In September 2017, my friend Kathy and I took a trip to Georgia. The first part of our trip is recounted in The Georgian Military Highway, and this takes up where the first post left off.
Svaneti is a mountainous region so remote that it was never tamed by any of Georgia’s rulers. Even in Soviet times it was pretty wild. It’s a landlocked area high in the Caucasus, famed for the square stone defensive towers where villagers took refuge in times of conflict. Blood feuds were big here until recent times. The dialect they speak is incomprehensible to other Georgians. Svaneti used to be fairly inaccessible, even in summer, but tourism is being developed, and the road that leads up from Zugdidi is being rebuilt. The main town, Mestia, now has ski-lifts, and flights from Tbilisi to the brand-new airport.
The road follows the Inguri river up into the hills, past the Jvari Reservoir, and up towards Mestia. Mist-wreathed mountains unfold into the distance, steep wooded slopes plunge into the ravine, and the trees are tinged with the last pink rays of the sunset. Night is falling, we’ve been driving all day, and everyone is tired. We stop at a roadside café so that Zaza can smoke, but a horde of howling dogs deters him from leaving the car. At the next café things are quieter. But then we hit the roadworks and our pace slows to a crawl. I wish I’d never come on this trip, mutters Kathy, halfway up the mountain.
We reach Mestia about nine p.m. It’s an austere mountain town. We are staying at an austere mountain hostel called the Hotel Svaneti. After the quirky bohemian Kisi in Tbilisi, it’s a bit of a shock. The staircase is steep with uneven treads, and the shower is a death-trap. There’s no bathmat, and no hairdryer. (What??) Reception is staffed by a limp pale girl who looks like the Dryad of the mountains, and is not used to dealing with entitled Western ladies of a certain age who require a certain degree of comfort. Offered a choice of two demoralizing rooms, we take the one alleged to have a view (it’s too dark to check). Dinner is the backpackers’ special – Georgian salad, lumps of cheese, and slices of odd-looking sausage – but then comes soup, which turns out to be just what we need. We clamber back up the neck-breaking staircase, and sleep remarkably well.
At dawn, the view appears. It’s a grey day and there’s mist on the mountains, but I count eleven square stone towers from the window. It’s quite a sight. Discarding plans to go further up the mountain to Ushguli (six hours there and back on an unpaved road), we spend the day in Mestia, where, sociologically speaking, there is plenty to see. We start off with coffee. It’s Nescafé only in the backpackers’ hostel, but Irma guides us to the perfect café just round the corner, where a morose Belarusian lady, who is tired of life in the mountains, serves us café cortado (a stronger, shorter version of cappuccino). It’s cooler than down in the plain, and you need a jacket.
Mestia is not very Soviet. Up here, time skipped a beat. What we see is twelfth-century stone towers and twenty-first century guest houses. The former are still inhabited, the latter not always. For one thing, the season is nearly over (the hiking trails are only open from June to September); for another, a lot of them are only half-built. The Saakashvili government paid to repair the façades, but put nothing behind them, no businesses and no shops. Mestia is a Potemkin village.
The Svans don’t have the usual dark Georgian complexion. They have light-coloured hair, and their eyes are blue or green. Might they be descendants of Vikings? Steppe peoples? Who knows? They glower resentfully at the tourists bustling through the town in search of Snickers and Kleenex and taxis to Kutaisi. The old men stand around looking lost, the young men operate the taxis. Old ladies sit in their shops with their crosswords, barely looking up when you go in to buy bottled water.
The municipal graveyard is romantically overgrown, and features tombstones with pictures of the deceased, and graves fenced in with iron railings to produce a kind of bedstead effect.
The Ethnography Museum is a well-laid out modern space with comfortable white couches to sit and contemplate the valley. It holds an amazing collection of icons from Svaneti’s churches. Eleventh-century Svan masters had a unique style, and certain icons depict St. George spearing, not the traditional dragon, but the Emperor Diocletian. (St. George was a Roman army officer who was executed in AD 303 for resisting Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.) Our guide explains that the Georgians settled in Spain, and named it Iberia, after Iveria, which is another name for the kingdom of Kartli. Well, why not? They might have shared their language with the Basques on the same trip.
The stone towers have three storeys, but the upper floors were used only in summer. In winter one stayed on the ground floor with the animals and tried to keep warm. The tower we visit has furniture dating from the fourteenth century. There are storage bins for flour, meat, and cheese; stalls for the animals; and a tunnel to communicate with the tower next door in case of enemy sieges. We stop at a roadside stall to buy the strong-tasting Svan salt that is a staple of much Georgian cuisine, and then it’s time for cooking class in a Svaneti farmhouse.
What strikes me as we walk in is how much the kitchen resembles that of my husband’s family in Normandy forty years ago. The same kitchen cabinets, the same long oilcloth-covered table that also serves as a work surface, the same bench against the wall, the wood-burning stove and the gas stove side by side. I’ve fallen through a place warp. Granted, Svan wood stoves aren’t exactly the same as the French variety. Also this kitchen serves a few extra functions, such as parlour, television room, and bedroom. Apparently four sons and their families also live in the house, so everyone has to squash up.
Dali has put on her best black dress to greet the tourists, and borrowed her neighbour’s kitchen because it’s bigger than her own. The neighbour slouches round a bit, watches the cooking, and then heads off to milk the cows. Dali shows us how to make kubdari, a kind of meat pie. The dough demands far too much kneading and rising ever to be undertaken in my household, and the meat filling is seasoned with Svan salt, regular salt, garlic, dill, coriander, pepper, and something called gitsruli, a herb found only in Svaneti. You flatten the ball of dough, add the meat mixture, pull the edges closed from underneath, and flatten some more. We’re allowed to try. After that the top is glazed with melted butter. Next comes khachapuri: you place the cheese on the dough, cover the cheese, then make a hole on top. Next comes chvishtari, cornbread with cheese, fried not baked. Next comes tashmujabi, mashed potato with cheese. Next comes dinner, and after that, if you’re not careful, comes indigestion. It’s hearty peasant food to keep out the cold. The winters are very hard and brutal here, says Dali. It’s all washed down by some noxious brew that reminds me of the pear-based stuff my father-in-law used to inflict on the unwary. Forewarned is forearmed, and I stick to pure mountain water.
When we’ve tasted everything, Dali relaxes, takes off her protective hairnet, and sits down to chat. In Soviet times, she used to manage a warehouse, and her husband ran a hotel that was frequented by the Party elite. Back then everyone had work. These days you need higher education or special qualifications to get a job. Despite that, she says that life is better now. One thing she regrets is that young people are in no hurry to get married and settle down. She has sons aged 40 and 35 who are still living at home. A Georgian movie called My Happy Family that I saw in Paris describes the attempts of a fiftyish lady called Manana to escape life under the same roof as her extended family (parents, husband, daughter, daughter’s boyfriend). Although she manages to move into a room of her own, she can’t escape family meddling. Something melancholy about Dali makes me wonder if there’s a Manana in her trying to get out.
Café Laila on the central square has reliable wifi, unfriendly waiters, and a sign that says Feel the Food. We order two glasses of Saperavi to make up for Dali’s farmhouse plonk, and I read Daniel Silva on the Kindle while Kathy deals with work-related e-mails. On the way back to the hotel, we run into Zaza. It’s nice to see a friendly face on the ill-lit streets. We’re pleased to see him and he’s pleased to see us, but beyond that we can’t communicate. Zaza never learned either Russian or English properly when he was at school. Kathy is working hard on the Georgian alphabet, but our spoken skills haven’t progressed much beyond Hello and Thank you. Fortunately Irma is a gifted interpreter, sliding effortlessly from Georgian to English to Russian as the occasion demands.
We’re late leaving Mestia next morning, partly because I need to wrest my laundry back from the Dryad (the clothes come back still damp, and she deducts one lari off the price per item), partly because we need more café cortado, and partly because we have to buy wine for the picnic we’re proposing to have with the leftovers from Dali’s kitchen. We get our reward in heaven. Driving down the mountain, the clouds drift apart and the summit of Mount Ushba appears above us. Ushba means The Road to Nowhere in Svan dialect. It’s one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus, and is often covered in cloud. Zaza stops the car, and we all leap out and take photos. Going down the mountain in daylight is a big improvement. The bends still make Kathy nauseous, but at least we can see the view. The cold grey waters of the Inguri river plunge down the mountain through ravines so deep that the sun never reaches the bottom, but when they reach the reservoir at the foot of the mountain they turn a startling green – the same colour as the Zhinvali reservoir the other day. Either there are some pretty amazing minerals in the soil, or some pretty amazing chemicals in the water.
Time for the picnic. Zaza stops the car in a likely spot, and Irma removes a bit of barbed wire fence to let us into the meadow. Are we allowed to do that? Of course! she says. Georgia is a big home for all Georgians and friends of Georgia! Zaza sets up the picnic table, Irma uncorks the wine, and we sit in the sun in the meadow eating Dali’s cold khachapuri and kubdari, drinking dry red wine. A Georgian flag, with its five red and white crosses, flaps behind us. Music by Laid Back (a Danish group) drifts over from the car: I’m a happy dreamer, I believe in love….
Batumi has a Mediterranean feel. The sun gleams on the Black Sea, the palm trees and the tangerine trees, and Irma’s favourite pale-blue café overlooking the port. At one end of the bay is a cluster of futuristic towers, and there’s a concert hall where the Black Sea Jazz Festival is held. After the chilly mediaeval austerity of Mestia, it feels like landing on Mars. No more hostels for us. For the next two nights we’re staying at the Sheraton.
The Sheraton gives the concept of bling a whole new dimension. The atrium is several storeys high and decorated with blow-ups of rock stars. Behind the reception desk are large fake bookshelves housing large fake books with heavily gilded spines. I’m not happy about the lack of respect for literature, but the receptionist is helpful and smiling, and a great improvement on the Dryad. Our room is on the eighth floor with a view over a building site on which another nouveau-Saudi edifice is under construction. Over the bath is a rain shower which can’t be turned on; behind the television is an elegant portrait of Margot Fonteyn in swan mode; and in the cupboard is an iron, which I use to salvage the rumpled laundry from Svaneti. Presumably this is the room where visiting oligarchs house their maids.
For centuries, Batumi was an Ottoman city. Annexed by the Russians in 1878, it expanded at the end of the nineteenth century when the oilfields in Baku were developed and a railway line was built to connect the Caspian to the Black Sea. The Old Town is still redolent of Caucasian belle époque, with elegant mansions and ironwork balconies. In 1884, a park was laid out along the seashore for visitors to take the air, and this has been recently revitalized with cafés, shops, fountains, and a 7-meter-high statue of Ali and Nino.
Ali and Nino is a Caucasian cult novel that was originally published in German in 1937. Set in Baku during World War I, it’s the story of a doomed love affair between an Azeri Muslim aristocrat and a Georgian Christian princess. The author’s name was Kurban Said, but no one knew who exactly he was until the 1990s, when Tom Reiss, a writer for the New Yorker, discovered that he was an expatriate Jew from Baku called Lev Nussimbaum, who had died in 1942 in Positano (see Reiss’ book The Orientalist).
The statue occupies a prominent position on the Batumi Bulvar, surrounded by tourists pointing their iPhones and local kids perfecting their dance moves. It’s best viewed at night. The two figures glide slowly towards each other, fuse for a moment, then glide away again. In the troubled Caucasian world of 1918, Ali and Nino had no place to make their lives. At the end of the book, Nino takes the last train to Tbilisi with their child, and Ali dies defending his country against the Russians.
A century later, not all that much has changed. With the collapse of Soviet power, age-old regional insecurities have returned to the surface, and all the small mountain peoples are jockeying for position. Abkhazia has seceded from Georgia, and so has South Ossetia. If Adjara did the same, Georgia’s territory would be drastically reduced, and it would have virtually no access to the Black Sea. But at the moment, this seems unlikely. For one thing, the Adjarans have been classified as Georgians since the 1930s, and the Turks (unlike the Russians) are not offering big-power support. For another, thanks to Saakashvili, Batumi has been given a face-lift, with eye-catching modern towers and a renovated Old Town, and turned into an attractive place to visit. Having destroyed Sukhumi, the Russians come here instead. The beach is pebbly, but there are lots of casinos.
Our next cooking class is supposed to be with Guguli in a village a few miles from Batumi, but it turns out to be with Zebo. Zebo is Guguli’s husband, a Charles Aznavour lookalike, former “revolutionary,” and shameless self-promoter. At the other cooking classes, the menfolk tend to drift away and let the women get on with it. This time Zebo takes over the show, and Guguli barely gets a word in edgeways. Since Kathy is from Virginia, which Zebo once visited on what seems to have been a fund-raising trip, he immediately bonds with her, and dresses her up in a traditional Georgian man’s costume, while Guguli and Irma stretch out the dough between them like a blanket for khachapuri achma, which resembles lasagne.
When we sit down to eat, he takes on the role of tamada (toastmaster) and proposes toasts to Peace, Love, Women, America (without which there would be no money), Villages (without which there would be no Georgia), the Virgin Mary (who is Georgia’s Protector), and Founders (the first people to settle in the village fifteen hundred years ago). Traditionally the toasts are always made in the same order. Sadly they are all drunk in village plonk. It’s wine they must have made last week, and it’s truly disgusting. I get by with just wetting my lips. Irma does the same.
This is our first glimpse of the supra, the Georgian feast. At Tamara’s, we experienced food as an event; at Dali’s, food as subsistence; but at Zebo’s, food is a ritual. The supra is a ceremony underpinning Georgian society, and it is not to be taken lightly (as you can see from the toasts.) A few days later in Tbilisi we see a painting by Pirosmani called Feast in a Grape Gazebo, which shows three dapper gentlemen holding their goblets aloft. The dog in the forefront of the picture looks reasonably cheerful, but the expressions on the faces of the three gents make it clear that feasting is a serious business.
Georgians are not the cheery hedonists that all the food and wine imply. They are mountain men: their life is hard. Their music is melancholy, their expressions are solemn, they are slow to smile. Showing hospitality to guests is a way of proving that they have overcome the trials of their existence. Life is hard, but there is a banquet on the table. It’s a matter of honour.
The next few days are frankly a bit of a blur. We’ve been on the road too long, and we’ve seen too much. We’ve also eaten far too much khachapuri. We knew we were getting cooking classes, but we didn’t realize we’d be expected to consume everything we made. A few things stand out:
At the Ajarian Wine House near Batumi, a bored youth gives us a perfunctory glimpse of the cellars, and a clueless girl provides us each with three half-glasses of different wines, pre-poured and taken straight from the fridge.
At Castello Mare, an imposing Gothic construction on the edge of the sea, we spend a lazy, food-free afternoon in the deserted, end-of-season spa.
In Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, we buy blue fenugreek, marigold powder, saffron and coriander in the indoor market, and visit the tomb of King David the Builder, where Saakashvili swore his oath to make Georgia united and strong.
Wandering through the cemetery in the rain, we see graves with the sculpted heads of the deceased, and tombs with little marble picnic tables where families can chat to their loved ones over lunch.
At Café Palaty, which has faded paint and flowered tablecloths and a pleasing old-world atmosphere, we discover Adjaran khachapuri, which is shaped like a boat and has an egg on top like the sun. Also butter. Very tasty.
Kutaisi is sadder and quieter than cosmopolitan Tbilisi, and has attracted less investment. In the nineteenth century, it was home to artists, poets, singers and intellectuals, but Stalin turned it into an industrial centre. The intelligentsia fled to Tbilisi, the peasants moved to Kutaisi to work in the factories, and after the Soviet collapse it went into decline. Irma grew up in Kutaisi. She remembers the 1990s as a difficult period. Shevardnadze failed to impose a strong central authority. There was no electricity, no water, no heat. It was best to hide your jewellery when you went out. As a student, she had to read her texts by the light of a kerosene lamp, and some days she was unable to get to the university to attend her classes. In 2012, Saakashvili attempted to give the city a new lease of life by transferring Parliament here, but the glitzy new building has failed to give the city the hoped-for boost. MPs come to town to attend debates, and rush back to Tbilisi as soon as they can.
We spend the night at the Tskaltubo Plaza, in a nearby spa town. Behind a façade reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel lurk narrow brown cells where you can barely open your suitcase. We have one more cooking class, and then it’s back to our loft at the Kisi.
Daji is an energetic lady in her mid-sixties with two hip replacements who bustles energetically round her kitchen heating clay dishes called ketsi on an open fire. When the dish is hot, she takes it off the flame, puts some rhododendron-type leaves called nesho in it, places a ball of cheese and dough on the leaves, and piles up the dishes beside the fire to cook. She’s starting to run out of clay dishes, she says, because they all eventually break. We sit down to eat. Daji gives us fire-baked khachapuri, then run-of-the-mill Imereti khachapuri, and when we think we’re done, she suddenly produces a Mingrelian khachapuri too. Guests are a gift from God. Taking on the role of tamada, she proposes toasts to Peace, Georgia, Good Relations between Georgia and the US, ditto Georgia and France, Friendship, Families, the Dead (Zaza’s father gets a mention here, and so does my husband), New Life, and the Virgin Mary. The wine is no better than usual, and to my dismay she makes me drink it – but then she produces home-made chacha, which is delicious, and goes down much better. The floor in Daji’s kitchen is of beaten earth, and her life seems harder than that of our other cooks, but her generosity is irresistible. She reminds me a bit of my mother-in-law. She’s a very nice lady.
So that’s the end of the Khachapuri Trail. The meal after that is a refined little urban snack in the Rooms Bar in Tbilisi. It feels good to be back in the city, drinking expensive cocktails in a stylish environment, even if the music is far too loud, and most of the clients are under twenty-five. When we ask the waitress to turn down the music, she says No, she can’t, it’s Friday night, and turns it higher. Bela joins us for a drink, but our attempts to discuss the future of Georgia and women’s role in society are drowned out, and we go home early.
Saturday morning is cold and grey. In the thirteenth-century Sioni Cathedral, which houses the sacred cross of St. Nino, people are queuing up for communion, and the priest is blessing the harvest. Someone gives sephiskveri to Irma (the equivalent of a communion wafer), and she gives one to each of us. It’s like a small bread dumpling with an image of the Madonna and Child. It’s sitting in a drawer of my desk.
Rustaveli Avenue is a wide modern boulevard laid out by the Russians in the nineteenth century as part of a plan to transform the old Persian city into a European metropolis. It’s named after Shota Rustaveli, the national poet, author of an epic entitled The Knight in the Tiger Skin (in some versions, Panther Skin). Protests and marches are generally held here, and a monument commemorates the nineteen hunger strikers killed by Soviet troops in 1989. After that it was downhill all the way to the conflicts of the 1990s.
In the National Gallery we see works by the nineteenth-century painter Pirosmani, who blends the naiveté of Douanier Rousseau with the mystical atmosphere of Chagall. We browse in the well-stocked English-language book store Prospero’s Bookshop, and take our elevenses in Caliban’s Café right next door (not great coffee). In the Dry Bridge flea market (so-called because the bridge spans a road, not the river), there are swords, jewellery, znachki, teaglass holders, and LPs of Sinatra and Bill Haley. It looks as though all the china cupboards of all the grandmothers in Tbilisi have been raided and put up for sale. On our way home, we spot a large white truck lying on its side at the bottom of a large muddy hole where an underground car park is under construction. It’s quite a shocking sight. Several men are standing round scratching their heads. It’s not clear how they’re going to get it out.
Back at the Kisi, the Saturday wedding parties are struggling up the hill for a photo-op in the Botanical Gardens. The cars get stuck in the narrow street, and the wedding guests – and some of the brides – have to trudge up the cobbles in their pink satin finery and stiletto heels. Down in the Sulphur Baths we are soaked in sulphur, scrubbed and kneaded on a marble slab, and sent back to soak some more. Not a pleasant experience. It serves us right for taking advice from people who have been there once (and once only).
Dinner is at the Café Littera in the Georgian Writers’ building with Irma, Zaza and Natia. The décor is gracefully old-fashioned, and the cuisine is deliciously nouvelle. The chef, Tekuna, is a friend of Irma’s. She spent seven years working in New York. Cheerfully admitting that traditionalists don’t like her way of doing things, she points out that Georgia’s position on the Silk Road has always opened its cuisine to outside influences. She still relies on time-honoured ingredients, she insists, she just uses them in a different way. Her food is delicious. Aubergines and beetroot blended into a walnut paste, Georgian yogurt sauce with pomegranate, shrimps kharcho on polenta, warm artichoke salad with danduri (Kakhetian herbs).
We’re due to leave Tbilisi on Sunday on the night train to Baku. Our final culinary treat is lunch at Barbarestan, one of Tbilisi’s best restaurants, which uses recipes from a book compiled by a nineteenth-century duchess called Barbare Jorjadze. The occasion is a lot more relaxed than our first dinner with Irma and Zaza at the Tsiskvili two weeks ago. Trundling round Georgia on bad roads in all weathers has forged ties that bind. If Irma and Zaza hadn’t been such nice people, the trip could have been a disaster. Barbare, born in 1833, was the first Georgian feminist. She died in 1895. The name of the restaurant means Place of Barbare. Two families manage it, and all the servers are family members. We have a table downstairs in the cellar, the décor is cosy, and the food is good. There are 806 recipes in the cookbook and they use 150 of them.
At the onset of the twenty-first century, Georgia is going back to its ancestral roots. Old cookbooks, old-fashioned décor, village traditions, regional cuisine. On one level they’re trying to wipe out the Soviet legacy, on another it’s just what they’ve always done. Unlike the Armenians with their far-flung diaspora, and the Azeris with their links to Turkey and Iran, Georgia looks inward, and cultivates its home-grown talents. Saakashvili’s attempt to build a united, outward-looking Georgian state with links to Europe collapsed, partly because of Europe’s preoccupation with issues closer to home, and partly because it doesn’t seem to have been what Georgians wanted. It must mean something that a party called the “United National Movement” was ousted by one called the “Georgian Dream.”
Since the Georgian Dream party took over, the country has been pretty much standing still. That might not be such a bad thing. Local conflicts have receded to the point where films can be made about them (Tangerines, Corn Island, Khibula). The big neighbour across the mountains has turned its attention elsewhere. The tourists, reassured, are flooding in. Khachapuri rules. The supra survives. Maybe that’s the Georgian Dream.
Once upon a time Georgia was promoted as the “Soviet Florida,” the land of exotic fruits and seaside resorts, where workers from frigid northern Russia could swim and relax in the sun and eat tangerines. A country of idiosyncratic folklore and quaint customs, it boasted its own Christian Church, its own curving script, and its own language isolate (contrary to rumour, Georgian has nothing to do with Basque). Reputed for food and wine and colourful hospitality, it stood out as a place to escape the ambient greyness. The daredevil Georgian mafia was the subject of many wild rumours (some of them true), and the best restaurant in Moscow was named for a Georgian river, the Aragvi.
Georgia’s reputation for food and wine still holds, so my friend Kathy and I sign up for a culinary tour with an outfit in Boston. It’s supposed to be a group tour, but there are no other takers, so the two of us travel on our own, with a driver and guide. We fly from Paris to Tbilisi in mid-September 2017. The connection in Amsterdam is tight, and our luggage doesn’t make the plane. But Irma, our guide, and Zaza, our driver, are waiting in Tbilisi to drive us to our hotel. Georgians believe that guests are a gift from God. For the next two weeks we are very well looked after.
The Hotel Kisi is located in the heart of Tbilisi Old Town, halfway up the hill to the Botanic Gardens. It’s a boutique hotel that belongs to a famous actress, with quirky décor, loft-style rooms, and a nonchalant atmosphere. The staff seem surprised to find themselves here doing this. The chambermaids loll around in the lobby chatting to the receptionist, the barman follows us round the breakfast buffet recommending this and that. Our room is on the top floor with an amazing view over Tbilisi, a vast terrace, and a leaky shower. Right across the road is a mosque where Shiites and Sunnites worship together. Natia, our tour coordinator, stops by to say hello (a refreshing change from the lady in Boston), and points us down the hill to the Meidan for dinner.
The Meidan was once the site of the main bazaar. It’s a good place to sprawl on sofas and watch the world go by. Cars flow across the Metekhi Bridge, cable cars float above our heads. The air is warm. We drink red Saperavi Merlot and eat our first khachapuri (the addictive cheese-filled bread which is a Georgian staple). The thirteenth-century Metekhi church with its conical-shaped Georgian dome looms on the rocky outcrop across the river. A fourth-century Persian fortress rears on the skyline behind us. We’ve reached the crossroads of East and West, where civilisations meet, and past and future collide.
Our first day begins with a city tour. Tbilisi is gorgeous. It has latticed windows, carved balconies, coloured façades, gorges where houses cling dangerously to the edge of the cliff, sulphur baths with brick domes and Islamic tiles. The sulphur springs gave the town its name (in Georgian tbili means warm). It was a Persian town until King Vakhtang Gorgasali moved his capital here in the fifth century. Later it was captured by Arabs who sailed up the Caspian from the Middle East, and stayed for 500 years. Beria got rid of most of the mosques in the 1930s, and churches dominate the modern skyline. In the Metekhi Church, headscarves are de rigueur, and the atmosphere is fervent. Irma crosses herself, and kisses the saint’s marble shrine. The Georgian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival since the Soviet collapse, and around half the population regularly attends church services.
Rike Park houses some of Tbilisi’s more recent constructions, built between 2004 and 2013 by President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili studied in New York, his English is fluent, his wife is Dutch, and during his tenure he did his best to drag the old Persian city into Europe and the twenty-first century. There’s an Italian-designed glass and steel footbridge across the Mktvari River called the Peace Bridge; two huge fusilli-shaped cylindrical buildings intended to house a concert hall and exhibition space (both currently empty); and a cluster of mushroom-shaped roofs belonging to the House of Public Service, which is where you go to get driving licenses, marriage certificates and the like. The glass walls symbolize openness. Crime and corruption were a way of life in Soviet times, and the mafia conjoined with the Party ran the country. When the Enemy was in Moscow, that was fine, but when Georgia became independent it proved difficult to found a democratic state on old-established habits of bribery, tax evasion, and resistance to authority. Saakashvili was the first to tackle the problem head on.
The cable car that swings across Old Town to the Narikala fortress is another of his innovations. On the hill overlooking the city beside the fortress is an aluminium statue of Mother Georgia, twenty meters tall, with a sword in one hand to destroy Georgia’s enemies, and a wineglass in the other to welcome Georgia’s friends. Further off sprawls a vast glass and steel complex belonging to a former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who resigned in 2013 after one year in office, the better to pull strings from behind the scenes apparently. Ivanishvili is a millionaire businessman with a finger in every pie, and the compound is a cutting-edge structure that reeks of money and looks as though it could launch rockets into outer space.
The cable car takes us back down to Rike Park, and we make our way past a huge concrete piano to the Peace Bridge. Roses carved in the pathways symbolize the Rose Revolution which brought Saakashvili to power. Close up, the Peace Bridge looks like the inverted sole of a very high-end running shoe. It’s time for a break, and Irma knows the perfect café. Our route takes us past the residence of the Georgian Patriarch, and the headquarters of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Party. (The party’s name comes from a song by Ivanishvili’s rapper son Bera. The party’s ideology is not entirely clear. Since taking power, it has reversed some of Saakashvili’s more drastic initiatives, but taken few of its own.) Café Gabriadze has a pleasant covered terrace, and wonderful lemonade. Kathy’s is flavoured with tarragon, and mine with mint. Next door is a quaint clock tower built by Mr. Gabriadze himself, with clockwork figures that pop out on the hour.
The last stop of the day is an exhibition of Colchis Gold at the Museum of Georgia. The kingdom of Colchis in western Georgia was where Jason travelled in search of the Golden Fleece. A chic lady in a white dress called Marina gives us a slightly condescending tour. The gold is impressive. Back at the Kisi, we are reunited with our luggage, which was expedited through Munich overnight. Kathy sets up a meeting with a friend of a friend called Bela, who teaches Georgian literature at the university, and turns out to have been Deputy Minister of Education in Saakashvili’s government. A bit taken aback by this revelation, we sit up straight and try to ask intelligent questions, but Bela is presumably used to the talk shows, and her answers are uncontroversial.
Off to dinner. The Tsiskvili offers Georgian music, Georgian dancing, and Georgian dishes in a vast restaurant complex beside the river, with a kitsch fake waterfall lit by garish blue light. Irma is enchanted to see the traditional blue and white tablecloths she remembers from her youth. It’s a slightly strained evening. We don’t know Irma and Zaza very well yet. The music twangs in a melancholy way. The chicken with blackberries, garlic and coriander is memorable. The dancing is hard to see, and harder to interpret. Our table is on a first floor balcony, the dancers are on the floor below, and we have to crane over a high balustrade to see them. The men perform flashy leaps and preen like peacocks, the women smile submissively and look at the floor. Saakashvili tried to bring Georgia closer to Europe, but it seems doubtful that the country would have adapted well to permissive Western mores. Patriarchal family traditions still hold sway, and houses where several generations live together are the norm. Bela tells us about an American exchange student who had been looking forward to a year of fun with hot Georgian chicks, but who only managed twice to get a girl to kiss him. Georgians are socially and sexually conservative, women are expected to be married by their mid-twenties, and unmarried couples living together are unheard of. Both Zaza (29) and Irma (40) are single. We can’t really ask why. It’s hard to be a Georgian man, says Zaza. It’s hard to be married to a Georgian man, retorts Irma.
Mskheta, a hour’s drive from Tbilisi, is where St Nino converted the Georgian King Mirian to Christianity in the fourth century. (Nino, just so you know, is a woman’s name.) The town is twinned with Leuville-sur-Orge, the town near Paris where the exiled Menshevik government of independent Georgia washed up after the Bolsheviks threw them out in 1921. (The last surviving member of that government, an aged gentleman called Mr. Tsintsadze, used to visit my boss at Radio Liberty in the 1970s.) The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, founded in 1010, houses the tombs of several Georgian kings and, it is reported, Christ’s Crucifixion robe. Outside the church is a St. Nino Cross. Traditionally made of vine branches, its arms point downwards. On the hill above the town is the most sacred place in Georgia, the Jvari Church, where King Mirian erected a wooden cross (Jvari means cross).
A few miles further on, we hit the Georgian Military Highway. Originally built by the Russians in the nineteenth century, it’s the quickest way north through the mountains to Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation. (It’s also the quickest way south from Russia down to Tbilisi.) The Caucasus forms the frontier between Russia and Georgia. The peaks are higher than the Alps, and only three roads cross the mountains. We pass rundown houses with gardens full of vines, and shacks selling tomatoes and strawberries and bottled water. Road signs are pointedly written in Georgian and English only (but if the big neighbour to the north gets riled, that won’t deter the tanks). The landscape is dry: it hasn’t rained for two months. Off to the right is the Zhinvali Reservoir, which is a striking shade of green. When it was built, it drowned three villages and two churches. When the water level is low, you can see the cupola of one of the churches.
We stop at Ananauri on the edge of the reservoir to visit the fortress of the Dukes of Aragvi. In the Church of the Assumption, I light a candle for my husband, who died of cancer eight years ago. Not something I usually do, but it feels right. Back on the highway, Zaza skilfully weaves his huge white Mitsubishi between the trucks heading north from Turkey. Dusty Springfield sings Son of a Preacher Man on the car’s sound system. We stop for lunch at a roadhouse with the Aragvi River bubbling past. Lunch consists of khinkali, a dumpling containing meat or mushrooms. You hold the twist of pastry on top and bite delicately into the dumpling to avoid spilling the contents down your chest. It’s an art. Soon after lunch, we cross the Aragvi and the road climbs into the mountains. A series of hairpin bends leads us to Gudauri, a popular ski resort, which offers a range of Alpine-style chalets with names like Hotel Carpe Diem, Hotel Ozone, and Hotel Edelweiss. The sun pours down. An eagle hangs in the air above the slopes, sheep graze on the hillside, a paraglider sails past. A cross marks the Jvari Pass at 2,400 metres.
The Rooms Hotel has a prime location on the hillside opposite Mount Kazbegi (5,000 m). The vast outdoor terrace offers amazing views across the valley. The long indoor bar has deep couches and well-filled bookshelves. Kathy has been sick all day, and she falls straight into bed. In the sauna, I meet Anne-Marie, who worked with an international organization in west Georgia in the 1990s, and returned ten years later. She fills me in on local conflicts while we quietly perspire, observing that none of the different national groups have any major grievances. They hurl insults at each other during negotiations, then exchange cordial greetings once the session is finished, and ask after each other’s families. The hourglass in the sauna hits the ten-minute mark. Outside, the sun is setting behind Mount Kazbegi. Anne-Marie mentions that she’s travelling with an old friend who is a member of the Gamsakhurdia family. Really? I prick up my ears. Zviad Gamsakhurdia is the man responsible for quite a few of the local conflicts. He was Georgia’s first president after Independence: a man with a mission, a die-hard Georgian nationalist.
In Soviet times, the Republic of Georgia controlled autonomous territories belonging to three small mountain peoples: the Abkhaz, the Adjars and the South Ossetians. What began as a matter of Soviet administrative convenience spiralled out of control when the USSR began to collapse. When Georgia demanded independence from the Soviet Union, the autonomous areas demanded independence from Georgia. Gamsakhurdia riposted that “the territory of the sovereign republic of Georgia is united and indivisible,” and did his best to fan the flames, informing the Adjarians that they were not “proper” Georgians, and the South Ossetians that they were only “guests” in Georgia. It did not end well. Elected president of Georgia in May 1991, he was forced into exile eight months later. By then the economy had collapsed, and the country was controlled by armed militias. Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been Republican First Secretary before serving as Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, was invited to come and sort things out. He was partially successful. An agreement was reached with South Ossetia in June 1992, but war with Abkhazia broke out in August. The Russians intervened on the Abkhaz side; most Georgian residents fled; Sukhumi, the capital, was devastated.
Anne-Marie’s friend Madame Gamsakhurdia was one of the Georgians who fled Abkhazia. She now lives in Tbilisi. Abkhazia has seceded from Georgia, but remains a ghost nation recognized only by Russia. Zaza, our driver, lost his father to the conflict when he was four.
The Tsminda Sameba church sits on top of a hill, with Mount Kazbegi rising behind it. This is where Prometheus was chained after stealing fire from the gods. In 1988, the Soviet authorities constructed a cable car to get up to Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) from the valley, but the villagers thought it defiled their sacred place and destroyed it. The road up to the church is a horrendous series of hairpin bends potted with holes and strewn with rocks, but the views from the top are amazing. Kazbegi rears into the pale blue sky, cotton wool clouds float past its summit, a breath of eternity hovers around us.
On the way down the mountain we pass the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, an odd circular structure built in 1983 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Georgievsk two hundred years earlier. The treaty established eastern Georgia as a protectorate of Russia, putting an end to centuries of Persian influence. A fateful decision.
We’re now on our way to Kakheti, modern Georgia’s main wine-growing area. Around four we stop for lunch in Tianeti. It’s very hot. The restaurant has a shady first-floor veranda, and the menu features mainly butter and cheese – melted cheese, moulded cheese, dough with cheese – khachoerbo, dambalkhacho, gamosula. Only two kinds of cheese were available in the USSR, so they have to make up for lost time.
Grapes have been cultivated in Georgia for at least 8,000 years and Georgians may have been the world’s first wine drinkers. Georgia has more than 400 kinds of wine, and drinking wine at table is central to the collective identity. At the Shumi winery, we see how Georgian wine is traditionally produced. After the grape harvest, the grapes are placed in clay jars called kvevri, buried in soil and gravel, covered with a glass sheet, and left for six months to ferment. The constant temperature underground allows for optimal fermentation. By the spring, the fermented liquid will have risen to the top of the jars and the skins will have dropped to the bottom. The wine is then transferred either to oak barrels or another kvevri to age. The grapeskin pulp is transformed into chacha, a kind of grappa. In Soviet times, wine-making was geared to the Russian taste for sweet wine, and semi-dry reds still lurk on restaurant menus to trap the unwary. Irma steers clear of these, and we follow her lead. After the visit, we taste two of the kvevri wines: white Tsinandali, which is a bit too sweet for my taste, and red Mukuzani, a bit too heavy.
Today is our first masterclass in Georgian cuisine, given by a Georgian cook in her own home. At Vakirelebi, we are received by Tamara. Tamara is half-Georgian, half-Russian, born in Moscow, lived for a while in Istanbul, worked as an event organizer, and speaks excellent English. The house belongs to her parents-in-law and Tamara’s project is to present traditional cuisine to tourists with the help of her mother-in-law, Eka. Tamara has turned Eka’s passion for cooking into a business, and the result is a feast of traditional dishes made with home-grown ingredients.
Before we have lunch, Marika from next door shows us how to make churchkela, walnuts threaded on a string and coated in a thick caramel sauce derived from grape juice. We’ve seen it hanging on pegs at roadside stalls and now we’re given the chance to dip the walnut string in the caramel ourselves, swish it round and pull out the string fully coated. The strings are hung up to dry, and we move upstairs to the shady first-floor veranda for lunch. A spread of dishes including catfish with coriander, mushrooms with tarragon, and aubergines with walnut paste awaits us.
After that, there’s shashlyk grilled over vine branches (makes it juicier), and then Eka shows us how to make the walnut paste for the aubergines. The ingredients include blue fenugreek, marigold flowers, and celery leaves. Chickens wander through the yard, and the trees are heavy with fruit. The view stretches across the valley to the distant hills. It’s the perfect place to spend a drowsy summer afternoon listening to Irma and Tamara discussing how a dish can vary from one place to another, and how exploring local traditions brings people to a clearer sense of their own identity.
Signaghi, just down the road, has the feel of a Tuscan hill town. There are wonderful views from its ramparts across the valley to the Caucasus, some nice buildings, and a charming cobbled square. But Kathy is still feeling ill, and today I am too, so after a rather nasty trip to the municipal WC we decide to cut short the visit and drive back to Tbilisi.
Back at the Kisi, it’s Friday night. Loud Georgian rock music blasts up the hill from the cafés down by the river. Kathy wants to see a doctor, so Irma whisks her off to the emergency room in a modern hospital that caters to foreigners. Diagnosed with Traveller’s Diarrhoea, re-hydrated, told to take something called Cipro, she returns to the Kisi at half-past one in the morning.
Next day we set off for western Georgia, stopping first at Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up coffee. Coffee is not the Kisi’s best thing, and “elevenses” are becoming a tradition in our little family. A sign on the outskirts of the city wishes us a Happy Journey in English. It’s 1,715 km to Istanbul and 942 km to Ankara. At Tserovani, we pass a vast refugee camp for Georgians who fled South Ossetia when war broke out nine years ago. When Saakashvili came to power in 2004, he swore on the tomb of the twelfth-century ruler King David the Builder to “restore [Georgia’s] wholeness and become a united, strong state.” Abkhazia had been sewn up by the Russians by then, but Saakashvili got rid of the corrupt regime in Adjara in 2005. Then he attempted to do the same in South Ossetia, but the plan misfired. Open hostilities broke out in 2008, the Russians came to the aid of the South Ossetians, the West failed to give Saakashvili the support he expected, and Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent republic in August 2008. Another ghost nation. Since then Russia has been discreetly attempting to unite South Ossetia with North Ossetia on the Russian side of the Caucasus by surreptitiously moving border fences when no one is looking. Every time the Russians come to Georgia they take something from us, says Irma.
The road to Kutaisi is a fast four-lane highway. The land is flat and fertile with mountains in the distance on either side. Today we’re hearing songs by a Georgian-Irish singer called Katie Melua. We pass Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, without stopping. (Probably we ought to, but we can’t quite face it.) The highway ends 100 km from Tbilisi. Crossing Mount Likhi, we enter western Georgia, which used to be a different kingdom. Modern Georgia was pretty much created by the Russians, who pulled a patchwork of small states together in the nineteenth century. Kartli, the area around Tbilisi, gave its name to the whole country, which Georgians call “Sakartvelo.” The name “Georgia” that outsiders use derives from the Persian “Gurjistan.”
West Georgia was once the Kingdom of Colchis, Jason’s Land of the Golden Fleece. Sheep’s fleeces were used in ancient times to sieve precious metals in the rivers, which is how the Fleece became Golden. In West Georgia it rains more, and the landscape is less arid. Barbie-pink bus shelters stand by the side of the road, and cows wander across the highway. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole sings Over the Rainbow. Kathy and I join in. There seem to be no speed limits on the roads, and Georgians drive as fast as poor road surfaces and meandering cows will let them. Zaza handles his SUV safely and skilfully, but somewhere between Khashuri and Kutaisi he’s stopped by the police for crossing a white line. He loses 30 points out of 100 on his driving licence, and has to pay a fine of 200 lari. For a while, this slows him down.
Cutting round the edge of Kutaisi, we head northwest to Zugdidi. This is Mingrelia, home of Lavrenty Beria and the Gamsakhurdia family. The main drag is named for Konstantin, Zviad’s father, who was a well-known writer. We stop for lunch at four at the Diaroni restaurant. The weather is greyer and colder than in Tbilisi. The restaurant is surrounded by unlovely high-rise buildings. We were supposed to have a cooking class, but the waiter claims that the kitchen is under renovation. It’s just as well. It’s getting late, and we still have to drive up the mountains to Svaneti.
The second part of this trip is described in the post: The Kitchen On Top Of The Caucasus.
Originally published on the internet, back in olden times when e-books were new and shocking, The Angels of Russia was the first e-book to be submitted for the prestigious Booker Prize. It’s the story of Sergei, a Soviet dissident, who meets Stéphanie, a French student, in Leningrad, and persuades her to marry him so he can leave the country. But Sergei is not all he seems, and his real target is a woman who defected to France twenty years earlier. A review in the Times Literary Supplement described the book as a “sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika.”
Here’s a short excerpt:
My cousin Stéphanie arrived in Leningrad in February 1986. It was her first trip to the Soviet Union. Russia had possessed her since she was a child, not the grey utilitarian empire of Lenin and Stalin, but a romantic fairytale Russia of izbas and palaces, haunted aristocrats and mad gamblers, golden domes and white nights. For nearly all her life, Russia had been the meeting point of her mind and her emotions, as she waited steadfastly to make the journey in the flesh. But during that brief six-month stay in the USSR, the poetic soul of Russia eluded her: what she encountered instead was Lenin’s ghost.
In February 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just under twelve months. Gorbachev was the first General Secretary for years who could walk unsupported and talk in coherent sentences: the knight on the white charger come to save the system. Fortress USSR, though still outwardly imposing, was mined on the inside by mould and dry rot, over-centralization and inertia. Gorbachev’s first twelve months in office had been spent cleaning house: clearing the old, dead-wood Brezhnevite officials out of the Party lumber room, urging the population at large to drink less, work more, and to speak out openly about any societal shortcomings that had caught their attention.
Stéphanie had not paid attention to any of this. She was not in the habit of taking notice of trivial things like the deficiencies of the Soviet economy, nor was she going to get excited over a bout of hiring and firing in the Central Committee. Stéphanie had come to Leningrad to research her master’s thesis on Pushkin, and she spent most of her time in the nineteenth century. Gorbachev’s attempts to mobilize the masses passed her by completely. Glasnost and perestroika left her unmoved. Even the explosion of Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant failed to make much impact on her — a triumph, of course, for Soviet media coverage of the event, which had been designed with precisely that in mind. It was three days before the television news got around to mentioning that a reactor had been “damaged” and that measures were being taken to “eliminate” the consequences of the accident. Why alarm people by telling them that fifty tons of radioactive fallout have been released into the atmosphere and that the fire is still burning?
The wind blows north from Chernobyl towards Sweden, passing not far from Leningrad on its way, but it was several months before Stéphanie discovered that the reactor had burned for five days and that thousands of people had been irradiated. Foreign newspapers were hard to come by in 1986 in Leningrad, and she had no radio set on which to tune in non-Soviet radio stations. In any case, she lived in a pre-nuclear age. Nothing that happened after World War I held any importance for her. This was a recurring source of aggravation at family dinners, and my father, Stéphanie’s uncle, sometimes got quite annoyed about it. But Stéphanie was nothing if not obstinate. The books she read were by nineteenth-century authors, the concerts she attended were by nineteenth-century composers — in both cases, preferably Russian. When Sergei saw her for the first time, standing alone in front of the Philharmonia Theatre in Leningrad, she was waiting to hear the Symphonie Pathétique.
It was a Sunday evening in May. On Arts Square, next to the Philharmonia, the tulips were in bloom. Sergei could tell she was a foreigner just by looking at her. The clothes, of course, were an immediate giveaway. The pullover was cashmere, not acrylic, and the trousers were of a cut and shape never beheld in local emporia. But more than that, there was something about the way she held herself, and her skin too had some kind of inner glow that Soviet faces didn’t have.
He went on watching her. The pavement around her was emptying, the concert was about to start. She was looking around, biting her lip, craning her neck for a glimpse of the friends who had failed to show up, casting occasional irritated glances at her watch. The latter looked expensive, even from a distance. Probably Swiss, thought Sergei, glancing at his own battered Soviet model. Five minutes to eight. The concert was about to start. Time to make his move. He left his observation post by the statue of Pushkin in the middle of the square, and sauntered towards her. She was searching for something in a capacious leather bag. By now the pavement was deserted. She caught sight of him and, to his astonishment, marched decisively towards him.
“Excuse me, do you have a dvushka?”
In 1986, dvushki were like gold dust in Leningrad. They were the two-kopek coins that you needed to operate public phone boxes, and people hoarded them jealously. In spite of himself, Sergei hesitated before digging in his pocket and reluctantly handing one over.
“Here you are.” He managed a smile, and she smiled back. Her long dark hair fell like a curtain round her face, her features were perfect, her cheeks were smooth. There was something luminous about her. None of this had been evident on the photo they had shown him. Sergei watched her walk over to the phone box with a distinct feeling of dismay.
The Judas Tree reviewed for The Paris Readers’ Circle by Dick Aherne
Patricia le Roy’s The Judas Tree is a fascinating, tortuous tale of the atrocious behaviour of the then-East Germany’s internal security agency, the STASI. The French writer Henri de Montherlant observed, “one writes of happiness in white.” The Judas Tree by contrast is black, unrelievedly black.
But lack of sprightliness in the face of horror is no sin. Above all le Roy’s is a story of normal people trapped in what seems a no-win situation. And she has the courage to end it that way: no one wins.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall we learned that the STASI had, among many many other things:
– surreptitiously organized and financed Adolf Eichmann’s legal defence team for his trial in Israel
– financed and trained members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, at its time the most notorious of terrorists and assassins in West European democracies
– encouraged and financed neo-Nazis in West Germany, promoting their all-too-often-successful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in West Germany
– made it seem to many that the US was responsible for HIV/AIDS. The early years of AIDS were frightening times, and the many STASI deceptions – forged documents, phony endorsements, and so on – often convinced people, especially in the Third World.
For the last 32 years of East Germany’s existence STASI’s director was a German sent by Stalin to Spain during the 1936-39 civil war. His mission was to locate and assassinate any among Russia’s “allies” who seemed insufficiently supine before Stalin’s wishes. Socialists and other leftists were murdered by the hundreds, while Russia’s contribution to the actual war – with Franco’s armies – was minimal.
Le Roy dramatically makes clear though that to write off STASI – and thus East Germany – as a sort of dry, adjectival, and ultimately tragic history misses the point. The real story is what was done to individuals: how hopes were killed, emotions seemed dangerous, friendships were risky, one’s own family owed a higher loyalty to the state than to its members. And internal debates and uncertainties could easily become, literally, matters of life and death.
It is an unusual book stylistically. Each key character expresses, seriatim, in his or her own words, their emotions, hopes and wishes, and eventual disillusionment. They come together at the end but not – as one might’ve expected in opera, for example! – in a grand rhapsodic resolution. Instead we simply learn the by-then-expected reason for the principal character’s death, and must think our way through the rest.
The unusual structure takes a little getting used to. Think for example of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. At first it seems an odd collection of disparate images, united only by their media – paint and canvas. But keep looking, and your eye gradually tells you there’s more than paint and canvas, there’s a person. Moving. And you are privileged to realize you’re actually seeing three dimensions, though only two appear.
The Judas Tree gives the reader two gifts. First, most of us need its kind of encouragement to think seriously about the way we human beings behave in everyday life. Second, by encouraging careful contemplation of each element it allows us to see images and colors in ways not at first evident.
My sister died on a steep stretch of road on the edge of the Cévennes. She was twenty-eight years old. What she was doing on that isolated road between St Jean du Gard and Mialet we never discovered. She had borrowed my car at ten o’clock on a clear summer morning, ostensibly to run an errand in Avignon. When she failed to appear for lunch, we started to wonder where she was, but by the time the gendarmes appeared in the middle of the afternoon, we had scarcely begun to worry. Anne had always been unpredictable. Her car had gone off the road at high speed and plunged into the ravine. It had careened down the slope, overturned, and finally come to a halt at the bottom of the gully. Anne had not been wearing her seatbelt. She had died instantly of a blow to the head. She had also sustained a broken neck and several other injuries.
At the time of the accident, there were no other cars in the vicinity, and no pedestrians. Two cyclists who had been standing on the Pont des Abarines at the bottom of the valley, admiring the view, heard the roar of the car engine hurtling round the bend, followed by a series of thuds and crashes and the noise of rending undergrowth. What they did not hear was the screech of brakes, and there were no signs of brake marks on the road. When my sister realized she had lost control of the car, she had been too scared to react. She had been literally paralyzed with fright. By the time the cyclists toiled up the road on their bikes, the woods were quiet again and the hum of insects had resumed. All they could see from the road was a wide trail of broken ferns and uprooted trees, and a thin wisp of smoke rising from the bottom of the ravine.
Preparing the funeral was a nightmare. My mother was hysterical, and I had never seen my father so shaken. Olivier and I had to do everything. He dealt with the funeral arrangements, and I dealt with the family. Since he was a psychiatrist, it would probably have been better the other way around, but we didn’t have the choice. I was the one who had met Matthias, and I was the one who spoke German. It was me who had to call him in Leipzig to tell him what had happened. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. For several minutes, neither of us could speak.
“The funeral,” I managed in the end. “We thought next Tuesday. Will that give you time?”
“I won’t come to the funeral,” he said.
“You won’t come?”
“I can’t, I… Sophie, I…”
“All right. All right. I understand.”
“Forgive me, I …. We were supposed to go to Uzès together. All that way without her, knowing she… I just…. ”
“It’s all right. Don’t worry.”
“You must come when you can. When you feel like it. Later. When ….”
“Yes, I will.”
I made no attempt to try and change his mind. It seemed like a reasonable decision. He was in shock. His aunt was ill. He had never travelled to the West before. If the truth be told, I was relieved. We had enough to do without coping with him too.
I expected him to appear a few months later, when the rawness of the emotion had worn off. But he didn’t come. I wrote several times, inviting him to stay with us, but there was never any answer. We heard nothing from him, except for a printed card to say his aunt had died. After a while, I stopped writing. I began to accept that he would never come.
But in the spring of 1993, he finally called.
When the phone rang, I was in the studio. The weather was warm, and the window was wide open. It had rained earlier in the day, and the scent of thyme came sharp into my nostrils.
“Sophie?” a voice said hesitantly. “Hier ist Matthias.”
“Matthias?” I said incredulously.
“Yes, I… I did not know…. I did not want…”
I let him stutter. I had been annoyed by his failure to answer my letters, and saddened too. My eyes met those of the Ambassador across the room. He stared out of the canvas, watching me, waiting to see what I was going to do.
After a moment, Matthias pulled himself together, switched into French, asked how I was, and apologized for his failure to keep in touch. I waited for him to explain why he hadn’t answered my letters. Instead, he inquired, in his formal German way, if it would be possible for him to travel to Uzès and pay us a visit.
“Now?” I said.
My first impulse was to tell him he couldn’t come. Not any more. Now now. I would have welcomed the chance to see him and talk to him three years ago, but I no longer wanted to do so. Now he belonged to the past. It had taken me a long time to put Anne’s death behind me. I did not want to have to deal with this husband of hers, appearing years after the event, opening old wounds, asking unanswerable questions.
But of course I said none of this. The Ambassador gazed at me with his mute ironic smile. With a mixture of foreboding and annoyance, I heard myself inquiring after train times and arranging to pick him up the following Tuesday. Yes, Avignon, the TGV from Paris, and we all looked forward to seeing him.
When I hung up, I remained quite still, with my hand on the receiver, looking out of the window. The hill behind the house was bright with flowers. Matthias was coming. After all this time, he had decided to come to France.
So what had happened to change his mind?
The Judas Tree is the story of a betrayal. How it began, and what caused it. Who was hurt. Who was destroyed. Treachery in all its forms has intrigued me for years, and lurks at the core of nearly all my books. IM is the abbreviation used by the former East German secret police to denote their informers. It stands for Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or Unofficial Collaborator – a delicate euphemism if ever there was one. When I began to read about the Stasi files, I realized I had discovered traitorousness cum laude. Betrayal as a way of life. It doesn’t get worse than this.
My story begins in 1985. Anne leaves Provence to study for a year in Leipzig. She falls in love with Matthias, marries him, and settles in East Germany. She is a violinist, he is a cellist. They play music together, and stay out of politics. But in 1990, visiting her family in Uzès, Anne is killed in a car crash. Matthias is devastated. He does not attend her funeral. He declines invitations to visit. Until, three years later, he abruptly announces that he is coming to France. Anne’s parents and her sister Sophie are perplexed. Why is he coming now? What has happened to change his mind?
Matthias stays with Sophie and her husband Olivier at their house near Uzès. He is dazzled by the light and colours of the Provençal spring. Back home in Leipzig, it’s still winter, but Sophie’s garden is alive with the colours of spring. While Olivier is at work in the hospital, and Sophie is restoring pictures in her studio, Matthias sits on the terrace, on the bench beneath the deep pink blossoms of the Judas tree, and plays his cello. He is profoundly troubled, that much is clear, but Sophie is hesitant to ask what he is doing in France.
As for Matthias, he doesn’t know how to tell her why he has come. How can you explain to someone who has not lived in East Germany what it was like? How can you explain what people did and why they did it? Two weeks earlier he saw his secret police file. It has turned his world upside down.
The Stasi had ninety thousand full-time employees and about twice that number of IMs. They infiltrated every aspect of East German life. People were forced to inform on families and friends, and everything they said went into the files. When Germany reunified, the files were opened and everyone was able find out who had informed on them. Many people got unpleasant surprises. Matthias is one of them.
I started reading about the Stasi files in 1999. That gave me the idea for The Judas Tree. My daughter was studying in Leipzig that year. I paid her a visit, stayed a few days, walked around town, and tried to imagine what it must have been like ten years earlier. I had introductions to a lawyer and a university teacher, who between them told me a lot about life in the DDR, though they both turned evasive when the Stasi came up.
I visited the former Stasi headquarters, now home to the Gauck Behörde, the agency that controls the files, and explained that I was doing research for a novel. I didn’t get to look at any files – people are only allowed to see their own – but a very helpful lady showed me round, provided indispensable trivia on how the file numbering system worked and what colour the files were, and gave me a glimpse of the reading room where people went to have their souls turned inside out. She was too young to have had a file herself. She said that, for some people, reading their file can be a life-shaking experience: “Sie müssen zurück in ihrer Seele gehen.”
I used Provence as the framework of the book because I wanted a relaxed, aesthetically pleasing West European setting to contrast with glum communist Leipzig. The contrast worked two ways: I could show the dour, traumatized DDR through the eyes of a naïve young foreign student (Anne), and depict lush, romantic Provence from the viewpoint of a middle-aged man who has never travelled outside his own country before (Matthias).
Uzès is an enchanting town, and I’d been there several times visiting friends who have a house in the garrigue. (Technically, no, it’s not Provence, but it’s not very far away.) I stole my friends’ house, plagiarized their children’s childhood memories, and made them drive me round local cemeteries looking for Anne’s final resting place.
We made a trip to the Musée du Désert, and I worked out the story of Matthias’ ancestors who emigrated to Germany. “Le Désert” is how French Protestants refer to the century between the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the French Revolution when they were forced to worship in secret.
Visiting another friend in Anduze, I located Emmanuelle’s house and chose the scene of the car crash.
The events of The Judas Tree are related by eight different narrators. Sadly, publishers hated this, but it was the only way to do it. None of the characters is quite what they seem. Everyone has secrets, they all know things that no one else does, and they all know things they cannot share with anyone else. They tell the reader what they cannot tell each other. We learn what Matthias cannot tell Sophie, what Anne could not confess to Matthias, what Olivier is reluctant to tell Sophie about her sister.
Conflicting accounts of life in East Germany come from Werner, the dissident who believes that his ideals have been travestied; Dieter, the Stasi officer who thinks what he did was justified; and Anne, who is trapped into doing what she never thought possible. In his review of The Judas Tree, the literary blogger Paul Samael writes that the book “brilliantly conveys the emotional/psychological impact of the Stasi’s grip on East German society, reminding us just how insidious and corrosive a force it was.”
Researching the Stasi was a peculiarly unpleasant experience. I couldn’t sit and read about the organization and its operating methods for more than an hour or two. I needed to breathe fresh air. The Stasi did not have the same reputation for brutality as the KGB. It used means other than violence to reach its ends. It did enormous psychological harm. There were no physical wounds and no death camps, but that doesn’t mean it left no scars. They were invisible, that’s all.
The German word for what the Stasi did is Zersetzung, which defies translation. The aim of the Stasi was to destroy DDR citizens from within. Its goal was to undermine their sense of self.
In the Gulag or the torture chamber there is you and there are them. You know where the boundaries are. But in the antechambers of the Stasi, you fuses with them and them with you. They creep insidiously under your skin and into your pores, they follow you, they inform on you, they pick through your things. Your will seeps away, and your identity with it. The KGB evokes outrage, and the Stasi profound disgust.
I set the East German part of the book in Leipzig for two reasons. One, because most non-German writers stick to Berlin; and two, because what happened in Leipzig fits in perfectly with my story. For years Leipzigers attended Peace Prayers every Monday evening to protest the missiles that Soviets and Americans were positioning on German soil. The Friedensgebet was held in a historic Leipzig church, the Nikolaikirche. The Protestant Church had always enjoyed a relatively protected status in East Germany, due to the stand it had taken against the Nazis. During the 1980s, as discontent with the regime grew, people saw the church as a place they could go to speak about their problems, learn about other people’s, and feel they were not alone.
In 1989, the congregation of the Nikolaikirche started to hold a silent march in support of free emigration. By then people were fleeing the DDR in their thousands. First they fled through Hungary into Austria; later they stormed the walls of West German embassies in Budapest, Warsaw and Prague. The bemused elderly leaders were incapable of reform. “Would you feel obliged to decorate your flat if your neighbour decorated his?” demanded General Secretary Honecker. All they knew was repression. More police were sent to the Monday night demonstrations. Leipzigers were undeterred. The number of marchers went from five hundred to ten thousand in the space of a month.
One of the demonstrators on the street is Anne. She has been attending the Peace Prayers for months. Despite the danger, she rejects Matthias’ pleas to stay away. On Monday October 9, 1989, there are rumours that the police will shoot. Matthias begs her not to go. Anne stands firm. Matthias goes with her. There are seventy thousand marchers on the Leipziger Ring that night. The police hold their fire. There is no violence. The marchers are carrying candles. You need two hands to carry a candle: one to hold it, and one to protect the flame and stop it going out. You cannot carry stones or sticks as well.
“We had planned everything,” said a member of the Central Committee later. “We were prepared for anything. Only not for candles and prayers.”
The Leipzig demonstration deals a death-blow to the regime. One month later, the Wall comes down. The nightmare is over.
Or is it? Anne’s relief turns to terror as it becomes clear that Germany will reunify, and the Stasi files will be opened. Matthias will see his file, and discover the truth she has tried to conceal. What is she to do? No one can help her. Julien, her father, admits that when she came to him for advice he had none to give. Luise, her mother, has never got past the tragedy she lived through as a child in wartime Germany, when her father Ernst betrayed his family to the Gestapo.
Sitting under the Judas tree in Sophie’s garden, lost and desperate, Anne comes to think that, like her grandfather Ernst, she has only one way out.
January 2017: An updated version of The Judas Tree is available on Kindle, and a new print edition will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.
Malta sits in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, midway between Sicily and Tunis, Istanbul and Gibraltar. The island was colonized by Phoenician traders, Roman warriors, Islamic armies, and Norman warlords from Sicily. In 1530, the Emperor Charles V presented it to the Knights of St. John. The legacies of the invaders are still visible. The Phoenicians left boats, the Romans left villas, the Arabs left language, and the Knights left everything else.
Valletta was named for one of the sixteenth-century Grand Masters, Jean de la Valette. It rises behind huge honey-coloured walls on a rocky peninsula with deep natural harbours on either side. The coast on this side of the island is a maze of creeks and inlets. Beach resorts stretch away to the north; fortified towns crouch on headlands to the west. My friend Julianne and I are staying in Sliema, in a hotel astutely chosen (or so I thought) for its waterfront views. When we arrive, it’s already dark. The balcony is all we hoped, and the views of Valletta are stunning, but I am mortified to discover that the main road from the capital to the beaches thunders right beneath our windows. Booking.com didn’t mention that. We sleep with everything closed tight and the A/C on full blast.
Next day is Saturday: warm and humid and slightly cloudy. The hotel continues to be not quite what we hoped. The wifi demands a password each time you connect, the towels are threadbare, the toiletries meagre. The breakfast buffet features full-English grease, blancmange-textured yoghurt, flabby croissants, and miniature pea pasties (a bit of a shock, that one). Still, the room is spacious, and the staff are friendly. Crossing the harbour on the Sliema ferry, the sixteenth-century ramparts that guard Valletta take your breath away. Constructed in limestone by the Knights of St. John, they have been recently restored and they look fabulous.
The Knights of St. John were soldiers and monks, and their Order was founded during the Crusades. Kicked out of the Holy Land in 1291, they took refuge first in Cyprus, and then in Rhodes. In 1523, the Ottomans expelled them from Rhodes. They were settled in Malta seven years later on the understanding that they would keep on fighting. The road up the hill from the harbour is steep, and we opt for the shuttle bus to the city centre. In front of the Palace of the Grand Masters, musicians are setting up for tonight’s free concert. It’s the first weekend in October, the Notte Bianca. Museums will be open, restaurants will spill over the street, there will be strange art installations. The Palace is now the official residence of Malta’s President, but visitors get to see the State Apartments, which are suitably grand, and the Armoury, which is all right if you like armour.
Under the Knights, Malta served as a rampart between Ottomans and Christians, East and West. Between 1559 and 1565, three forts were built on adjacent headlands to repel the Turkish fleet. One of them was Fort St. Elmo, our next destination. In May 1565, the Turks began besieging the island. The Knights were vastly outnumbered, but all that summer they held out, despite huge losses. In early September, reinforcements arrived from Sicily, and the Turks retreated demoralized to what was left of their fleet. The end of the Great Siege is still celebrated on September 8. Fort St. Elmo has been recently restored, and now houses the Malta War Museum, which is amazing. The science of warfare is usually beyond me but thanks to an inventive range of audio-visual displays the Great Siege comes alive as if you were there.
The other highpoint of Maltese history was World War II. The island’s strategic importance came into play again: not East-West this time, but North-South. Malta served as a base for Allied planes carrying out bombing missions to Sicily and North Africa, and Allied submarines attacking Axis shipping. It was heavily bombed, first by Mussolini and then by Hitler. I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing at all about this. Starvation and lack of supplies brought the island to the point of surrender, but it held out, and was awarded the George Cross for bravery by George VI in 1942. One of the three antiquated bi-planes that defied the Italians is on display in the museum. Its name is Faith.
By the end of our history lesson, it’s three o’clock. Time for a late lunch of home-made pasta to get up our strength for more walking (no more museums today). Valletta is a city built “by gentlemen for gentlemen.” It was the brainchild of Jean de la Valette, who masterminded the island’s defences during the Siege. Small but stunning, it consists of high limestone buildings with shuttered gallerijas that overhang the street and lend an Oriental air. The Order of St. John was divided into eight Langues, one for each national group (Castile, Provence, Auvergne, Aragon, etc.); each Langue had their own Auberge, and there’s a palazzo on every corner. More recent constructions include Renzo Piano’s new Parliament building, which blends wonderfully well with its sixteenth-century surroundings, and his open-air opera space, built on the ruins of the opera house that was bombed by the Germans.
Valletta was hard hit by the war: some residents moved out to new beach resorts like Sliema, and many gracious old buildings were left uninhabited and decaying. But Malta joined the European Union in 2004, urban renewal is well under way, and boutique hotels and chic restaurants are springing up. What you see at street level still tends to be backpacker bars and restaurants displaying plastic pictures of the food, but that may be about to change. In 2018, Valletta will be a European Cultural Capital. The New York Times recently ran a travel piece proposing 36 hours in the local hotspots. No doubt the buzz will create a new kind of tourist.
As things stand, Malta’s infrastructure is basically that of a package holiday destination. Until now the island’s attraction has resided in warm climate, blue lagoons, good diving, cheap alcohol, and of course the English language. The Knights were expelled by Napoleon on his way to Egypt in 1798, Malta fell to the English a few years later, and in 1814 it became a British colony. Nearly all Maltese speak English, and Marks and Spencer occupies central locations in Valletta and Sliema. But the mood is Mediterranean and it never feels as though you’re in England. (Sometimes you could be in Sicily.) The island became independent in 1964. They still drive on the left, admittedly, but with southern panache. Maltese is the only Semitic language with a Latin alphabet. Apart from a sprinkling of Italian and English words (palazzo, pjazza, computer), it is deeply incomprehensible.
Back at the hotel, we collapse on the balcony to drink the duty-free gin that Julianne picked up in Madrid airport (always a wise precaution if you’re not sure of the wine). Over the water, the lights go on in Valletta. Somewhere beyond the headland, fireworks explode. The area round the Waterfront Hotel is beset with noisy plastic restaurants so we settle for dinner in the hotel, which proves disappointing. The buffet offers quantity rather than quality: everything from leek soup to chocolate gâteau, via overcooked vegetables and some rather nasty fish. Our fellow diners are mainly older British couples. Some of the ladies have dressed for dinner, with interesting results.
Sunday is the day of the fish market in Marsaxlokk. Succumbing to one of the touts on Sliema waterfront, we take a ride down the east coast from Valletta to Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-shlock). It’s not entirely pleasant. The sea is choppy and the boat is small. The Brits are out in force. The gents wear checked shirts and baggy shorts, and the ladies step out self-consciously in patterned resortwear. Seen from the boat, the land looks stony and arid. The market is less exciting than promised (only three or four fish stalls, buried in several acres of cheap T-shirts), but the village is pretty, fishing boats lie at anchor in the bay, and the port is lined with open-air restaurants. In 1989, George Bush met Mikhail Gorbachev on a Soviet cruiser anchored in the harbour. The Malta Summit signalled the end of the Cold War (or so they say). The sea was rough then too.
By early afternoon, we’re back in Valletta. The weather is clear, and the sun beats down. We stop for iced coffee in a café on the square opposite the Parliament. After that we attempt to catch a bus to the Three Cities, which is not as easy as it sounds. Knowledgeable informants all assured me that you can get round on local buses. This may be true, but it’s hard work. (Oddly, none of my informants could remember where they’d been.) For a start, there’s the name thing. Once upon a time, the Three Cities (villages really) were called Birgu, L-Isla, and Bormla. After the Great Siege, the Knights re-christened them Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Conspicua. The guidebook adheres to Knightly usage, but the bus company prefers the original. Thankfully, the locals are helpful. “Stick with me,” says a lady on the bus, “and I’ll tell you where to get off.”
Entering Birgu/Vittoriosa by the main gate, we find ourselves on a narrow street lined with ancient buildings of golden stone. One of them is the Inquisitor’s Palace. Malta is a Catholic country with restrictive laws on abortion and divorce, and the exhibition is determined to show the Inquisition in a favourable light. Unblinkingly placing the Inquisitors on the same footing as missionaries, it claims that really they just had the welfare of their flock at heart. We are informed that the kindly Inquisitors built comfortable cells for their guests, and restricted whenever possible the use of torture – even though a tantalizing list of victims and sins is provided. Particularly mystifying is “abuse of sacramental oil.” (How did they abuse it?? To do what??) I’m also intrigued by the case of Massimo Herrich, a 27-year-old sailor from Provence, who was accused of apostasy to Islam and infringement of abstinence on 19 September 1641. Why was a sailor supposed to be abstinent? Why would a Provençal convert to Islam? I will never know. We wander back to the bus stop along the marina, past spires and masts and honey-coloured walls, all gilded by the misty evening light.
On Monday we head inland on the Hop On Hop Off bus, which does tours of the island, and gives you some potted history on the way. Leaving Valletta, we drive past run-down apartment buildings, well-kept baroque churches, glossy office complexes, and billboards attesting to European funding. The urban sprawl peters out, tidily-laid stone walls edge the newly-paved road, and Mdina (pronounced EM-dina) rises from the plain on its fortified hilltop. Before the Knights came to Malta, Mdina was the capital of the island. The Phoenicians, the Romans and the Arabs all had their fortresses here. The city is a maze of winding streets lined by high stone walls that open into quiet squares and hidden alleys. Great painted doors open on to mysterious courtyards and mediaeval palaces. The city is home to a cathedral and several convents. It has a population of 400. From the café perched high on the ramparts, you can see the sea. Just outside the city walls is the Domus Romana, which houses the remains of a Roman villa from the 1st century BC. Little is left but an impressive mosaic floor. Part of the site was damaged when the British blithely laid tracks for a railway which soon went bankrupt.
Time for lunch. We find a café in the shade serving Maltese Platter (a kind of Mediterranean ploughman’s lunch), with a soundtrack of Sixties pop hits for the current tourist intake. The balding gent at the next table wiggles his shoulders with discreet abandon to Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. Ah, those were the days! Neil Sedaka! After lunch, Julianne visits some catacombs, and I do not (claustrophobia). Back on the bus, we head for Bugibba and the north of the island. After the manicured time-travel charm of Mdina, it’s a bit of a shock. The Maltese began developing the area for package tourists in the 1960s, and a tacky strip of hotels and bars sprawls relentlessly round every headland. People supposedly come here for the beaches – which is odd, because viewed from the bus the beaches seem to be pure rock. Occasionally there’s a watchtower built by the Knights.
By the time we get back to Sliema, our heads are aching from too much driving and too much concrete, and we have no desire to go out and forage for dinner. (In Sicily, there’s always a little trattoria round the corner.) Last night we walked across the headland to a place called the Electro Lobster Project, for swordfish and our first taste of light crisp Maltese white wine, but it was a very long way. They’re re-developing the area behind the hotel, and seem to have ripped a few roads off the map in the process. Cravenly we repair to the balcony with supermarket cheese and crackers and vodka (the gin ran out) and read our books. Mine is Martin Cruz Smith’s Havana Bay. Different waterfront, different island, very different rules.
Tuesday is our day off. Definitely no buses. After a peaceful morning at the rooftop pool (stunning views, but bring your own towel), we take the ferry to Valletta to see the sights we missed the other day. The co-cathedral of St. John (the other co-cathedral is the one in Mdina) has a bling-bling interior decorated by the Knights, a shiny chapel for each of the Langues, and an oratory housing two paintings by Caravaggio, who was himself briefly a Knight before being arrested and excluded from the Order. It’s all rather splendid. Knights lie under marble tombstones beneath our feet. Tourists wander round with their audioguides, and a school group shuffles past ignoring everything.
In the Archeological Museum, a Sleeping Lady, Neolithic, 5000 years old, lies curled up on her side. She has a tiny head and hands and feet, and enormous hips. She wears a pleated skirt. The Maltese are reputed to be obese as a result of too many pea pasties, and it’s true that the people on the street are a little bulky, but seeing this statue makes me wonder if they’re not just reverting to what nature intended. We solve the dinner problem by staying in Valletta, killing the hour before dinner time with an apéritif in the café opposite the cathedral. Dusk falls, the air is soft, the lights go on. It doesn’t feel like October. In Scoglitti, the Italian restaurant by the Sliema ferry, the mood is more serious, and the bustling, stone-faced waiters make it plain you’re in their way. (“Glassy and classy,” says the New York Times.) We eat our fish, drink our wine, pay our bill, and amble over to the landing stage in good time for the ten p.m. ferry.
Wednesday is our last day. We had planned to make a day trip to Gozo, the next island along, but this would have involved either all-day buses (which I veto), or else an all-day sea trip (which Julianne vetos), and that makes things tricky. Instead we stick with the Knights. Back in the Three Cities, we have lunch on the marina in Birgu. Two ferries to get there, two to get back, no buses, only sea. The sun shines on the ochre stone and the masts glitter above the water. The Knights sleep undisturbed. The ferocious old religion that made them fight to the death is on the wane. Church attendance is down these days, and the new craze is casinos.
In this interview with Russia Beyond The Headlines, the English-language supplement to the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, I was asked why I write about Russia, why my characters are “two-sided,” and what interests me about the KGB.
RUSSIA BEYOND THE HEADLINES
Writing about a country you’ve never visited
British journalist and author Patricia le Roy discusses her inspiration.
Ksenia Khrustaleva, special to RBTH
Patricia le Roy is known for writing novels that range widely in time and space, from Burma at the height of the drug trade to France just after the war to Soviet-era Leningrad. Her heroes move cities and countries in search of love and liberty, facing the Gordian knot of parting and betrayal on their way.
A native of Liverpool, le Roy studied French at university and lived in Paris for a number of years working as a translator, editor and journalist. Eventually she joined Radio Liberty and served as a research editor from 1974 to 1991. Le Roy spoke to RBTH about how this experience inspired her to write about Soviet realities.
RBTH: As many as four of your novels relate directly to Russia in different periods of its history. Compassion spans three generations, starting from the Great October Socialist Revolution; three other novels take place in the Soviet Union heading for its decay. What inspired you to write about Russia?
Patricia le Roy: After spending 17 years working for Radio Liberty, immersed in a kind of semi-Russian atmosphere, with every hour in the working day focused on Russia or the other Soviet republics, it was unthinkable to write about anything else!
I wrote the first three books between about 1985 and 2000. Compassion came later. Reading Anna Akhmatova’s poem Requiem, I was fascinated by her themes of time and memory and loss and survival. Digging into her biography, I found the story of her affair with the artist Boris Anrep, who moved to England after the Revolution. Akhmatova never forgot him, and they were reunited briefly in London in 1966. The love that defied space and time gave me the idea for Compassion. My protagonists Andrei and Nina were inspired by Anrep and Akhmatova, even though I had to take extensive biographical liberties to make the project work. The title of the book came from Anrep. One of the mosaics he created for the vestibule of the National Gallery in London represents Akhmatova, and he called it “Compassion.”
RBTH: Did you transfer the real stories you came across at Radio Liberty to your novels?
PLR.: At Radio Liberty, I worked in the Audience Research department. Our job was to find out who listened to Western radio broadcasts in the Soviet Union (not just RL, but also Voice of America, BBC, Radio Sweden, etc.), why they listened, and what they heard. To do this, we conducted interviews with Soviet citizens traveling in the West, using Russian-speaking interviewers who were able to make contact with the travelers and inquire after their radio-listening habits in the course of a seemingly casual conversation. In the climate of the Cold War, conducting open interviews was out of the question.
Sometimes respondents talked about their lives, and we heard some terrible stories. People who lost their jobs because they had applied to emigrate, people who couldn’t study because their parents were intellectuals, people who couldn’t get medical treatment because they couldn’t afford to bribe the doctor — the tales of petty tragedy and daily humiliation flowed endlessly across my desk. I didn’t use this material directly, but my novels were inevitably colored by what I had learned.
RBTH: You mentioned in your blog http://www.patricialeroy.com/timeline/ that employees of Radio Liberty were barred from visiting the Soviet Union until 1990. When you first visited the country you had been studying carefully for many years, did your view change?
PLR: In 1990, I traveled with a French tour group to Leningrad and Moscow. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Travelers to the Soviet Union during the Cold War had described Russia as a gray, repressive country of frightened people. Maybe parts of it were still like that, but that wasn’t what I saw. What struck me most in the two major cities was the way Russia was opening up. In Leningrad, we attended a packed church service in the Alexander Nevsky monastery; on the Arbat [Street] in Moscow we bargained in dollars for matryoshkas of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. I left the group and wandered off on my own once or twice, checking out locations that I had chosen sight unseen for The Angels of Russia.
RBTH: In your Soviet-era trilogy, the protagonists are not what they seem to others. A dissident in The Angels of Russia turns out to be a KGB agent; a Soviet re-defector in Café Maracanda publicly denigrates his Western friends and starts his life anew as a broker in Central Asia. What is behind such “two-sidedness” of Soviet people in your opinion?
PLR.: The Soviet regime was based on coercion, which forced many people (of course, not all) to say one thing in public and think another in private. One of the attractions of Western radio was that the “voices” said what many people thought or suspected but did not dare say aloud. If Pravda [newspaper] was telling you that the harvest had been bountiful and the shops were full of bread, but you could see with your own eyes that there was no bread on the shelves, it was unwise to point out the discrepancy at a Party meeting. Instead you were forced into a kind of doublethink. This is one reason why my characters are two-sided.
In the three books of the Soviet trilogy, the principal male protagonist is not what he seems. In each case, he has hidden links to the KGB. This was a deliberate choice, not because I was writing action thrillers, but because I wanted to explore the psychology of repression. By the 1980s, the KGB was no longer ideological — they left that to the Party. They were pragmatists (which is why they proved better at surviving in post-Soviet Russia). The role of the KGB was to preserve the system, but its members had access to information that showed the system was failing. I wanted to explore how they dealt with that. What interests me as a writer is people who doubt.
My three protagonists all doubt the rightness of what they do, but their paths are different. Sergei in The Angels of Russia knows from the beginning that what he is doing is wrong, but he didn’t choose to work for the KGB, he’s being pressured to do so, and he follows orders until he can no longer bear the weight of his betrayals. Axel in Music at the Garden House starts out believing in his cause, but then has a crise de conscience, breaks with the KGB, and does what he feels is right. Igor, the most complex of the three, knows that what he is doing is wrong, but goes on doing it (Café Maracanda). The theme is the same: how do you live with the choices you made when you had no choice but to make them?
Writing a novel about Central Asia might not have been a good idea. It took almost ten years to write. Part of the problem was research, and part was the characters. The story revolved around five main characters, all of whom had complex pasts, unconventional career paths, and murky relationships with the truth and with each other.
Most of Café Maracanda takes place in Uzbekistan (Maracanda was the name of Samarkand in the ancient world), but the book begins and ends in Italy. A young American couple, Davey and Camilla, invite their colleagues Igor and Rachel to share a villa near Siena in the summer of 1990. The holiday starts out badly. The men are old friends, but the women can’t stand each other. The first day is fraught. But then Igor takes over. Igor is a Russian who defected from the Soviet Union. A journalist at Radio Liberty, where all of them work, he has a talent for smoothing things over. By the end of the month Rachel, the thrifty north-of-England bluestocking, is best friends with Camilla, the entitled WASP princess. Idling away the days in the lush Tuscan countryside, between talk and sex and wine and food, the four become very close. If anything is slightly amiss, they ignore the signs. It’s an enchanted summer they will always remember.
But when they return to Munich, the spell is broken. Igor vanishes. For a week they have no news. Rachel fears he is dead. And then he reappears in Moscow, gives a press conference on Soviet television, claims that his years in the West were a nightmare, and announces that Rachel is an enemy of the Soviet people, that Camilla works for American military intelligence, and that Davey is a CIA spy. Everyone is stunned. No one saw it coming – not even William Kavanagh, a Radio security officer who has been watching Igor for months. Igor’s friends are devastated. Rachel attempts to kill herself, and Davey begins to drink.
Fast forward seven years. The Soviet Union has collapsed and been replaced by fifteen independent republics. Radio Liberty has moved to Prague; William Kavanagh has moved to Washington; Igor’s friends have not recovered from his betrayal. Davey was killed in an accident shortly after Igor left. Camilla, raising their son alone, is still wondering why her husband was so hard hit by Igor’s defection. Rachel has changed jobs and moved cities, but never got over Igor.
Only Igor has moved on. He has settled in Central Asia and opened a bar. Not just any bar. When Camilla marches into the Café Maracanda to demand an accounting, she finds Kavanagh there already, watching Igor in action. The Maracanda is a marketplace for biznesmeny, and Igor brokers the deals.
A word about Radio Liberty: During the Cold War, both East and West made extensive use of radio broadcasts. On the communist side, the “voices” included Radio Prague and Radio Moscow. On the Western side, stations such as the BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Sweden attempted to explain the way of life and political positions of their sponsoring countries. Radio Liberty was different. It was an American station funded by the US Congress whose purpose was to act as a surrogate home service and provide Soviet listeners with news they could not obtain from their domestic media. This might seem less seditious than straight British or American propaganda, but from the Kremlin’s point of view, it was much worse. Radio Liberty was competing directly with state radio, supplying Soviet citizens with undesirable information about Aeroflot crashes, the General Secretary’s state of health, and the latest casualty figures in Afghanistan. RL was demonized in the Soviet press and heavily jammed.
The starting point for Igor was a real-life two-time defector who defected from the Soviet Union in 1965, got a job as a journalist at Radio Liberty, and re-defected in 1986. Back in Moscow, he gave a press conference accusing Radio Liberty of anti-Soviet activities, and the Audience Research department, where I worked, of spying against the Soviet Union. Thoughtfully he provided our office address, and the names of two of our staffers. The office was on the top floor of a Parisian residential building, reached by a creaky little lift, and bore a certain resemblance to the office in Three Days of the Condor, where everyone is wiped out by assassins in the first reel. For a while, we were rather nervous.
I first travelled to Samarkand courtesy of James Elroy Flecker and his famous poem: Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,/When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,/And softly through the silence beat the bells/Along the Golden Road to Samarkand. I was at school when I encountered The Golden Journey to Samarkand, and years later, when I joined Radio Liberty and found myself dealing with Soviet Central Asia on a daily basis, it turned out that the romance of the desert had stayed with me. Central Asia fascinated me in a way I cannot explain: a vast landmass at the centre of the world – east of Europe, south of Russia, previously Muslim, nominally Soviet – made even more interesting by the fact that no one seemed to know much about it. A few would-be experts solemnly forecast an incipient wave of Islamic fundamentalism but it was never clear what their predictions were based on (especially as they never came to pass). Until 1990, I was unable to go and look for myself because employees of Radio Liberty were barred from visiting the Soviet Union. My first attempt to travel there when the ban was lifted fell through, but I finally hit the Golden Road with my husband in 1995.
Our first stop was Almaty, the capital of Kazakstan, where vast oilfields had aroused the interest of the West and engendered direct flights from Vienna and Frankfurt. Almaty was airy and green and spacious, but oddly lacking in focus. The Russians had built a fort there in 1854 and called it Verny, meaning Faithful. There was a pedestrian shopping precinct, previously Gorky Street, now re-baptized Silk Road Street. None of the Central Asian republics had been independent before, and they were all trying to find their feet.
The main tourist attraction in Almaty was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, painted pink and green, like a Little Gingerbread Church. Built without nails, it was the only building to survive a 1911 earthquake that flattened the rest of the city. Not far away was the Soviet War Memorial, a Gorgon-like sprawl of implausible bronze muscles. A school group listened intently to their teacher describing the heroic feats of the Panfilov Division, which had defended Moscow in 1941. In the park, an old man sat vacantly on one of the benches, and a middle-aged lady lay passed out on another. The air was yellowish-grey and tasted metallic. English-language hoardings advertised the Bank of Texas and Kazakhstan, and a giant Coca Cola sign sat atop the old Kazakhstanskaya pravda building.
We took a bus to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Crossing the steppe, we caught glimpses of miserable-looking villages, shepherds on horseback, and hilltop cemeteries with odd turreted railed-off graves. A leftover slogan by the side of the road said SLAVA TRUDU (Glory to Labour). When we got to the frontier, a bored police officer got on the bus and wandered up and down the aisle, requesting no passports and inspecting no luggage. The road ran straight ahead to the Tien Shan, the Mountains of Heaven.
Bishkek had the same grid layout as Almaty, the same greenery, the same anonymous buildings, but it was smaller and quieter. Traffic was sparse, people walked with a relaxed swing, the mountains were closer, and the air was clearer. There were fewer Russians than in Almaty, and practically no Westerners. More than once we were taken for Balts. The Soviet War Memorial sprawled across a vast empty square against a backdrop of mountains. A gigantic statue of Lenin urging on the masses was surrounded by a flock of little girls in black dresses and white aprons. It was class photo day.
“Is this really the capital of a country?” asked my husband sceptically. Half the town centre was taken up by a vast overgrown park where statues huddled unsuspected in the uncut grass, and girls lounging in idle groups waved and giggled. Shell suits outnumbered chic Western outfits on the streets, the airport was frequently closed for lack of kerosene, and there was something desperate about the way the market vendors called out their prices and tried to catch your eye.
We had dinner in what the guidebook claimed was the best restaurant in Kyrgyzstan, the Son Kul. It had red carpets, white tablecloths and lacrymose Russian pop music. One floor was for Russian food, and one floor for Kyrgyz. We took the Kyrgyz floor, which was almost deserted. The food was excellent, and the waitress was patient when we got in a mess with the currency, which was called the som. Next morning, on the way back to the bus station, my husband bought a large wooden abacus from a man in an underpass.
Thirty-six hours later we were in Samarkand. It was a cool, grey, rainy evening. Avoiding on principle the Hotel Samarkand, where all the tour groups went, we told the taxi to take us to the only privately-owned hotel in the city, the Zerafshan. Snobbery was our undoing. The outside of the building was newly painted and the lobby had a sub-harem decor with a lot of white lattice work, but the Arabian Nights charm went no further. The room we were offered was standard Soviet grunge, plus a a pile of cleaning materials on the floor, plus a strange man watching television on the bed. But it was late, and we were tired. We had spent most of the day in Tashkent airport, first persuading the immigration authorities to let us enter Uzbekistan without a visa, then convincing Inturist to book us on an onward flight. The Uzbeks did not approve of spontaneous travel.
The receptionist was annoyed by our failure to leave. She made us pay in advance. After a struggle with the unfamiliar currency (the third in five days: this one was called the sum), we finally emerged into the mythical city. The grave of the Emperor Tamerlane was just round the corner, at the end of a quiet street lined with mulberry trees. But it was after hours, and there was no one around. Should we come back next day? Suddenly a uniformed caretaker appeared. Otkuda? he demanded; where were we from? Frantsia, we told him. Dollari? he asked.
We agreed that we had dollars, and he ushered us into the tomb. The mausoleum contained six white marble tombs and a huge slab of jade. The caretaker told us earnestly about the tombs and the architecture, and then abruptly put his finger to his lips, ushered us through a side door into the courtyard, took us round a corner, and unlocked a door. A flight of stone stairs led down to an underground crypt. This, he explained, was where the bodies of Tamerlane and his companions really lay. The jade upstairs was just for show. Here was the last resting place of Timur the Lame, son of a minor tribal chieftain, spiritual heir of Genghis Khan, conqueror of Delhi, Baghdad, Moscow and Damascus. The man who rampaged over half of Asia, dead of a fever in 1405, lay disintegrating into dust beneath a plain slab of marble. We gave the caretaker a dollar bill, and stumbled off in search of dinner.
Samarkand turned out to be distressingly un-golden. Flecker, of course, had never been there. Neither had Goethe or Marlowe. After the demise of the Silk Road, it had fallen into ruin, and now it was a charmless socialist city. The ancient sites were spread out through the town and we had to plod through vast stretches of Soviet residential wasteland to get from one set of turquoise domes to another. Having worked our way through the Registan (three enormous madrasas looming round a vast courtyard), the Bibi Khanym mosque (named for Tamerlane’s favourite wife), and the Shah-i-Zinda (the royal burial ground), we pitched camp in a chai khana with loud Turkish music and a row of men in white coats grilling shashlyk, and watched the world go by. The contrast with the cities of the steppes was striking. This was another world. It might not be golden, but it was colourful. People in traditional costume marched purposefully past, heading for the market next to the Bibi Khanym. The women wore brightly-coloured dresses. Older men favoured embroidered skull caps, boots and baggy breeches. Younger ones went for Western-style trousers and shirts. Down here in the oasis there was a bustle and dynamism that we had not seen before.
It was a five-hour bus ride to Bukhara across a flat desert landscape. We lunched off lepeshka and apricots. The man across the aisle demanded to see our guidebook, asked if the man with me was my husband, and inquired where our group was. Bukhara was more atmospheric than Samarkand. It had no monuments on the scale of the Registan, but the old city was in better shape and there was more of it left. A maze of little alleys wound past earth-built walls, and there was a madrasa on every corner. In the tenth century, Bukhara the Noble was a centre of Islamic scholarship. It was still a holy city, you could feel it. Spirituality seeped out of the walls and hung in the dry desert air. At breakfast in the hotel we met a German couple who had come to visit the mausoleum of Sheikh Bakhautdin. The man explained that they converted to Sufism after seeing Peter Brook’s The Conference of the Birds in London, and announced that this was a great experience for them. The lady wore a hijab and said nothing.
On the edge of the old city stood the Ark, a barbaric construction which was once the citadel of the Emirs of Bukhara. Above the eighteenth-century gatehouse, overlooking the square, was the euphemistically named “music pavilion,” where the royal family used to gather to watch public executions. Again we arrived at closing time, and this time we were rescued by a sixteen-year-old English-speaking Tajik boy called Ulugbeg. “Tomorrow we are closed,” he said, “but you come back and I show you round.” We accepted the offer, which was payable in dollars. All the Central Asian republics had their own currency, but no one seemed to want them.
Next day Ulugbeg showed us the fortress, the madrasas, and the prison, including the notorious Bug Pit where less fortunate criminals (including two emissaries of Queen Victoria) shared living quarters with rats, scorpions and sheep ticks. Then we took the bus out to the suburbs to visit the Emir’s Summer Palace. That was closed too, and all of Ulugbeg’s persuasiveness failed to get us in. He took the refusal as a personal insult: “This very bad man.” We strolled round the gardens, which were pleasantly cool after the heat and dust of the city. My husband invested in an embroidered camel bag.
The best place in Bukhara was the chai khana at Lyab-i-Khauz. Wooden diwans were spread out on a flagged terrace overlooking the tree-shaded pool. Old men in traditional costume sat cross-legged on their diwans, with bowls of tea on small tables before them, gossiping, playing chess or backgammon, moving round the pool in the sun’s shadow. Workers dropped in for shashlyk or plov, a kind of Central Asian pilaff, which cooked all day long. It didn’t look as though much had changed since the last Emir fled the Bolsheviks in 1920.
We returned to Tashkent on the Transcaspian Railway, which ambled along at a leisurely pace. It had liux two-berth compartments, sheets and pillow-cases, free chai, and obligatory piped radio which dispensed news in Uzbek, followed by a little local night music. Tashkent was a pleasant surprise. It felt like a capital city ought to feel. It was a bustling modern city complete with yuppie restaurants, gleaming fountains, and a dazzling new metro. It hummed and buzzed. The air smelt of money. Much of the city was levelled in a 1966 earthquake, and the city was rebuilt by Republican First Secretary Sharaf Rashidov, an authentic Arabian Nights potentate whose private mansion was said to possess several underground storeys crammed with gold and jewels and prisoners and concubines. Rashidov’s wealth came from the Great Cotton Scam. Under pressure from Moscow to increase cotton production in the republic, he falsified figures to show that quotas were being fulfilled, pocketed money for cotton that was never produced, and allegedly netted the equivalent of some $2 billion for himself and his cronies.
On the strength of this trip, I began to plan Café Maracanda. Hubris, of course. To make up for my lack of first-hand experience, I read everything I could get my hands on. Most of it was written by academics discussing Central Asia from a Russian point of view, and it took me a while to realize that their vision was flawed. After making a second, somewhat longer, trip to Almaty and Tashkent, it became evident that what I was reading did not square with what I had seen. My book ground to a halt while I tried to figure out the social fabric of the new republics. One of the things I needed to know was the role played by local clans. I posted a query on a couple of Central Asian websites, and got some intriguing responses. All the Central Asians informed me firmly that clans no longer existed. All the Westerners begged me to pass on any information I obtained. Eventually a French expert on Afghanistan helped me get back on track.
Meanwhile I had discovered that Samarkand was the centre of a thriving drug trade, and I was planning Igor’s bar. The Café Maracanda serves fine Italian cuisine and the best margaritas in Central Asia. Tourists come to sample the charms of the old khanates in the fine tiled courtyard. Drug lords come to negotiate the price of heroin in the discreet inner rooms. Igor’s old KGB cronies drop in to chat. Arias from Italian opera (Igor’s favourite) drown out illicit conversations. Dormiro sol nel manto mio regal…. The café, of course, is straight out of Casablanca, but instead of letters of transit and appointments with Monsieur Renault, what is on offer is enriched uranium from Kazakstan, drugs from the Chu Valley, money for the Chechen rebels, and arms for the warring factions in Afghanistan. Everyone goes to Igor’s.
I have always been drawn to ambivalent characters: wives who betray their husbands, dissidents who report to the KGB, men and women who appear to be what they aren’t, and don’t always know themselves what the truth is. Igor is no exception. For most of his career as KGB officer, radio journalist, and biznesmeny, he has managed to be all things to all men. In Italy, he was a sorceror, seducing Rachel with love, Davey with understanding, and Camilla with sex – all the while negotiating with his Soviet contacts to return to Moscow. In Samarkand, he is the rainmaker, introducing people who have things to sell to people who want to buy them. But now the past is catching up with him. He has made too many enemies. The Uzbeks have withdrawn their protection. The KGB has cut him loose. The CIA wants to close him down. Kavanagh is gathering evidence and enlisting allies. Igor knows what awaits him. The game is nearly over, Rachel. My time is running out. He has one last wish. Writing late at night in his diary, he admits the truth: Rachel, whom he abandoned in Munich, has always stayed in his mind. Rachel, without you, my life would have had no sense. You have never left me once in seven years. I don’t want to die without seeing you one last time.
Some of my research into the Café Maracanda’s clients was done one evening in Tashkent in a place called the Vernisaj Kafé. Situated in the basement of the Union of Artists building, it was recommended by the guidebook as a cheap alternative to the ubiquitous plov and shashlyk. It was my second trip to Tashkent, two years after the first, and I was travelling with a friend who was based in Almaty. It was early when we got to the Vernisaj. The place was empty apart from three Westerners chatting at the bar, and a troop of very young Uzbek waitresses in short black skirts and tight red tops. There was a long row of tables next to the window with deep couches on either side. It seemed entirely civilized, though the prices had gone up since Lonely Planet was there. The waitresses avoided eye contact, which was a bit odd, but there was a vast choice of cocktails, and a perfectly edible menu of chicken, steak and salads.
About half-past seven, the place began to fill up. Apart from one Russian family group, the customers were men, mainly Uzbek, mainly in groups. They all wore dark suits. They moved from one table to the next, they waved, they exchanged greetings. On the surface it all seemed very convivial, but they did not look pleasant to know. Then all of a sudden the atmosphere got very strange. Nothing remotely threatening was happening, nobody was paying attention to us (though they looked us over), there were neither drugs nor weapons in evidence. The waitresses’ faces grew blanker with the strain of not overhearing people’s conversations. Their manner became more nervous and deferential. Time to leave. When Vasily, our driver, came to fetch us, the doorman followed us out and said something through the open car door. Vasily said, Ya priedu, I’ll come back, and drove off very fast and clearly annoyed. Neither of us caught the sense of the exchange. Vasily refused to tell us what had been said.
Café Maracanda was conceived as the third volume of a trilogy covering the fall and legacy of Soviet communism. Its predecessors were The Angels of Russia (set in 1986) and Music at the Garden House (set in 1990). I wanted to explore guilt and responsibility in societies whose citizens were not free to decide their own actions. How does the individual withstand coercion? How does he come to terms with the wrong he has done? How does he survive in a society which has turned morality on its head? I had no idea where I would end up. It was a fascinating journey.
At the end of the book, Igor gets his wish and is reunited with Rachel. But he cannot bring himself to admit to guilt for what he did, and Rachel will not forgive that. We missed each other in time, Igor,” she says. “We never had a chance.”
Igor has one last chance to tell the truth.
“Don’t you see?” he asks her. “That was why I left. It was the only way to keep what we had. Yes, I regretted it, of course I did, but what is there to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear that matters.”