An irreverent novella in Tbilisi has provoked a culture war that has Georgians fighting over the limits of individual freedom.
The work, titled Saidumlo Siroba (Holy Crap), takes swipes at the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgian patriotism and Georgian mothers. It has become a William Burroughs-style bizarro bestseller, generating more shock and outrage than literary acclaim.
The book's attack on religion and nationalism, often viewed as overlapping concepts in Georgia, has generated most of the fury. The loopy plot involves a plan developed by two teenage boys to kill women en masse via a secret virus in order to encourage men to opt for homosexuality. The twosome meet at a government-financed youth Patriot Camp, described as a gathering place for "the morally incorruptible children of a morally corrupt nation."
The book's 20-year-old author, Erekli Deisadze, says he did not set out to provoke trouble. Dismissing accusations that his book promotes an agenda, Deisadze, appearing on a talk show June 8 broadcast on Imedi TV, insisted that "[l]iterature is not moral or immoral. It is amoral."
That message, though, is a novelty for many in Georgia. "Any kind of novelty takes hold through pain and trouble [in Georgia], especially if this has to do with reviewing and reassessing national, traditional values," said art critic Teo Khatiashvili. An apologist for Saidumlo Siroba, Khatiashvili recently took part in a TV talk show that degenerated into a fistfight with young members of a hard-line Georgian Orthodox group.
After receiving threats conveyed by phone and on his Facebook page, Deisadze says he fled Georgia for his own safety. He has since returned.
The Georgian Orthodox Church, which avows no formal connection with the Orthodox activists who have attacked supporters of the book, has nevertheless called for the censorship of "indecency, licentiousness and Satanism." [For details, see the EurasiaNet.org blog Tamada Tales]. http://www.eurasianet.org/node/61080
No scandal in Georgia these days seems to be complete without Russia making at least a cameo appearance. In this case, a larger-than-life newspaper publisher who has denounced the book, Malkhaz Gulashvili, publisher of The Georgian Times and founder of the hard-line People's Orthodox Movement, has whizzed off to breakaway South Ossetia and, hence, to Russia. In televised remarks, he has claimed that he wants to mobilize Russian Orthodox activists and return to Georgia to stamp out Deisadze and any sympathizers.
"The Georgian Church and state will rule Georgia together, not the Liberty Institute," Gulashvili fumed in a June 3 interview broadcast on Maestro TV. Gulashvili was referring to a well-known, Tbilisi-based libertarian think tank.
In reply, the Liberty Institute's chairperson, Levan Ramishvili, said the scandal amounts to Soviet-style "ideological sabotage," staged by Moscow with the assistance of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Church has denied such claims.
Other cultural liberals believe that Moscow planned the uproar in an attempt to derail Georgia's May 30 local elections, which ended up being dominated by President Mikheil Saakashvili's governing party. Publisher Gulashvili could not have made it to South Ossetia without having ties to Russia's Federal Security Service, they allege. Gulashvili now faces prosecution for having allegedly crossed into South Ossetia "illegally."
In a Skype interview with EurasiaNet.org in May from his location abroad, Deisadze said that a resurgence of nationalism, the Georgian Orthodox Church's growing influence and the turmoil of Georgia's immediate post-Soviet experience shaped his writing.
"I was born in the 90s, when there was a civil war. The 20-year-long nightmare was reflected in my texts, and here you will [find] religious-political-social satire, which is most pertinent now," Deisadze wrote. "If you cannot change the world, at least you can describe it."
As with most such disputes, it is a matter of perspective. Khatiashvili notes that "nationalist rhetoric" in Georgia "has been growing stronger." She believes that the reason can "be tracked back to the Soviet experience, when nationalist discourse developed in opposition to Soviet ideology."
"After the break-up of the Soviet Union, it turned out that the idea of freedom meant a national freedom rather than an individual one," she added.
Deisadze is not the first Georgian writer to try to push the boundaries when it comes to individual freedom in Georgia. Several years back, playwright Lasha Bughadze penned a piece ("The First Russian") that satirized the most revered woman in Georgian history, the 12th-13th century Queen Tamar, a Georgian Orthodox saint. Amidst Church criticism, Bughadze later had to offer a public apology for his depiction.
Last year, another young author raised conservative eyebrows when he wrote about a man tormented by an ongoing erection during Georgia's 2008 war with Russia.
Is this the literary trend of the future? Could be. Many in Georgian literary circles believe that, given the rancor produced by Saidumlo Siroba, blasphemy may now be perceived as a ticket to literary fame. At the same time, the arrest of brawling Orthodox activists and the fact that the government has largely turned a deaf ear to the Church's call for censorship makes some believe that cultural liberalism is quietly triumphing over traditionalism.
Said Georgian Public Television journalist Davit Paitchadze: "I am not a pessimist and I think this episode, with its finale, indicates a choice in favor of liberal values."
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.