Valerian Markarov: Writing Russian and Being Armenian in Georgia

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YEREVAN/TBILISI — Valerian Markarov, born in 1967, in Tbilisi, is an author and historian from Georgia who writes in the Russian language. After graduating with honors from the History Department of the Pushkin State Pedagogical Institute in Tbilisi, he began teaching. Later he studied business and management in the USA (California State University, Sacramento) and Israel (MASHAV Centre for International Cooperation), worked in a number of international organizations and diplomatic missions.

Since 2005 he has been working as director of the Golden Bridge International Educational Center in Tbilisi. Markarov is the author of popular books Everything has its time, Geniuses are People too… Leonardo da Vinci, The Legend of Pirosmani, The Personal Diary of Olivia Wilson, A Streetcar of her Desire, etc., translated into different languages. He is a winner of the Pushkin and Gogol, Mark Twain (US), DIAS awards, winner of the Golden Knight Award, Best Book of the Year Award (Germany), a finalist for the Fazil Iskander and Ernest Hemingway awards (Canada), etc. He is the founder and chairman of the Organizing Committee of the International Literary Award “Gradus ad Parnassum,” jury member of international literary contests.

Dear Valerian, the first question I would like to address is related to language. In post-Soviet Georgia, Russian is no longer popular; I know from my own experience, most locals either do not answer tourists’ questions in Russian or answer in other languages. But Russian-language literature continues to be created in Georgia. In what condition is it today and how does a Russian-speaking writer live in today’s Georgia?

Yes, when a huge country collapsed and disintegrated into small components, and its inhabitants were scattered to different parts of the world by the rising wave, a policy of refusal of the Russian language began in independent Georgia. However, I can say that the Russian language is still in demand among Georgians and representatives of national minorities living in Georgia. By the way, we are very fond of quoting Chekhov, who said: “However many languages you know — you are  a man that many times.” And so it is. A good job seeker who is able to express his thoughts beautifully, competently and fully in three languages — Georgian, English and Russian — will be fought over by the best recruitment agencies, as I can see from the example of my own students, many of whom work in international companies operating in Georgia. Obviously, Russian will remain an important regional language for a long time to come, in which Georgians will communicate not only with Russians, but also with Armenians and Ukrainians, Kazakhs and Azerbaijanis. And as for Russian-language literature in Georgia — yes, it is being created. It means that someone needs it, someone is interested in it. And I live quite comfortably, because I live at home — Georgia is my homeland. My readers are Russian-speakers all over the world, as well as foreign-speaking ones, to whom my books are available in translations into English, Spanish, French, Italian and other languages.

Are there complaints that you, as a native of Tbilisi, don’t write in Georgian?

I have never heard such reproaches or claims against myself. And, frankly speaking, I hope it will never happen. Georgia has been a multinational country since ancient times, and this factor predetermined the entire historical path of its development. Many nations have found a shelter here, which in time became their native home. Moreover, since ancient times languages of other nationalities and ethnic groups coexisted in Georgia along with Georgian. Everyone who has a favorable and respectful attitude to the bright and distinctive Georgian culture and traditions is welcome in Georgia.

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As a fiction author, I am always interested to know about the process of literary inspiration with fellow creatives. How is it for you?

Usually in such cases, my fellow writers talk about the inspiration that visits them. But seriously, there is an objective reality, and to think that something “from above” will come into your head is naive. We have a huge and powerful machine — consciousness; it needs to be loaded correctly, and it will produce quality and interesting things. And inspiration is the schizophrenia of a creative person. Open any memoirs of recognized classics about how they wrote. You will not find there a word about “inspiration,” but you will find information about how they set up the process: how they wrote down their thoughts, how they worked with drafts, how and when they returned to the text, how they found themes, how they processed and finalized the text. That is what it is about, not inspiration that you cannot wait for. The secret is to make an effort, to sit down — and, being ready to roll mountains, to work, and work, and work until the last point. And then you can rest. I, by the way, prefer the sea and traveling.

Your novel about Leonardo da Vinci was included in the top seven books about the great artist. Some researchers, referring to the so-called “Armenian Letters” of Leonardo, believe that he traveled in Cilician Armenia, while others refute it. Have you come to a conclusion about it?

For me as a writer it is important to follow historical accuracy in the description of events, it is important to search for facts and verify them. That is, the main sign of a quality historical novel is its authenticity. One must be prepared to work painstakingly with sources. Also, in order to feel the spirit of the time and the historical era itself, it is very useful to travel to the places where the events of the book unfolded. The novel Geniuses are People too… Leonardo da Vinci was partly written in Italy; the legacy of the great genius is carefully preserved in the luxurious museums and libraries of Florence, Rome, Venice. Of course, I also visited the Ambrosian Library in Milan, where the manuscript “Armenian Letters” is located: in it Leonardo mentions the country of Herminia, describes the mountains of the Taurus, the Euphrates River, which, as it is known, originates in the Armenian Plateau. However, in conversations with me a number of Italian historians who have studied the issue, categorically denied the fact of Cilician journey, putting it among many other artistic fictions of Leonardo and every time noting that the life of the Renaissance genius is studied in detail year by year, and there is no evidence of his departure from Italy in this period. Based on the above, I felt that this question has yet to be investigated in detail.

Valerian Markarov

Please speak about the Armenian writings of the Georgian artists Niko Pirosmani, about whom you have written.

The eccentric “painter Niko” was always ready to paint a wheelbarrow, a wall or a sign for food and drink – just as the customers asked. He had never seen polar bears, Tungus or black lions in his life, but he painted them – because the customers asked him to. He worked quickly, never correcting anything. He claimed to see the saints, and his brush writes itself, which also did not aggravate the serious attitude to himself. Niko’s vocation was drawing. And he began to draw in childhood, which he spent in the rich Armenian houses of the Kalantarovs and the Khankalamovs. It is not surprising that he could speak all three languages of Tiflis, and yes, he sometimes inscribed his works in Armenian.

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I believe that your novella There, Beyond Seven Mountains about the life of several generations of an Armenian family against the background of historical events is autobiographical to some extent.

Yes, it is.

Your hero, Mushegh, from the same novella says: “Strong is the nation that has strong families living peacefully and in virtue.” Interestingly the same is proclaimed by Gevorg Marzpetuni, the hero of the novel of the same name by Muratsan, a classic of Armenian prose. It will be interesting to know about your family.

I was born in Sololaki, a historic neighborhood in the capital of Georgia. As a child, I was baptized in the Armenian Surb Gevorg (Saint George) Church in Tbilisi. At the age of 6 I was enrolled in the 43rd school (former Mantashev trade school, where such celebrities as Rouben Mamoulian, Viktor Hambartsumyan, Mikael Tariverdiev, Bulat Okudzhava, Marlen Khutsiev, Yevgeny Bashinjagyan, Alexander Metreveli and others studied). My mother was a biologist by education, my father was a geodesic engineer and an honored artist of Georgia. Mother’s ancestors lived in Georgia since the times of one of the most prominent rulers of Georgia – King David IV the Builder (11th-12th centuries). On my father’s side I am a descendant of survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. My father was the person who introduced me to the works of Leonardo da Vinci. And I dedicated my book about this artist to him. Of course, he instilled in me love for my historical homeland, telling me about the ancient state of Urartu, then about the Hellenistic era in Armenia, which enriched the national culture. But the main thing that my parents left me is family values, also love and respect for all honest people, regardless of the color of their skin and eyes.

How familiar are you with Armenian literature and what contacts have you had with Armenian writers?

A little bit familiar. First of all, Mesrop Mashtots. And, of course, Hovhannes Tumanyan. And the great ashugh and master of love lyrics – Sayat Nova, also Gabriel Sundukyan, both are from Tiflis. I cannot but mention Khachatur Abovyan, the founder of the new Armenian literature (“Wounds of Armenia”). I read Charents, Paruyr Sevak. Stephan Zorian’s novels are wonderful. Of course, I read books by Raffi (“The Fool”, “David-Bek”, “Samvel”) and Shirvanzadeh (“Namus”). As for my contacts with Armenian writers, the question is who to call Armenian writers. Writers who write in Armenian? Or writers who are ethnic Armenians but write in other languages, such as William Saroyan, who was born in California and wrote in English? Among contemporary Armenian writers and poets I like Narine Abgaryan, Karine Arutyunova, Liana Shakhverdyan, Hovhannes Aznauryan, Konstantin Shakaryan, and others. I keep in touch with some of them.

You have many hobbies, including you are fond of cooking (I am fond of it too, especially traditional cooking). Many old recipes are now, alas, consigned to oblivion. Do you have any little-known family recipe?

I remember my grandmother making apour, a delicious Armenian soup, and repeating every time that it is the pride of the Armenian people. This soup was considered so healthy that they used to bring it to sick people in the hospital.

For its preparation you will need dzavar (groats), but you could also use bulgur, rice or pearl barley. So, the ingredients are: dzavar – 1 cup, butter – 50 g, egg – 1 pc, flour 2-3 tbsp, sour cream – 200 g, yoghurt – 1 liter, onion – 1 head, coriander and parsley – one bundle each, mint (to taste), salt. So, dzavar should be well washed and boiled until fully cooked. Drain the water, rinse. In a bowl, beat the egg with flour. Add sour cream and yoghurt. Mix everything well. Pour it all into a saucepan with ready dzavar, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil. If it is too thick, you can add boiled water. Then fry onions on a skillet in butter until they become golden and put them in the soup. Add finely chopped herbs, let the soup simmer for another five minutes and… voila – apour is ready! It is served hot or even cold. I am ready to eat it every day. Bon appétit!

Thank you for your answers, dear Valerian, as well as for this recipe! I hope that your books will be published also in Armenian and in near future you will visit your ancestral homeland again!

Thank you very much for the pleasant conversation!

 

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