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Martina A. Nicolls
- Published on Amazon.com
The Literature Express (2009, English version 2013) is set in Europe in October 2008. The narrator is 28-year-old Zaza, a Georgian writer. The Ministry of Culture has selected Zaza and the poet, Zviad Meipariani, to join the specially chartered train of authors to represent their country on a month-long series of writing seminars.
On board the colourfully painted steam train, the Literature Express, is 100 writers from various countries on a journey to major cities across Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, and Russia. The itinerary is Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Malbork, Kaliningrad, Moscow, Warsaw, and Berlin. Most nights are spent in hotels, and in each city the authors are expected to perform or read their writing, and attend a Book Fair.
For Zaza, the event is two months after the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008, and hence he is obsessed with politics and the wellbeing of his parents and relatives.
Heinz and Rudy are the German hosts of the event. Heinz urges Zaza to leave politics behind and “only discuss literature on the train.” As the train begins its journey, from Lisbon, “everyone turned into writers. All sterotypes came to life simultaneously … they were all talking about their novels, stories, plays and screenplays without a hint of embarrassment.” While Zaza was modest about his profession, he was vocal about his country’s political situation. And there were two Russians on board.
Zaza was initially daunted at the number of writers, especially since he had only one book published, with only 400 sales, but he had won a literary award. Immediately Iliko, a Georgian guide and translator for the two Georgian writers, studying in Germany and hired by the hosts, commenced criticism of his own country’s literature. Zaza stated that Georgian literature should not be compared to German or French literature, but agreed with the criticism: “In our country five people read books while two people write them.”
Zaza intended to turn the journey into a novel – but so did everyone else. When the hosts declared that there would be a writing competition throughout the journey, with the winning article to be announced in Berlin, the atmosphere was not one of intense competition, but rather of pressure to perform on cue.
Apart from politics, Zaza is also obsessed with a woman he meets on the train. Helena is a Greek music critic, married to a much older man, Macek, an often-drunk literary critic. But Macek wants to translate one of Zaza’s articles on the Georgian political situation, which would open his work to the European market. Hence Zaza has a dilemma on his hands: to be nicer to Helena, to gain her attention, or to her husband, to gain more readers and book sales.
Due to the conflict, the Russia government has rejected visas for the Georgians, so they remain in Poland and take the bus to Warsaw instead of going to Moscow. This is despite one of the Russians, Mr. Pushkov, seeking a petition to have the visas granted. Zviad is emotionally overwhelmed with this gesture, feeling that “one Pushkov outweighed all Russian sins.” But there is a further dilemma for Zaza because Helena decides not to travel to Russia, but to stay in Poland for the two days, without her husband. Zaza sees his chance to woo her, but should he?
Interspersed throughout the novel are 12 brief diary entries from other writers. This provides an alternative to copious dialogue as the diary notes reveal an insight, if only momentarily, into the character of some of the other 98 writers. There is also a letter from Iliko to the hosts on how the Georgians are settling in. Iliko’s letter is the best of these entries (set in italics) – and more of his letters and insights would have been quite entertaining.
The beginning is slow, jumpy, and repetitive, but once on the train the novel becomes more interesting. The novel is about love and literature, states Bugadze. However, it is not really about love – it is more about lust, dalliances, and affairs. It is not really about literature – it is more about a bunch of luckless writers. It is not really about the train, the express, either – it is more about the cities and the hotels.
Although the hosts request that the writers discuss literature, they rarely do so, nor do they discusse the process of writing, their techniques, or their styles. The conversations are mostly about chasing a good time – through alcohol and affairs. The literary seminars undertaken in each city are unfortunately not emphasized in detail, except for Zaza’s reaction to them, and his contributions. Nevertheless, the interesting aspects are the concept and its portrayal of self-absorbed, distracted, and disgruntled writers and their relationships with each other.