Tue 07 May 2013

Notes from the underground #21: A Georgian Adventure in Turnhout

citybooks prefers to look for those cities that lie somewhat off the beaten track, and that means that it’s not always so straightforward to find translators for these citybooks. Luckily, for Tbilisi, we could depend on Ingrid Degraeve, who is, to the best of our knowledge, the only literary translator of Georgian-Dutch. She translated the stories from Tbilisi, and the citybook that Lasha Bugadze wrote about Turnhout. Three in the City appeared in pre-publication in DW B. Ingrid Degraeve wrote an introduction to her translation of this citybook.


Three in the City

With a little effort, you can distil four characters from the title of the story: three Georgians and the city Turnhout. And, to be sure, the city plays just as great a role as the three badly behaved Georgians do. Indeed: the story more than earns its place in the continually expanding citybooks series, the pride of the Flemish-Dutch House deBuren. Tbilisi, too, is one of the ‘interesting, but not self-evident cities’ in which Dutch, Flemish and Georgian writers and photographers have worked on a citybook on the initiative of deBuren.

Five stories and two visual projects were made in and about Tbilisi, after which one of the Georgian participants, author Lasha Bugadze, was invited to Turnhout for a two-week residency.

Apart from as a writer of short stories and novels, Lasha Bugadze (1977) is also well known as a playwright. And for this work, he seems to have given Turnhout the  theatrical treatment; it’s as if he has locked the city in a vacuum pump and sucked away all the air in order to fill its empty shell anew with a Georgian (melo)drama. On his own admission, Lasha Bugadze draws much inspiration from people; their behaviour, their daily businesses and motives. While I was translating his citybook about Turnhout, he told me he’d discovered he couldn’t possibly tear himself apart from Tbilisi, regardless of far from the city he travelled.

If we look a little, we can discover some of these qualities embedded in the story. The moment Bugadze arrives in Turnhout, his own country is gripped by election fever. Efforts to dampen the frenzy in Georgia are a lost cause; TV, radio, and blogs all glow red-hot with commentaries, diatribes, campaigns and debates. In September 2012, I was also in Tbilisi. At virtually every corner and on almost every square, I bumped time and again into the city’s steady stream of marches and manifestations.

For Lasha Bugadze, Turnhout’s peace and quiet is welcome; but it also induces a certain claustrophobia. Now and then he indulges himself, medicinally, in a Georgian blog. And the writing process in Turnhout only really gets going when he decides to annex Turnhout to Georgia: when he allows Turnhout to become, as it were, a miniature homeland. At first he resists that impulse; he feels he should ‘really’ be writing about Turnhout. Finally he comes to depict Turnhout as a city from which all life has been evacuated. The narrator asks himself where all of its inhabitants have gone: empty trolleybuses circle the city, and while he hears the lady living next door, he never sees her. The city is little more than an empty stage. On that empty stage, the writer places a dramatic tale of three lively Georgians pulled from their natural habitat.

By turns, the story seems to give Turnhout a chance to assert itself more fully; to gain a voice, to infiltrate the narrative. For a long while, nothing much happens; the reader is given little indication as to how the story will develop. Only at the very end do the brakes come off, and it’s then that the Georgian drama takes the upper hand in the small, peaceful, sleepy Turnhout.

Bugadze brings a Georgian husband and wife to our attention, stranded together in Mechelen for years. With their unexpected visit to the writer in residence, they ignite a series of events extraordinary for the tranquil Turnhout; they open a bonafide Pandora’s box. Calamities abound: emigration, a failed life as an artist, benefit scrounging, reincarnation, depression, charlatanism, a wild goose chase, raging rows, and adultery. All at once though, and against all expectations, the bubble is burst. Finally, peace returns.

All in all: a highly theatrical citybook, weft from a Belgian set, a Georgian drama, four characters and a remarkable catharsis.

Ingrid Degraeve, translator

This introduction appeared in pre-publication in DW B 2013_2.


Photos © Kakha Kakhiani | citybooks Turnhout


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