Tara Isabella Burton

Tbilisi: The Edge of the Real

Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize

Tbilisi: The Edge of the Real
Text settings

The electricity will be on in one hour, says my landlady. She tells me that it is dark out all over town (ignoring the glittering chrome bridge over the Mtkvari River, ignoring the casino that casts neon shadows on the banks at night). She calls me ‘daughter’ and evades specifics. Won’t I come upstairs for dinner at eight, or perhaps nine? (She is so busy; she works so hard; she’ll ring when dinner is ready.) The call never comes.

So I eat out, in restaurants, but often I cannot seem to leave my neighbourhood. Whenever I think I’ve found the way, I am turned back on myself again. A street is closed off for reconstruction, a nameless alleyway is rerouted, crumbling buildings are bulldozed to make new paths. In their absence I discover more: abandoned observatories, synagogues hidden in courtyards, balconies with wrought-iron mermaids, angels and griffins carved into stone. The streetlamps on Botanikuri Street are uprooted at least four times in a given month because the workers have made mistakes in the wiring, and so the road to the old fortress is closed off. I do what the locals do, and simply detour through the pastel apartment buildings which have now been colonised by builders, who leave behind plastic bottles stinking of moonshine when they leave.

Tbilisi has always been a fragmentary city, a carnival cosmopolis for Azeri merchants and Armenian carpet weavers, holidaying Russian painters, Silk Road traders and Syriac holy men. It remains — in the eyes of so many Georgians — a borderland between those two all-encompassing categories of Georgian and foreign. Tbilisi is not ‘the village’ — a vague Georgian term denoting homemade wine and virginal sixth cousins, evenings playing on the pandauri and toasting to the blood of enemies. Nor is it ‘the mountains’, those vertiginous and wildflower-drunk passes that nobody I meet in Tbilisi has ever visited, but which comprise the subject of at least half the folk songs I hear sung outside my window before dawn.

It is a city of neoclassical façades and Moorish opera houses, of art nouveau entrance halls guarded by pockmarked grotesques, of weathered Zoroastrian fire temples located in old people’s backyards, of subterranean strip clubs and gaudy LED-lit casinos catering to truckers and vacationing Iranians. Things make sense for a few moments — the amount of time it takes for me to make my way to an address for an interview, to get to the key-cutter’s stall, to learn the most direct route from my street to the only reliable purveyor of meat (a grime-streaked basement signposted in both Hebrew and Georgian: Kosher khortsi) — and then everything implodes again.

The lights go out; the stray dogs snap at my heels. I try to lose myself in side streets and instead stumble into the courtyard of a Soviet tower. I find a café and christen it my local — in May, it is a Beardsley-inspired ‘opera café’, in September a Silk Road-themed basement. Then it shuts down without warning. I start walking down Rustaveli Avenue, the city’s main boulevard and end up, 20 minutes later, at a film premiere, photographed by paparazzi on the arm of a Georgian actor. A self-avowed ‘monarchist’, who feeds the caged peacocks by Meidan Restaurant and takes great pains to show me, through a crumpled series of photographs, the resemblance to Prince Charles that substantiates his claims at lineage, invites me to his painting studio on Tchaikovsky Street. Sometimes I am served tea; sometimes we never meet again. My Georgian friend tells me she’ll meet me on the train platform so we can go to the seaside. Hours later, the lights at the station go out, and I am left standing there, alone with the drunkards, mistaken — only once — for a prostitute.

It is this kind of meandering serendipity that brings me to Nino. I have been interviewing the director of the State Academy of Arts for an abortive article on contemporary Georgian art; she recommended that I get in touch with Nino, a Paris-trained designer known for fusing couture and art. When I call her up for an interview, Nino informs me that I will be coming to her house instead.

Nino (named, like two thirds of the country’s women, after Georgia’s patron saint) lives in the labyrinthine outskirts of Mtatsminda, a crumbling 19th-century neighbourhood of marble facades and decaying entrance halls located on the slopes beneath St David’s Church. She wears sleek black and has the spindly mannerisms of a marionette. She asks me about my work. When I tell her that I am a graduate student, researching the religious aspects of artistic creation, she nods without smiling.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I was just thinking about this today.’ She pours me Indian coffee and together we inhale the fig-laced air from the balcony. ‘Where does it come from?’ We stare at each other for a while. She sits on the floor and I turn off my tape recorder.

She tells me about her time in Paris, about the painful elegance and the beauty of small streets, about the possibilities of training abroad. But eventually she had to come home to Tbilisi, she says. She couldn’t bear the ‘masks’ of Paris — the detachment of everyday society. She longed for people who were willing to show their emotions, to weep, to caterwaul and fight mountain duels and force strangers to drink home-brewed cha cha in celebration, sometimes at gunpoint.

‘Georgians are a very theatrical people — very dramatic.’ She laughs and kicks off her shoes and knows, already, the effect she has on me. ‘Everything is a game.’ She checks to make sure I am paying attention, and even now I am not sure if she isn’t just telling me what I want to hear. ‘Under the Soviet Union, you know, people were always playing. You had to play — to put on a mask.’

If there is a game, I tell her, I haven’t learned its rules. I confuse effusiveness for sincerity; I can’t work out the bus timetables. I do not know when to let strange women buy me tea in the marketplace and when to refuse. To be Georgian seems to me to be engaged in a collective national performance — one in which I cannot participate.

Nino asks me why I have come here. I tell her about the routines I’ve planned for myself: an imaginary existence assembled from fragmentary ideas about Georgian life, about Pushkin’s Old Tiflis and Lermontov’s romantic bandits. On Sundays I would go to the flea market and look at cheap swords and fin de siècle crockery; I would read Pushkin in a subterranean blue-tiled room at the sulphur baths and drink tea before the fire at the richly carpeted chaikhana next door. In the evenings I would go up to the ruins of the old Arab fortress and watch the sunset creep across the sketch-pale horizons of the Caucasus. I would head to the teeming bazroba and fill my wicker basket with aubergines. I’d spend summers riding horses up the Abano Pass into the province of Tusheti, where the sun parches the grass and pagan shrines, crowned with horns, dot the path into Dagestan.

Nino is pleased. This is the Tbilisi she wants me to see. I do not mention the piss-misted underpasses, the tower blocks signalling surrender with wave upon wave of laundry, the Irish dive bars on Perovskaya where the English teachers congregate to vomit into courtyards. She does not mention them, either.

The conversation turns, as it so often does, to religion, and Nino decides that it is time to show me her angels. She brings me into the bedroom and flings open her wardrobe, throwing costume upon costume on the bed before perching upon the floor. She traces the outline of demons and seraphs, embossed on a black leather coat. Another coat, white this time, displays a woman -praying.

‘You will try this one on,’ she tells me, with all the glee of a child playing dress-up, before distractedly wandering off into another room, leaving me alone with piles of gauze and taffeta, silk and leather. I work up the courage to slip my wrist into a silver bracelet. ‘This collection is about protection,’ says Nino’s artist statement, ‘protection of the divine [through] monsters and goddesses.’ She leaves me alone for an hour or more with a delicately pencilled scrapbook, based on Alice in Wonderland, she once drew for a daughter she did not know.

She leads me from room to room in the house, which once belonged to her grandfather, and for the first time Tbilisi comes together for me. There are antique photographs on the walls — not the ones I picked up at random at the flea market, four for ten lari, but of grandparents and great-grandparents, people Nino has loved. She shows me her grandmother’s paintings, her grandfather’s study — which even now she cannot bear to make her own. I think of my own antiques, hastily purchased from the flea market near the flower stalls, and I am ashamed. I am ashamed of the makeshift museum I have made on my shelves, of the Tbilisi I have tried to conquer with my footsteps. For Nino these things are natural — or perhaps they, too, are arranged for effect.

She decides that we will get a coffee before she goes to church for the evening service — she is, like most Georgians, strictly Orthodox. She changes in front of me and remembers to pack a scarf with which to cover her hair. We hurry down the ridge of Mtatsminda, past an inexplicable clown wending his way along Rustaveli Avenue, and take a taxi to Chardini Street, where a series of Moroccan bars serve hookah out on the pavement (Nino insists I stick to mint tea). We are friends now, and so Nino tells me more of her secrets: her fractious relationship with her now-grown daughter, her depression, the leviathan darkness — implicit in the eyes of her leather demons — that threatened to swallow her down in Paris.

In Jerusalem, Nino tells me, she had a religious experience. An epiphany. Something spoke to her, something that makes her believe in icons and crosses and the theophanies that, in Tbilisi, appear in every abandoned alleyway. She draws me in, puffing inscrutably on her pipe, and I tell her about the time I stripped naked in Sighnaghi, about two hours’ drive from Tbilisi, to bathe in the glacial spring of St Nino, because someone told me that it would wash me clean of my sins. It is easy to confess these moments to her.

We talk about our secret heartbreaks and the dreams we have not yet realised, about romance (Nino, whose second husband is several years younger than her, airily dismisses feminism, exulting in what she calls the ‘softness’ of her feminine force).  We talk about what we’re looking for in Tbilisi, what we could not find in Paris or in London: our shared, surreal, half-imagined city, where even fig trees whisper secrets. We talk about how it is fate — because in Tbilisi nothing happens by chance — that we have found one another, that we understand one another.

I know, of course, that I will never see her again. This has happened to me enough times by now to know that, in Tbilisi, these intimacies are only temporary. I am a foreigner, after all; I do not belong to that real life that happens behind closed doors. She too has been playing a game with me — involving me in her own private performance — creating a series of moments, trying on a series of masks. I have heard too many secrets; I have witnessed too many tears; I have been called ‘daughter’ and ‘sister’ too many times to believe that, come tomorrow, she will do anything but forget me.

That night I walk through the streets and get lost; they have closed off another alleyway for reconstruction. Of the buildings that still stand in Old Tbilisi, few of them match: art nouveau windows beside Ottoman-style palaces. I pass my old friends — the mermaids in the wrought-iron balconies, the angel-faces carved into the doorways on Asatiani Street — and they help me find my way home. At home I sit on my terrace, looking out at the ugliness of the casino, the glimmer of the new bridge, the blue lights of the funicular. The electricity runs out.

The Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize is relaunched this year and awarded annually to the entrant best able, like the late writer, to describe a visit to a ‘foreign’ place or people.The judges were Colin Thubron, Joanna Kavenna, Jenny Naipaul, Mark Amory, Mary Wakefield, Lucy Vickery and Clarissa Tan.Six were shortlisted from 150 entries: Dina Segal, William Nicoll, Cheryl Follon, Marianne Brown; the runner-up was Steven McGregor. The winning essay is published here.