Waiting for the Electricity
by Christina Nichol
The Overlook Press
Published June, 2014
There is nothing wrong with judging a book by its content, though some readers get added value from also considering form. But how rare is it to be fascinated, bemused, hooked by a script, like the one used in Georgia – an assemblage of curvaceous squiggles, some with little tails darting off them. Christina Nichol’s fresh and funny novel, Waiting for the Electricity, gives us a brief taste of it when she quotes ‘the Georgian words for real life’ :
ფრინველის – the bird that brings the rain;
ფეხსაცმლის – the shoe that curls up at the toe;
წარბის – eyebrows, when the two come across the forehead, which every Persian girl in the mountains seeks in a man…
My introduction to the off-piste Georgian mentality that goes with the script occurred during a study-leave at a Californian university, where I lived next-door to a Georgian pianist married to an English historian. Until I met Marina and Stephen, I assumed that in all ‘normal’ languages – English, French, Russian etc – the word for the female parent began with an ‘m’: mother, mummy, mamma, mater, mutti, mai, mor, mamochka etc – because, I hypothesised, ‘mm’ is the sound most readily formulated by babies. In Georgian, however, it turned out that the word for father is ‘mama’, and for mother, ‘deyda’- like Dadda. I was stunned. That the language belongs to the Kartvelian language family indigenous to the Caucasus, unrelated to any other, seemed only a partial explanation.
The warmth of Georgian hospitality, insistent and irresistible, was a different kind of surprise. As the narrator of Waiting for the Electricity puts it, ‘When the guest visits it is like the sunrise.’ The sun rose very frequently in California. Marina was constantly urging me to share delicious dishes to which walnuts, eggplant and coriander seemed essential. The exception was the Georgian bread called khachapuri, whose fragrance is not of this world, even when it is made from all-purpose flour and American cheese.
Back in Australia, nostalgia for things Georgian kept me alert to any (rare) manifestation on offer. Excellent, critically acknowledged films were the easiest to find: The Colour of Pomegranates (1969), directed by the legendary Georgian-Armenian Sergei Paradzhanov; a 2003 film by French director Julie Bertuccelli called Since Otar Left, focussing on three Georgian women living in modern-day Tbilisi – a harassed mother, a dreamy daughter, and a grandmother who sees more than she’s given credit for – which won the coveted Critics’ Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. And then there was the 2015 Melbourne Film Festival stand-out, Tangerines, a Georgian/Estonian film made in 2013, whose understated pacifist humour, personified by an aged Estonian citrus-growing peacemaker, quietly sabotaged the nationalism setting Chechens, Georgians, Abkhazians and Russians against each other. Tangerines won ten international Best Film awards but received only nominations in the 2015 Golden Globe and Academy handouts – further proof, perhaps, of the closing of the American mind?
What then is Georgia’s current political situation – for example, in relation to Russia? Is it just a miniature of the troubles wracking much bigger and better-known, but divided, Ukraine? Well, not these days. The population of Georgia is less than 4.5 million, that of Ukraine, 45 million, but Russian-Ukrainian relations are notoriously fraught, whereas Georgia’s status as a determinedly independent republic is now well established. But there are certainly historical similarities, starting with the 11th–12th century Golden Ages of both Kievan Rus (pre-Muscovite Ukraine) and the Kingdom of Georgia under King David IV (the Builder) and Queen Tamar (the Great). Both these dream-eras came to an end around 1230 when the hordes of Genghis Khan invaded and stayed for about a century and a half. Thereafter an emerging Russian empire consolidated itself around Moscow, the new capital further north; Ukraine was divided between Russia and Habsburg Austria; and Georgia underwent a period of disintegration, until it was annexed by Russia in 1801. From about 1919 Ukraine and Georgia were nominally aligned as Socialist Republics of the Soviet Union, but in 1991 both officially won independence, even if Ukraine cannot completely undo its legacy as a Russian terre. Georgia also endured civil unrest and economic crises until 2003.
The events of that year form the background to Nichol’s novel, to which history and hospitality are integral, as of course are themes as various as America, pipelines, gender, electricity and Hillary Clinton. Past history is important because Georgians still imagine themselves as heroes of the 12th century, when 5,000 of them led by David the Builder vanquished 50,000 Persians; hospitality was then and still is endemic, because nothing and no one is more important than a guest. Guests are from God.
One such emissary in Waiting for the Electricity is English Anthony – although Anthony is under the impression that it was BP who sent him to Batumi, the novel’s locale on the Black Sea. He is supposed to oversee the construction and maintenance of the Baku-Supsa oil-pipeline, which in 2003 was still being built. Quintessentially British, Anthony is earnest, literal, and unused to foreign postings, which makes it difficult for him to understand the elevated significance of guest status. Equally inexperienced in the persona of Our Man in Batumi, his novelistic role is to be the unwitting foil to the character quirks of the people to whom he is supposed to be bringing Western know-how. Inevitably, the narrator organises a welcome feast for him, but not only because of God. There is also the plan conceived by policeman Shalva: if the locals pretend to kidnap Anthony, and if Shalva pretends to rescue him, in the presence of television cameras, the townspeople will view the police more heroically and Shalva will reward his abettor with a car (though not one that works).
The kidnapping misfires, thanks to the strong cherry wine distributed by the narrator’s grandfather, while Anthony’s attention is focussed on the table arrangements. Platters of eggplant rolled in garlic and nuts sit on dishes of roasted wild turkey; on top of them are plates of goose pâté, sweet carrots, roasted red peppers, stuffed grape leaves, and nettles leaves boiled with ground walnuts. ‘In our country,’ explains the narrator, ‘the buildings are always falling down [so] we pile plates on top of each other, like a last hope’. Further piles include potato and beef stew, chicken and tomato soup, mutton pilaf, beet salad layered with cream, fried forest mushrooms, crêpes flavoured with pepper, a trout slit open for the eggs, and knucklebone soup. And that is only the eating part. The toasts, traditionally drunk from a horn and led by an indefatigable toast-master, demand an endless supply of wine and vodka.
Anthony complains about the difficulties of his job to his new friends. Work on the pipeline stops whenever the electricity fails, which is often, because people regularly divert the copper wires for their own ends. As well, the oil in the pipeline is tapped by villagers who need it for personal use. Anthony finds it hard to put these symptoms of poverty together with the sumptuous feast set before him. The host explains: ‘See that house up on the hill?’
‘No,’ says Anthony.
‘That’s because we just ate it.’
Anthony doesn’t understand.
‘We just sold it to pay for this meal.’
Anthony still doesn’t get it. It is a Georgian joke. Which means it speaks truth, like so much in this book. The way Georgians can put on a magnificent party in a Soviet-built flat speaks to values as much as to food. The reason Georgians put on splendid parties in dreary Soviet-built flats is as much about values as food. Every lavish feast maintaining and extolling the boundless tradition of Georgian hospitality becomes a slap in the face to the stolid monotony of 70 years of imposed Soviet diet and lifestyle.
The host of the meal and narrator of the novel is Slims Achmed Makashvili, named firstly for Slim Sherman in the television series Laramie, and secondly after a Muslim neighbour, in an effort to dissuade him from stealing the Makashvili pigs; ‘Makashvili’ means a Dreamer. Modern America, marauding Islam, and historical Georgia are not just tactically referenced but brilliantly ventriloquised by Nichol in this character (in both senses) who is a kind of faux-naif, an expounder of Red Queen logic, and a man more than prepared to break any law that seems contrary to the obvious (in his estimate).
Slims is conducting an aspirational romance with a girl called Tamriko, but his trip to America, courtesy of a study grant meant to help post-Soviets acquire business skills, provides a rather more substantial suggestion of plot than Shalva’s shenanigans with Anthony in this novel of manners (courteous) and ethics (contrary). ‘Plot is for the West,’ says Slims, writing to Hillary Clinton to thank her for the grant, but digressing into cultural differences:
In our Georgian movies the boy sees the girl and he opens a bottle of beer with his teeth… Another man, maybe his fat boss, also sees the girl…Near the end of the film, when both men are fighting each other on top of the oil train car, about to get their heads decapitated by a tunnel, they forget about the girl, jump down onto an empty cargo flat and embrace like long lost brothers. That is the Georgian way…
The stylistic leitmotif of the novel is manifestly the arresting non sequitur. Translating a toast for Anthony’s benefit, for example, Slims explains the difficulty of this task:
Most men in Batumi still think that English is a woman’s language, that it doesn’t have the right sounds to express real emotion. The only reason I ever learned English is because the military instructor told me that if I learned English then I would become like a woman and therefore I wouldn’t have to enlist in the army.
You don’t see it coming ¬– and then it stops you in your tracks.
For a nation whose men prioritise ‘real’ emotion, business-sense has to be an oxymoron. Slims begs Anthony to let him poke a hole in the section of pipeline running through his mother’s village, but is anxious to play fair with God’s proxy.
‘I can pay you,’ he urges. ‘Our village is famous for its roses…I can arrange to send you a lifetime supply.’
‘Let me tell you something,’ returns Anthony. ‘No one will ever invest in your country if your people continue to poke holes in the pipeline.’
‘I think you underestimate the power of roses,’ suggests Slims.
Another guileless Georgian rejoinder, but one that is typically prescient. Later in the year elections are held, in which the sitting President, Eduard Shevardnadze wins, ‘again!’ – this time by a margin of 120 percent. But wait! There is ferment in front of the Parliament in Tbilisi, the statue of King David on his horse is stirring people up! Shevardnadze’s challenger, the young, good-looking, American-educated Mikhail Saakashvili has seized a megaphone from the ice-cream seller and is ordering everyone to sing! Which they do, for good reason. After years of civil war, they know,
that if even one person was shot, too much blood would be spilt. Saakashvili [had] decided that none of the protesters should be armed. He took away their guns and swords and announced that a true victory could only be achieved with flowers.
That is, roses. People from every corner of Georgia come to Tbilisi in trucks and cars filled with blooms. In the villages, all the roses growing out of control on balconies are plucked, and the withered roses garlanding the Stalin statues perk up.
It was known as the Rose Revolution, an episode which received journalistic treatment in Wendell Steavenson’s Stories I Stole: From Georgia (2002). Shevarnadze resigned. The first thing Saakashvili did was restore the electricity. How? ‘Like the Great Toastmaster on the first day of creation, he said, “Let there be electric power!”‘ And, ‘like wine, but also like vodka, the light made everyone’s thoughts more tender,’ Slims rejoices. But Saakashvili also brought other kinds of light: Marlboro Lights, Coca-Cola Light. Trying a little too swiftly to move Georgia from the twelfth century to the twenty-first, he let a Georgian billionaire from Moscow build a theme-park and privatise four kilometres of beach – the bit with the finest sand. He moved the statue of King David from the centre to the suburbs and replaced it with one of Ronald Reagan. The post office and the hospitals went up for sale, and the universities too, because people in Georgia are over-educated. And everyone had to forget Russian and learn that girly language, English.
Slims is even disillusioned with Hillary Clinton. ‘What is going to happen with this capitalism?’ he asks her. ‘Money makes people crazy and they lose that sacred thing inside…so I will stop writing to you.’ He and Tamriko, his sister Juliet and her admirer Malkhazi, who is Slims’ best friend, decide to move back to the village. But the BP pipeline has started to develop leaks.
In order that Slims’ mother’s health will not be endangered, Anthony ensures that the village will remain off the pipeline route by having it declared an archeological site. Returning from his meeting with the archeologists, he announces that, having fallen in love with Georgian freedom, he has bought an ancient stone tower in the mountains, and will live there forever. Never mind that his visa has expired – no one has even noticed. While Slims sees the Georgian way of life receding, at least in the city, to Anthony it has just arrived.
Nichol wrote this hilarious, mock-innocent novel after spending five years in Batumi teaching English. The literary device she mimics so unerringly is one the Georgians may well have learned under Soviet rule: the art of the subversive subtext. The non sequiturs make you laugh out loud, but, like military intelligence, the yoking of seemingly innocuous, mutually undermining concepts produces a critique that belies innocence. In this novel Georgians spend a lot of time waiting for the electricity to come on, but they are fabulous at living according to their own lights.