Observer review: Stories I Stole by Wendell Steavenson

Charmed, drunk and beguiled, Wendell Steavenson's record of the ruin of Georgia, Stories I Stole, makes her a worthy successor to Kapuscinski

Stories I Stole
Wendell Steavenson
Atlantic Books £14.99, pp320

When Wendell Steavenson was living in Georgia, she kept a collector's list of 'LAOs' - large abandoned objects. The Caucasus is littered with them: rusting tank hulls, gutted apartment blocks, the rustbelt of gigantic ruined factories that surrounds most cities. The biggest LAO is the late Soviet Union itself. Nobody wants to re-animate it. But nobody realised what the price of junking it would be.

A few decades ago, Russians assumed that if everything blew to bits, Georgia would still be a happy land. Wonderful fruit and vegetables, oceans of wine and brandy, a beautiful coastline; the Georgians would be even better off than before. Instead of which, the lights went off. There was a crazy civil war, two totally avoidable secession wars, which evicted a quarter of a million destitute refugees, and the economy collapsed.

Eight years after independence, Steavenson spent winter like most Georgians, sleeping in her clothes and reading by candlelight, in a flat where electric light, heating and hot water came on only for a few unpredictable hours of ecstasy each week. Children asked their parents what radiators were for. Adults, surviving on vodka and rotten cigarettes, asked what the Georgian government was for.

In spite of this, foreigners who visit Georgia are still entranced. Hospitality to strangers is a religion. Steavenson's life there began with one of those endless Georgian picnics that start as a lunch and end in the middle of the night, borne along by the endless toasts and speeches commanded by the Tamada (master of ceremonies). 'I was happy; charmed, drunk and beguiled like thousands of guests and invaders before me, in the land of hospitality.' But soon she understood that those who make strangers happy are not always happy themselves. Forcing guests to drink too much can be an act of aggression. What is it like to be a Georgian host?

Steavenson's friends incessantly told her stories about their country, and acted out its complexes in their lives. One shrewdly gave her Lampedusa's The Leopard and let her read 'Georgia' for Sicily. 'All Sicilian self-expression, even the most violent, is really wish-fulfilment; our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death... The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery... Having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples, they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.'

Two of her acquaintances, Dato and Aleko, were shady young 'biznesmen'. Dato was badly disfigured in a car crash; while he was recovering, Aleko seduced his wife. The two then confronted one another by a lake, accompanied by their friends and umpired by a minor 'godfather'. Aleko knocked Dato down; Dato pulled a gun and shot Aleko in the back, temporarily paralysing him. One of Aleko's seconds then shot Dato in the leg. Nobody won. Both men sank into terminal depression, deepened by heroin and alcohol.

A 'hankering for death'? Steavenson takes this gloomy little vendetta tale and turns it into a haunting, Chekhovian story about pride, futility and self-destruction. Stories I Stole is anything but a travelogue, although she moves through many landscapes and sick cities. It is not a hack's diary, although she is an experienced foreign correspondent and hunted with the little band of 'Caucasus Hands' who risked their necks in Chechnya or Nagorno-Karabakh. And the book isn't one more 'quest for the real me', although one strand in it is her account of an agonising love affair. This is the first published book of a practised and very gifted writer, a young Kapuscinski with a literary future ahead of her.

She made several expeditions to Abkhazia, the tiny country that broke away from Georgia in 1993 and which the world - as a punishment - has dropped into an oubliette: unrecognised, its communications cut off, its ruined towns unrepaired. Few strangers can enter, apart from Russian 'peacekeepers', UN agencies and an international corps of aid workers, from Oxfam to the Halo Trust - the quiet professionals who clear mines all over the Caucasus battlefields. Steavenson, used to Georgian resourcefulness (like the art of running an electricity meter backwards) was depressed by the stagnation of Abkhazia: 'its head was down and its listless subsistence gaze directed at the pavement'.

While she was living in Tbilisi, the second Russian war in Chechnya broke out, driving streams of refugees across the mountains into northern Georgia. Steavenson went into these kidnap territories and lived among the hard-drinking Svans and semi-pagan Khevsurs. She spent days and nights at remote border posts interviewing families escaping the war, and Chechen fighters - survivors from the hellish fighting before Grozny fell - crossing the frontier to rest and re-group.

One of the most intense sections here records a visit to the remote Pankisi valley, where she was protected by her friend the famous Chechen commander Arbi. (That lawless place has just been selected as a target in the 'war against terrorism' by US special forces; their move into Georgia and America's re-training of the Georgian army may well end in renewed war all over the region.)

Her lover, a Magnum photographer, came back to her from the war after nine months of silence and rejection, and proposed to her in a freezing hut in Pankisi. She cried, but found the strength to say no. Then he did a wonderful, Georgian thing (although he was a German): after days and nights scouring the flower-growers of the countryside, he sent her a thousand red roses. It became an instant Tbilisi legend. In that warm-hearted, ramshackle city, Wendell Steavenson will always be the girl who got a thousand roses and still turned the man down. For her readers, though, she will be remembered for this first book by an immensely talented writer.


Neal Ascherson

The GuardianTramp

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