In this week’s Translation Tuesday, join Georgian writer Ruska Jorjoliani as she tells the stories of her grandfather and their people. Becoming a refugee as a result of war, Jorjoliani’s first-person narrator gradually finds new words, before finding the need to use those words—telling the story of family, dear yet far away.
Among us, epic tales were like wedges to keep the workbench of daily life from wobbling, benches with cheap tools on top, all of us dragging ours behind us the way we did our long, grueling winters. When I was a girl, the first creatures that roused my imagination were horses—starving, weary beasts, but still horses. Every morning I used to watch our neighbor Ciko saddle his bay, settle a rough woolly hat on his head, let out a shout, and gallop off, disappearing into the mountains. Ciko’s horse and Ciko, bent low over the halter, were the only beings who could travel beyond, exceed those limits set down by the laws of nature first and then by men, the only ones who could taste another air, other worlds hidden to the common gaze. After about twenty km, the rider had to dismount and walk up so that the horse didn’t fall into a gorge, then you’d arrive at a lake, green in spring and blue in summer—what it looked like in fall or winter you didn’t know, since no one had ever dared try the climb in those seasons—and then finally the mountain would begin to shrink like the tail of a hibernating dragon and you could make out the first houses of the others in the distance, those strangers, children of another god, the Kabards.
I’ve never seen a Kabard in my life, and when I asked Grandfather if they really existed and what they looked like, he just shrugged. “They are border people like us, I imagine,” he said. Grandfather, like his grandfather before him, had never seen the Kabards invade, but he always said it could happen one day, that the dragon of the mountains might one day flap around, dry up the lake and open the way for the children of other gods, the ones who rode the legendary Kabardin horses, animals that were a thousand times stronger and faster than our own, and so we must always be ready. And therefore, strident, fearful, solemn, we built high stone towers, for no one, Kabards or not, must cross those lands as if they were open valleys, each parcel belonged to a particular divinity and nothing was merely its physical self: there were rivers, and songs that spoke of those rivers, the dead whose souls returned home once a year, and the living, so as not to frighten them, hid weapons and sharp objects out of their sight.
We lost the battle long ago, we border people, even before we knew what borders were, or battle, or that we were border people in battle. Where could Ciko go astride his horse if not to gaze at the remains of something that never was, timeless epic grandeur forever out of time, a life of deeds never done, of the toughest border to cross but also the flimsiest, already crossed? The shapes of things are most visible from borders; the Kabardin horses continue to populate my dreams, growing ever more vivid, and although we lost, although I’ve never seen a Kabard in my life, should geography collude with history to scatter me even further afield, I’m certain that when I return they will still be there, border people defending something that never was: Grandfather, his Kabards, and their fantastic horses.
Just as they call every type of fish “trout,” even whales, my people of the mountains call every conflict a scuffle—everything from an argument to a war, including the Second World War, the “Great Scuffle.”
My father liked to repeat the trout story, the sly smile on his face that of a man who knew what’s what, until one time, after few glasses of wine, sitting around the table with a fellow he’d met just a few hours before, the man said to him: “That’s a load. Of course we have names for other fish.” “Such as?” said my father, still smiling. “Such as? Well, for example . . . ” he gave the difficult name of an unfamiliar fish. “I was born and raised here,” my father shot back, “and I’ve never heard anything of the kind.” “That means nothing,” said the other, “or maybe it just means you are ignorant.” My father was no longer smiling, he looked like a man who knows what’s what when it comes to scuffles.
And so, when the war reached us, not from the side grandfather had been fearing, but from another side altogether, no one dared call it a scuffle. Maybe the language had changed, or maybe war had changed. People used images instead, sometimes rough, sometimes detailed, depending on the situation, to refer to those times when “refugees walked over the mountains” or “we were trying to cross the river but the other bank, rather than approaching, kept moving further and further away” and “some were still wearing their pyjamas under their clothing.”
My images are just three, very sharp, and sometimes at night when my defenses are down, they flash before my eyes as if stuck in a stereoscope, nearly as precise as a film except for the colors, for of all the properties of things, time is quickest to erase colors.
First image (the lone color, the soft yellow of a low watt light bulb): My father returns home in the middle of the night, and nervously, hastily, hides the Kalashnikov at the bottom of the wardrobe. He throws himself on the bed, still dressed, kisses me on the cheek, his beard prickly, and tossing one arm around my mother’s slender neck, stares up at the ceiling beams and says, “That’s it for me. I’m not fighting this war anymore.”
Second image (the skies are grey): Grandfather, now old and completely blind, walks toward a bench in the garden, where the first frost has already marked the bushes and the grass. He’s wearing a sort of beret on his head and carries an iron walking stick in his hand, and when he hears the warning signals, the buzz of some low-flying airplanes, he suddenly stops and mutters to himself: “Thank the heavens I’m blind. If only I were also deaf, damnation, if only I were deaf.”
Third image (one of the two may have been wearing a red sweater): my mother learns that her young cousin, the father of three children, has died when a television set exploded. A neighbor is in our house just then, an older woman with a hard and angular face. “What sort of a death is that?” she says to my mother. “He might have fallen in battle at least.” My mother, tiny and shaking with sobs, looks up and I see, for the first time, her deep hatred for the woman and for whatever it is that stands behind her words.
A city abroad
She didn’t know where she was, she would open a door and find another door, she would open that, and there’d be another. Then, at last, she would leap out of bed, tense and worn out, and catch sight of a line of sea out the window. She remembered her mother’s words the night before she left; they were in a room lit by a kerosene lamp. “It won’t be so dark there, you’ll see.” It was true, you couldn’t call this dark, this room, but the rain coming down almost sideways was rapping unceasingly on the glass, and the view in the window frame looked gloomy.
The woman of the blond hair and elegant clothing broke a bar of chocolate in two pieces and then, methodically, each of those two into two smaller pieces, and holding them carefully in the tin foil wrapper, offered them solicitously and almost affectionately to the little girl huddled in the corner of the sofa. The girl, hesitant and shy, and not knowing even simple words of thanks in the woman’s language, was about to take a piece, and she looked at the woman and then the chocolate, then suddenly something stopped her, her arm froze in midair, and she sat there frozen for a moment, then burst into tears.
Later the man, the elegant woman’s husband, took the girl for a drive along the seafront in his red automobile. He bought her ice cream at a stand decorated in gaudy colors and pointing his finger, showed her the white boat moving slowly out to sea, the snapping sound of its swelling sail carried back by the wind to the little jetty where they stood, the tall man and the skinny girl holding an ice cream cone that was melting in her hand. Back in the car they were silent all the way back to the house—yellow with a roof of brown beams over the veranda and a flourishing bougainvillea on one side—when the man took the keys from the ignition and held them up, jingling them and enunciating his syllables with care, said to the girl: “Chia-vi. These are keys.” A smile crept across her face and she held out her arm to point at the horizontal blue stripe that divided the windshield in half. And the man, visibly relieved, said: “Oh, that. That’s the sea. Ma-re.”
I learned to read so I could tell Grandfather new stories, because his were running out. The first book I read to him told of a big man with only one arm who went to search for his brother in a far-off Siberian city. I read to him and perhaps, many years later, I also began to write for him. Like the primer coat that imposes a layer between me and the world and at the same time facilitates the heavy hand of life’s color on top, words become molds, imprints, orographic outlines, and I think you judge a man by this, by his grasp on words, by how he reacts to the story of a fellow who goes to search for his brother deep in the snow.
I’m not afraid of a blank page; it’s the one already written that worries me. I could take my every sentence and rewrite it until the very last moment of time, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go beyond that, because it is always that going-beyond, that which you see after, that interests me, whether in a book that when reread becomes a different book, or an evening drinking with friends that takes on new meaning when you are no longer friends or have become closer friends than before. A blank page is mute, and those for whom words count for nothing, or else count too much, are mute—and the two are often the same thing, because in neither case does the person dare to connect to words, they’re like the very worst love stories, the ones that were never lived. I have always clung to my words; my days are justified by nothing more than a few words, every full stop at the end of a chapter records the difference between what I’d have liked to write and what I did write, but in return my nights overflow with stories told me by Grandfather or old Ciko who rode up into the hills to hunt mountain goats. And every morning I take those stories and hang them out to dry, and embroider the surfaces between my hands, paper, or just the veil of daily life. And even when I see much that could be corrected, something or someone behind the words born of night tells me that the only thing to do is push those novices onstage in the morning, endure their errors, and accept some flashes of pleasure.
Once I dreamed that I wanted to say something, I was tense, racking my brains, but could not pronounce the precise word that had to be said, and I thrashed and struggled, the veins in my neck stood out, and it was as if Grandfather had died or word came that Ciko had not returned from his hunt.
It’s always what comes after that matters, an “after” connected to something that began, I know not when, or who first told a story or carved something before the fire, and then regretted it, thinking he should have done better or not at all. But the next day he does it again, and that night one of the young ones dreams and not long after, follows in his footsteps. I too can only follow, and regret, and then a pale, distant voice arrives as if across the desert or through the rain, and I go on. Until my nights end, as they did with Grandfather, with nothing left to tell, and he sings me a wordless song.
He died when I, who was far away, told his stories in a language not his own. On the phone just a few days before, I’d asked him about his fainting spell, and he said: “I saw you all sitting around the table, and you were healthy and cheerful, and then I saw that you were growing smaller, and the room was also growing smaller, or perhaps it was I who was moving away. I couldn’t make out your faces and I thought, maybe this is the end, but thank God, it wasn’t.”
Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall
Ruska Jorjoliani was born in 1985 in Mestia, Georgia in the Caucasus, a refugee to Tbilisi with her family in 1992 following the war in Abkhazia. Sent to Sicily for a summer as a child, she returned to Palermo University to study philosophy as a young woman in 2007. She’s one of a small number of talented foreign-born fiction writers whose style and subject matter are subtly deepening Italian literature. In her acquired language, she has written short stories and a novel La tua presenza è come una città (Your Presence is Like a City, 2016). The novel earned a special mention for the Hermann Geiger prize in 2016, and was named Best Book at Librinfestival 2018. The author thanks the online translation magazine Specimen, where “Fragments” first appeared in Italian, for permission to publish here.
Frederika Randall was born in Pittsburgh and has lived in Italy for more than 30 years. Her translations from Italian include The Body of Il Duce (Metropolitan, 2005), Sicilian Tragedee (FSG, 2008), Deliver Us (Northwestern, 2011), The Swallows of Monte Cassino (Scarith, 2013), Confessions of an Italian (Penguin Classics, 2014), Primo Levi’s Resistance (Metropolitan, 2016) and The Communist (NYRB Classics, 2017). She received a 2008 PEN-Heim grant for Luigi Meneghello’s memoir, the 2011 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature (Padre Pio, Metropolitan, 2010) and was a finalist for the 2017 Italian Prose in Translation Award. Forthcoming: I Am God (Restless, 2019) and Dissipatio H.G. (NYRB, 2020).
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