemed like such a symbolic moment in the dawning computer age.

And there was the world championship match against the English player Nigel Short, at least some which was broadcast live on Channel 4, hosted by Carol Vorderman of all people. Sadly none of it seems to have made it to YouTube, because I’d be fascinated to see what it looked like. I remember they had a phone vote for the public to suggest the next move, at which point a couple of Grandmasters would explain why the public was an idiot.

So when I was looking for books from the former Soviet republics for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that Kasparov might have written an autobiography which I could read as my book for Azerbaijan. Instead I found How Life Imitates Chess, which uses examples from Kasparov’s chess career as well as business and history to illustrate points about, for example, the value of preparation, and analysing your own weaknesses.

As long as he’s talking about chess, I found it really interesting. The psychology of chess, the different approaches different players take, the preparation that goes into a big match at the top level; when he’s talking about chess, he’s engaging and insightful. The self-help aspect I found less convincing.

Partially I suspect that’s because, despite the long history of chess metaphors, chess isn’t actually a very good model for many other human activities. It’s a completely zero-sum game; for one player to win, the other has to lose. Each chess game starts in exactly the same way, with both players having exactly equal resources and position save only the advantage of playing white. There is no unknown information and no element of chance. It is exceptionally well-suited to rigorous analysis, with information about past performances available with an accuracy that makes baseball statistics look vague and wishy-washy.

These qualities are what make it such a fascinating game, but they are also ways in which it is quite unlike, say, running a business. And businessmen are pretty clearly the intended market; it’s aimed at MBA types who want a change from Sun Tzu. That’s made explicit by the subtitle of the US edition (How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom) but not, interestingly enough, the UK edition (How Life Imitates Chess: Insights into life as a game of strategy).

I also think his heart isn’t really in it. His examples from business and history are very obvious ones and he doesn’t make much attempt to develop them in any detail; his conclusions are plausible enough but often a bit superficial. I don’t think this book was born out of a deep desire to teach people ‘lessons about mastering the strategic and emotional skills to navigate life’s toughest challenges and maximise success no matter how tough the competition’, as the blurb puts it. It was written to make money from Kasparov’s reputation. I gather from the book that he has been working the circuit giving talks to businessmen and the book was presumably born out of that. It feels like it is fundamentally a sideline for him compared to his real passions of writing about chess and campaigning in Russian politics.

But, still, I thought it was well worth reading for the chess bits, which he manages to make interesting and informative while requiring no real chess knowledge in the reader. I would have preferred a straight autobiography, but I still enjoyed the book. I was irritated to realise after I bought it that it was ‘written with Mig Greengard’, because it makes it unclear how much of what you’re getting is Kasparov and how much is the ghostwriter, but I will still be counting it as my book from Azerbaijan for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is from Life magazine, as hosted by Google.

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