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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Aka Mortschiladse

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Title: Obolé
Author: Aka Mortschiladse
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 247 pages
Original in: Georgian
Availability: Obolé - Deutschland
  • Obolé has not yet been translated into English
  • Best Novel, 2012, Saba Literary Awards

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable dive into Georgian life and culture

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

[Note that this review is based on Natia Mikeladse-Bachsoliani's German translation of Obolé (Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2018); all translations are mine, from the German version.]

       Obolé is narrated by Irakli, and the basic story is simple enough: Warlamié, the man who keeps an eye on the old family property in Irakli's countryside hometown, gets in touch, warning that the roof of the old family house there is in danger of collapsing, and so Irakli travels back there to see that that's taken care of. He's not there for long, and most of his short stay is uneventful, beyond bringing up memories of growing up and more distant family history, as well as his having a variety of interactions with those that have stayed behind (and, then, another returnee). It's mostly a casual outing into a slightly decaying but rich past -- that then takes a somewhat more complicated turn.
       The property itself is a mix of the old and new. The narrator's émigré brother, Nika, is a composer who contributes to Hollywood films and lives in Santa Barbara, and years earlier he had suggested tearing down the house and building a modern new one in its place; when Irakli said he didn't want that, Nika had had a prefab bungalow with all the conveniences (indoor plumbing !) built on the property, the parts sent over from the States. New and old sit side by side -- though, as Irakli points out: from the balcony of the old house one can see the historic Muri fortress (which has also seen better days ...), while from the single-story bungalow, all one can see is the roof of the old house ..... Of course, it's that roof that is threatening to collapse -- though as it turns out, it can be propped up without too much effort, as Irakli fairly easily arranges on his visit.
       A playwright who doesn't even have his own cell phone (something he points out in the novel's opening line), Irakli isn't entirely out of touch, but certainly takes a more laid back approach to things (though he's a bit annoyed that Warlamié got in touch with Nika about the roof, rather than him -- Tbilisi still rather closer to the problem than Santa Barbara, after all ...). His journey to his old hometown then, a few hours away and deeper in the Caucasus -- the area bordering right on Svaneti --, is one to a place that remains more removed from contemporary hustle and bustle -- and which he feels quite comfortably at home in.
       As Irakli explains:

     Now I have to recount everything from the beginning, so that one can understand.
     Because I am a Georgian, and if Georgians don't dig out all their old stories there's no possible way of understanding them today.
       So in a leisurely, roundabout way, Irakli fills in the history of the region and especially of his family, especially his great-grandfather Timoté (whose picture hangs up in in the local museum, next to those of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin). Among the triggers is a discovery in the attic of the old house, a carefully wrapped flintlock -- the Obolé of the title -- figuring significantly in the family history, even as it hardly serves as much of a shot-gun. 'Obolé' mean orphan, and Irakli explains how she had been a: 'sister and companion, an unattainable sister and companion, and I longed for her'.
       Aside from the family history Irakli shares, and memories of his own childhood and past, he engages with a few of the locals, the outsider (though still with close ties to the community) who is warmly greeted and taken in. His arrival coïncides with tradition being continued in another way, with the preparations for a local who just passed away, Omdarié. This man had a wayward daughter, Madoné, who spent time in jail for theft and then drug-use, but after the fall of the Soviet Union she was amnestied and became a gang-leader back home -- a powerful (and feared) local figure. A legendary outlaw -- if only locally, never rising to national prominence -- she was still on the run, and wanted. And with the death of her father, the thinking was she might show up to pay her respects .....
       Mortschiladse nicely weaves in Georgian history -- both Soviet and earlier (and more recent) times -- and, especially, culture, both traditions as well as the well-known (locally ...) cultural landmarks, books and films. At one point Irakli finds himself feeling like he's in the 1950s wave of Georgian films, for example, while he alludes to many of the best-known Georgian works of literature -- echoes largely lost to foreign readers, regrettably, but at least one gets some sense of their general feel and tenor.
       The story-telling style allows for a sweeping look at the culture and traditions, Irakli losing himself in his memories and experiences ('Now I've completely forgotten what I wanted to say', he realizes at one point) -- though, as he observes:
Apparently Goergians aren't understood by the rest of the world, because they always reach back so far when they tell their stories. Both in the direct and the indirect sense. We are an unwieldy people, and others don't like this unwieldiness.
       Irakli certainly reaches back and all around here, but it's an appealing mix of anecdotes, memories, and history crisscrossing across generations, along with the scenes of contemporary everyday life -- out of the ordinary only because of the recent death of a local, and the brief return of Irakli.
       If most of Obolé putters along simply enough, with only a bit of historic drama thrown in -- exciting but distant small events -- Mortschiladse does ultimately give the story quite the twist with a final encounter that starts as a simple sort of chess game and then turns out to be something even more complicated, with Irakli -- and his trusty Obolé -- right in the middle of it. If Obolé long seemed the calmest of stories, the tension quickly ratchet up, in a successful final turn (which Mortschiladse then also cleverly resolves).
       Even as it seems effortless and casual, Obolé is surprisingly dense, giving a good, broad impression of many aspects of Georgian life and culture. An enjoyable -- and, in its final showdown scenes, surprisingly exciting -- read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 October 2018

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Obolé: Other books by Aka Morchiladze under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Georgian author Aka Morchiladze (აკა მორჩილაძე; actually: გიორგი ახვლედიანი) was born in 1966.

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© 2018 the complete review

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