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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Literature Express

Lasha Bugadze

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To purchase The Literature Express

Title: The Literature Express
Author: Lasha Bugadze
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 222 pages
Original in: Georgian
Availability: The Literature Express - US
The Literature Express - UK
The Literature Express - Canada
The Literature Express - India
  • Georgian title: ლიტერატურული ექსპრესი
  • Translated by Maya Kiasashvili

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Our Assessment:

B : solid small novel of the writing life in post-Soviet Georgia, and in the new age of globalization

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Literature Express is twenty-eight-year-old Georgian writer Zaza, who has all of one published collection of stories under his belt. He finds himself invited to join the 'Literature Express' -- a train-traveling roadshow (à la Word Express) of a hundred European writers that heads across the continent, from Lisbon to Russia and finally Berlin. This doesn't exactly put him on the world stage, but it at least puts him within reach of parts of it (including a stop at the Frankfurt Book Fair and mingling with a Nobel laureate).
       Like many authors from smaller and less well-known cultures and languages, even local success is merely relative -- he notes several times how tiny the Georgian audience is ("Three thousand read, one thousand buys") -- and Zaza is unsure about how to reach a larger one, beyond Georgian borders. (He also appears to be deeply ambivalent about making the effort, unable (or unwilling) to write much on the journey itself.) The dilemma faced by one author is, in fact, a near-universal one:

[Y]our local readers are fed up with what foreigners find interesting in your Bulgarian stories. And the other way round: what excites your countrymen remains absolutely impenetrable for the foreign readers.
       Iliko, the Georgian student assigned to help Zaza and the other Georgian author on tour, the poet Zviad, is also unimpressed by the current literary output from their homeland:
The entirety of Georgian literature is one big provincial crap ! First it was rural problems, then all those drug-addicts and the shit of the '90s ! Are you copying from each other or what ? And this disgusting egocentrism ! I haven't read a single Georgian book where I am able to forget the author. I am reading this shit and I'm haunted by the fucking author, with his stubble and empty pockets, reeking of cigarette smoke.
       Zaza has given up smoking, but otherwise he is a bit of a sad sack, and, of course, this book too doesn't allow the reader to forget about the author.
       Of course, by the end Zaza has hit upon a story:
I'm writing a novel about our Literature Express. It's a good topic. Totally un-local. It's about love and literature. I believe it's going to be original.
       Of course, it's anything but -- indeed, as Zaza then learns: "Half of the Literature Express is writing a novel about our trip".
       Making a mark abroad -- breaking into the foreign (and especially English-language) market -- is the holy grail. One author has a piece published in The New Yorker, making him the envy of everyone else. Zaza, meanwhile, is convinced:
The selling point was Georgia itself, not my stories. If I kept talking about the problems the my country was facing at the time, I had more chance to interest listeners with my personality. The Georgian events were bound to be more original and attractive than my literary experiments.
       Set in 2008, shortly after the five-day war between Georgia and Russia -- the novel begins: "The Russians bombed us in August. Elene broke up with me in September. In October I went to Lisbon" -- the continuing tension between tiny Georgia and Russia overshadow much of the book. So too the Georgian writers can not join the rest of the Literary Express when it goes into Russia, as they are denied entry into Russia. Zaza politicizes the trip too, by calling out the Russians, rather than focusing on the literary -- in part, of course, because he figures politics is an easier sell and attention-getter than art. Given how disappointed his mother always is when they talk on the phone and she realizes he hasn't been keeping up on what's happening back home because the Western media barely take note of any of it, however, it should be clear to him that there's only so much (very limited) mileage to get out of the Georgian situation.
       The story is also one of foreigners -- especially from the former Soviet Union, and the Soviet bloc -- abroad, and their differing reactions to the different cities they visit. Having just broken up with Elene, Zaza finds himself attracted to one his fellow-travelers, Helena from Greece -- a (potential) relationship further complicated by the fact that she's along for the ride with her husband, who in turn might be able to facilitate Zaza getting more Western attention.
       Bugadze has written a typical literary conference-novel; the fact that the gathering is repeatedly on the move, all together, adding a bit with its shifting backgrounds. The contrast between provincial Georgia -- where even the conflicts feel a bit provincial (Zaza's father gets slightly hurt in one of the protests, but it feels -- certainly to Zaza -- almost more comic than in any way serious) -- and the slightly overwhelming cosmopolitan continent is also fairly effective.
       It's the smaller asides and observations that are the most successful, such as:
I got bored in my room and decided to go down to the lobby. If the bar was closed, I could just sit around. I wasn't keen on going outside. I don't like the night Tbilisi, so why would I like Madrid at night ? The scary '90s of my native city put me off the nights spent outside. I feel much safer in lobbies.
       The self-pitying can be a bit much -- even if it's read and meant almost entirely ironically (as it certainly can be):
     It's such a curse to be born a Georgian writer ! No one cares but you keep writing, dejected by the don't-give-a-damn attitude of your fellow countrymen.
       No doubt much of this is meant with irony -- so too Zaza's (Bugadze's) final choice of subject matter, the same one all his travelling colleagues pounce on too. And yet, of course, it satisfies many of the requirements for success both locally (a local son's view of the (writing) world at large, beyond the country's borders) and internationally (a novel perspective -- Georgian ! -- on the comfortably familiar).
       The added dimensions, beyond just the writing-story, including Zaza lusting after Helena, other Georgian personalities and how they react to the on-going trip ((relatively)renowned poet Zviad, and expatriate student Iliko), and the inclusion of bits of writing by other participants (commentary, diary-entires, letters) that allow for brief real changes of perspective, help give the novel more depth. Bugadze tells his stories quite entertainingly, too, and the novel moves along quite well. It aims too hard to please Western sensibilities -- but then that's one of its themes: how can a Georgian writer reach a Western audience. It might have been more fun if he hadn't tried so hard, but it's an enjoyable enough ride as is, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 December 2013

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The Literature Express: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Georgian author Lasha Bugadze (ლაშა ბუღაძე) was born in 1977.

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© 2013-2015 the complete review

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