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In Search of Vazha Pshavela

Waterfall, Tbilisi, Georgia

A few weeks ago, Corie and I met a friend of ours, Nino, for a cup of coffee on a café patio shaded by oversized trees near the Mtkvari River here in Tbilisi.

Everyone I know seems to know Nino. She has her hands in everything from leading writing workshops to helping a mutual friend of ours organize the annual Tbilisi Watercolor Festival. She’s one of those rare people in this world who is immediately likable, interesting, and fascinated by the world around her.

As we sipped the hours away, the conversation turned, as it usually does when the three of us are together, to writing. Nino said she has been trying to instill a love of Georgian literature in her young son.

This made me think about when I was her son’s age. I was being lazy and unmotivated in school, so my parents decided to discipline me by making me read Moby Dick and writing a book report on it.

Literature as punishment.

Even as an adult, I can’t read the line “Call me Ishmael,” without thinking I’ve done something wrong.

Nino convinced me that she was most certainly not using the Georgian literary canon to punish her son. She loves Georgian writers and wants to share that love and have him grow up with an appreciation for the country’s amazing literary heritage.

When one asks Nino about her favorite writers, the list is long. One name, however, always seems to rise to the top, Vazha Pshavela.

Vazha’s real name was Luka Razikashvili and lived from 1861 to 1915. His pen name was taken from the mountainous northern Caucasian region, his homeland Pshavi.

Nino told me Vazha had a transcendent understanding of nature, and reading his work makes one feel connected with the world in a unique way.

A few weeks later, Corie and I met a couple other friends for ice cream. Our friends are passionate about animal rescue and had invited two young high school students who have been helping them with rescue projects.

My conversation with the two students eventually turned to Georgian literature as they told me about having to read Georgia’s most beloved epic poem, Knight in the Panther’s Skin.

I’ve tried reading the epic poem by Shota Rustaveli. Epic is a little bit of an understatement, and I still haven’t finished.

So I didn’t sound completely ignorant on Georgian literature, I asked the young women what they thought of Vazha Pshavela.

My pronunciation of the writer’s name didn’t really scream, “I’m an expert in Georgian literature,” but the young women, after teasing me on my inability to pronounce several consonants jammed together, knew what I was talking about.

Their faces lit up with joy. They excitedly told me that reading Vazha makes one feel a part of nature. Their reaction was the same as my friend Nino.

So after my informal survey of three Georgian women, I decided it was time that I seek out Vazha Pshavela.

I should note before I go further that Georgians don’t seem to be as formal with names as people in other countries. Formality here is using the word that’s translated to Mr. or Mrs. with one’s first name. So I am Mr. Sean in formal settings, and Corie is Mrs. Corie. I’m assuming that’s why Georgians, or at least the ones I’ve met, refer to Vazha Pshavela as simply, Vazha.

But back to the story at hand.

My friend Nino told me that there are English translations of Vazha’s work available, but it did take a little pavement pounding.

My first order of business was to learn how to correctly pronounce Vazha Pshavela. If you had a difficult time reading the headline of this article, you understand why. I didn’t want to go into a bookstore and pronounce it so badly that whoever would be behind the counter wasn’t forced to ask me, “Wouldn’t you like a nice coloring book instead?”

The last time I was in a bookstore, I confidently asked if they had “books for apples” instead of "books for children," so I didn’t want a repeat of that silliness. (I was shopping for a Christmas gift drive.)

After several days of wandering around the apartment repeating “Va jha pschaaa veh-laa, I felt confident enough to go embarrass myself in new and unusual ways in a bookstore.

After four bookstores, it worked. I found a copy, brought it home, made a cup of coffee and curled up on the couch to read some of the short stories.

One of the stories, “The Lofty Mountains,” begins: “They have always stood expecting something. Eternal is the mountains’ expectation; like a boundless sea, it fills their heart. Crimson-red and clotted, it quivers in their breast.”

My mind wandered to our trip last year to Kazbegi, a rugged mountainous region just south of Russia. I had never seen scenery so majestic and powerful before with steep, jagged mountains jutting out of slender valleys.

I have now experienced two different tastes of Vazha’s world, being in the physical presence of scenery like no other and seeing it through one of Georgia’s most beloved writers. I’m grateful to three women for pointing me in that direction.

On Tuesday, Corie and I are heading south to Dmanisi, an archaological site near the Armenian border where 1.7-million-year-old hominin remains have been discovered. For a while, the site was an important stop on the Silk Road. Along the way, we'll be stopping at an 18th century fortress.

Are we, two history majors, excited about this trip? Absolutely! Am I going to share it with you next week? Of course!

Watchtower, Stepantsminda, Georgia

Mount Kazbegi Hidden by Clouds, Stepantsminda, Georgia


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