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A Captive of the Caucasus by Andrei Bitov [in English] Farrar, 1992, 323 pp. Armenian News Network / Groong June 28, 2004 by Shushan Avagyan One of Andrei Bitov's compelling travel memoirs, "A Captive of the Caucasus" is divided into Lessons of Armenia: Journey out of Russia, which was written between 1967-69, and Choosing a Location: Georgian Album, written between 1970-73 and 1980-83. Both Lessons of Armenia and Choosing a Location started as travelogue essays focusing respectively on ancient and modern Armenian architecture and contemporary Georgian filmmaking, but eventually evolved into a full length book. With the carefully chosen title, Bitov places it alongside a Russian tradition of Caucasian writings, originated by Pushkin in 1820 when he wrote a poem with the same title during his exile in the Caucasus. The poem became so popular that Lermontov and later Tolstoy adopted the title for their own variations on the same plot (a romantic story of a highland maiden falling in love with a Russian officer in captivity, and helping him escape). In 1969, when Lessons first appeared in print, the censors had left out its subtitle and botched the contents. More recent editions (since glasnost), like this one translated into English by Susan Brownsberger (Farrar, 1992), have included the censored material and restored what Bitov had originally intended to do with his book. Lessons of Armenia: Journey out of Russia's subtitle is a quote from Bitov's best known novel Pushkin House, on which he was working during his voyage in Armenia. Drawing his expectations from Pushkin's travel notes and looking for an experience of alienation from his own culture in these austere highlands, Bitov is quick to embrace the ancient heritage left by the Armenian ancestors. Typical to his writing style - setting up the stage for a certain plot, but really ending up with something completely different - Bitov writes: `I would call my essay `Armenian Illusions,' if I hadn't already given it a different title and structure. I have painted, with love and idealism, a country foreign to me, and yet I love not Armenia but Russia - `my reason cannot conquer this strange love.'' It's as if he is elaborating on Pushkin's lines from Journey to Arzrum, which are also a part of the epigraph to Lessons: `Love thine own self, / My gentle dear reader.' Indeed, the arabesque on Aelita of Aparan is not just a sophisticated account between two strangers, but also a reference to Alexei Tolstoy's romantic science-fiction novel titled `Aelita, or The Decline of Mars' (1922). Bitov looks - but all he can see is Pushkin descending from the Georgian mountains into the lush green plains of Armenia, or Mandelstam passing through the steep canyons; he cannot, better yet, he refuses to exist outside the context of great Russian classics. And as a result, his experience develops through paradoxical multi-layered instances; through painstaking digressions he uncovers myopic details that force the reader to either surrender and futilely close the book, or stop resisting and surrender to the author's mastery of diction and convictions. Doubtless, the book received contradicting criticisms in Armenia, nothing unpredictable for the author who wrote at the end of Lessons: `I risk being misunderstood by both Russians and Armenians. My material may seem interesting to a Russian, since he knows Armenia as poorly as I do, or even worse; I'll get by with my ignorance and the naivete of first view. But my emotion - it is riper in me - may be easier for Armenians to understand than for Russians...' Having read this, I flip to the beginning of the book and start looking afresh at images so native to me, that I have ceased noticing their beauty and depth. Like the duduk player in the background, `behind this small, portly genius who radiated simplicity and goodness there was another man - huge, dark, and savage. Unnoticed, he took out a pipe of the same kind and began steadily blowing on it, playing a single long-drawn-out note on a never-ending breath from his immense chest.' Critics argue that Bitov has not captured the essence of Armenia, that he is merely erecting an edifice of his own Russian impressions and subjectivity. But in order to try to understand the essence of an Armenian man playing so persistently (by heart) the notes of his ancient forefathers, one needs to cast a brand new gaze - something that is utterly genuine and Bitovesque. `Why do you believe you're the only one who appreciates this? - my neighbor said to me with inhospitable animosity.' For me, this question implies that we as Armenians already do appreciate and edify our own heritage, and so demand (`with animosity') the same from odars. This raises another question: do we really appreciate this heritage, or has it gone beyond the point where appreciation has transformed into a blind exaltation, a mere idea, a fabulous concept? Last summer, at the 3000-year-old structures on Erebouni hill, I walked into the royal chamber of King Argishti only to witness a visitor handing a bill to a woman with a lifted skirt, and another man carving his own name on the wall. Yes - we `appreciate' our heritage by desecrating and mutilating the stones that generations before us have borne on their backs. I think Bitov has raised a question that needs to be urgently addressed. So much for `not capturing the essence of an Armenian.' The aknark that the slav author has come to write in Armenia during his ten-day journey is slowly taking shape on paper as he visits Matenadaran, Zvartnots, the closed farmer's bazaar in Yerevan, Garni and Geghard, Echmiatsin and Charents's Arch. Leafing through the book of Armenian history, he becomes debilitated and prostrate with grief: `I ran out of black ink when I opened this book the fourth time, and I am forced to write in red pencil. This is neither manipulation nor symbol - it's chance - but my pages are red.' No foreigner can do any justice to Armenia in ten days, years or millennia, and so we should not look for fake flawless words that lack authenticity, but try to see ourselves from a different standpoint - another tangent. Something like this: `If I should be born anew, born an Armenian on your soil, I would love you madly, my homeland...' The brilliance that lies in Bitov's writing is the way he casts light on things - the chiaroscuro and the depth, which produce unprecedented emotion. For instance when an acquaintance takes him to Old Yerevan: `The courtyard grew like a tree - old branches died off, new cul-de-sacs grew up - and the branches of a tree are never imperfectly arranged. It's thicker here, thinner there, crooked there, broken there - but it's a tree! Children chirp in its crown, lovers prop up its trunk, and a black-clad grandmother keeps busy at the roots, stooping down, kindling the stove, picking up bits of wood and dropping them. The perspective of the generations, each courtyard like a genealogical tree...' These thoughts are generated after a meeting with a famous architect, whose brainwashed socialist tirades and fantastic visions of Yerevan have nothing in common with the spirit of its citizens. Bitov resists: `We must not confuse cost with value, expensiveness with preciousness... The most brilliant creation of human hands is monosemantic and partial, compared with nature. The automobile is in no way more precious than the glade in which we have parked.' These words are true especially today, with Yerevan's cancer-like casinos and cafis spreading with the speed of light along the Mashtots Avenue, Abovian and the Opera House, with public parks swiftly turning into grotesque buildings for strip-clubs or brothels. Indeed, our appreciation of this land that has been passed on to us through hell and high water `has so obscured Armenia, has so totally destroyed my expectations, and has accumulated so painful a burden of experience, that I can cope with it all only in a new book.' As his other texts, Captive is a moody book - Bitov's tone fluctuates from genuinely joyful, to morose, depressive, careless, sardonic, even hateful. Armenia overwhelms him; he wants to reject everything in his own culture and adopt a new one, but that is impossible. He gladly finds his relief in `betraying' all of his real convictions about Armenia in order to embrace his own nationalism and love for Russia. This is the brutal truth, and as hurtful it may sound to an Armenian - it is the nature of the exile: `In point of fact, this Armenia of mine was written about Russia. Because what comparison does the traveler make, what does he marvel at? He compares with his homeland, he marvels at the dissimilarity: the things he doesn't have, the things he lacks, the things he has but not enough of, not enough.' After Armenia's tour de force comes the period of resignation, where Bitov seems to have lost his purpose, as he keeps digressing and rambling on various topics ranging from his trip to the Leningrad zoo with his daughter to a vodka conversation in a boiler room about beetles and literature. Choosing a Location: Georgian Album flows in a more abstract way in the sense of taking national sides, but he emerges as a critical author, who painstakingly, almost masochistically searches for the truth as a commitment to his reader. Stylistically more sophisticated and playful than the section on Armenia, Bitov has total control over the text, through suspension, by impeding and making the reader wait in anticipation: `The plot of a book possesses the peculiarity that it must be concluded - having entered into it, you cannot exit via some other labyrinth.' And if as readers we are left with any doubt that what Bitov is attempting to do is out of pure obsessive love for his subject, like captives we adopt an ambivalent relationship with our master, the author of the following lines: `I didn't want to understand. I wanted to seize. Anything added to someone's fame (even by me), any recognition (however well deserved!) from an outsider, is a portent of the end. An invasion and appropriation. For some reason, love is acknowledged to have an incontestable right. But, in fact, the person we love should be asked whether he needs this, whether he is flattered by our unrequited right to him... The rights of the loved one are neglected. He is a victim of our passion.' Subsequently another example of Bitovesque artistic reinvention surfaces in the revisions of Russia's beloved writer and composer Griboedov's captivity in the arms of his sibylline wife, Georgian princess Nina Chavchavadze. Setting up the scene from the early nineteenth century, he reenacts the moment when Griboedov meets her: `I am born again to a new life, realizing that I have it all wrong, this is not Nona but Nina, and Nona - here she is! she enters in the middle of our tea party, with ink-stained fingers, having failed to solve a problem about two trains. And while the trains race full speed toward their inevitable collision (through the fault of the charming mathematician), I tenderly examine my error...' Whatever his gaze touches upon, it reminds him of his own culture - Armenia, Georgia or any other land can do nothing more for the vagabond writer but fatally inspire. The ending, as typical to Bitov, is painful and slow. With a torturous writer's block, he attempts to finish what he had begun transcribing years ago, but there simply can be no `finish line.' In the Postscript, which appears (`not in its place' - V. Shklovsky) in the middle of the Album, he writes: `In its concept, and even in its construction, this book is the ruins of a temple that I spent quite a few years trying to build. Ruins, it seems, are my end result. But they are the ruins of a temple never finished. For the reader, deciphering them is a task akin to archaeology.' Next to a vignette dedicated to the twelfth century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, he juxtaposes a childhood memory of his visit to Chekhov's house - and then - his pilgrimage to Ilya Chavchavadze's estate in Saguramo, after which he keeps zigzagging back and forth, delivering comparative verses from Russian and Georgian poets. Unlike A.R. Kayayan, who wrote an extensive critique of Lessons in Contra Mundum (No. 13 Fall 1994), accusing Bitov of writing through his `deep slav subjectivity' and instincts of a Russian colonizer, I enjoyed immensely reading and re-reading this truly solitary account of a man who surrenders himself to the highlands of the Caucasus in a search of his own self. Because only through exile does one come to appreciate what one has temporarily lost - `Homeland. Muteness.' And because he IS an odar he cannot possibly write through an `Armenian sensibility' as Kayayan would have liked him to, but only as a slav self-exile, who has come to pay tribute to a strange and beautiful land that has also been the fatal port for many of his countrymen. Scrupulously scrambling for words, phrases, adjectives, Bitov erases them, starts anew, only to find the `right' approach of narrating the unfathomable expectations and at the same time estrangement from these foreign (to him) civilizations. With great caution he treads on the margin of `self' and `other,' contradicting himself, self-criticizing knowingly that what he is doing is rather controversial - `I risk being misunderstood...' -- Shushan Avagyan is currently working on her master's degree in English Literature, and is a recipient of the Dalkey Archive Press fellowship at the Illinois State University.