Grisha the Scrivener: Barbara Baer’s novella delivers a Soviet-era Bartleby of sorts
Like most journalists I know, I love stories involving journalists, especially those with personality. Barbara’s Baer’s new novella Grisha The Scrivener is a short read perfectly scaled to the big and unforgettable character of Grisha at its center. Set in the far reaches of Central Asia—Uzkbekistan and Georgia—and spanning some 30 years, the story both transcends and depends upon its political context—repression in the former Soviet Union from the Stalin-era forward. It doesn’t matter if you know nothing about the brutal history of Georgia, or the Soviet Union, Grisha is foremost the story of a great survivor who lands on his feet, even when drunk, and who can find a clever Shakespeare quote for every occasion. Those familiar with the history and region will appreciate Baer’s fictional reconstruction—which rings true in surprising detail. The big question that Baer explores through the heroic, comic and tragic antics of Grisha is one we have all pondered to some degree—do you deserve what you get? Grisha’s whole experience in exile—his survival and gradual transformation all with its built-in paradoxes–will pull you in and hold you tight while she delivers her answer.
Barbara Baer is a Forrestville writer who wowed me a few years ago with her project related to the plight of the pomegranate– Pomegranate Roads (Pomegranate Roads: A Soviet Botanist’s Exile from Eden, by Dr. Gregory Levin, translated from Russian by Margaret Hopstein, Floreant Press, 2006). I’ve since devoured her articles related to her horicultrual activism and travel in formerly-closed regimes like Iran. Baer is not Georgian or Uzbek but her writing in Grisha has the nuances of someone very familiar with the culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She presents this in a very tactile way— smells, noises and rumblings—evoking a vivid connection between experiences and memories—so much so that we are transported back, right alongside Grisha, strutting across a dance floor or savoring pilaf.
Baer went to college at Stanford and then spent 1967 and 1968 in remote Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with her French diplomat husband. She taught at a foreign language institute there, where she made friends with teachers, students, dissidents and Gulag survivors, one of whom became immortalized as her brave Grisha. Then, she went on to stints in several proper European capital cities—Vienna, London, Paris. Insatiably curious and comfortable in almost any environment, she has been a journalist, a writer, and has now chosen a life in rural Forestville of writing, publishing and farming those endangered pomegranates species in Pomegranate Roads. I suspect Grisha is her magnum opus, a way to fictionalize but process real people and experiences that have followed and tugged at her throughout her life.
Gregory Gregorvich Samidze is Georgian, a native of Tbilisi, Georgia, who spent his early childhood happily in a cosmopolitan home in Paris. His father, an avant-garde cinema director, returned with his family to Russia in the 1930’s to serve the Revolution, and, for an editing mistake, was ultimately exiled to a gulag and then executed during Stalin’s (the “Great Moustache’s”) purges. After his father’s death, like many offspring of the intelligentsia, Grisha was sent to labor camp in Siberia. By re-telling Shakespeare’s classics, instead of hard labor, he got a kitchen job and survived. He was functionally exiled by the organi (secret police) from his native Georgia and from a productive professional life in Moscow to the nether reaches of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There, in the fourth largest city in the CIS, after Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev, he “keeps his head low” as an Agricultural journalist, interpreting facts and figures—numbers of bushels. “You won’t find me at the reviewing stand interveiwing little girls they send up to present flowers to fat men with jowls hanging over medals. Never. “ (p. 11)
“As it is, I don’t look at my own copy after I make my evening deadline.” (p. 10) I take the damp pages off the presses to wrap my bread. Warm flat bread from the Alaisky Bazaar, that’s something to care about even with the smear of printer’s ink on the sesame seeds.” (p. 10)
Like many during the Stalin era, Baer’s Grisha was “robbed” of the pleasure of thinking. His attitudes indicate a strong opposition to the regime but his subversiveness is hidden– he doesn’t share his truth with anyone. “Cynic man is angry in general but takes no sides. I prefer not to.” (p. 41) Grisha’s humor is frequently crass but, at the same time–like the wine taster/connoisseur he ultimately becomes–he is capable of great discernment, poetry, when he pleases. He quotes Shakespeare, Melville’s Bartleby, Keats, Abkhaz author Fazil Iskander, listens to the bard music of Bulat Okudzhava (a Russian, of Georgian origin, whose songs combining Russian poetic and folk traditions and the French chansonnier style were not recognized by the Soviet cultural authorities.) and his record collection of American jazz “means everything.” (p. 10)
Over the 30-odd years that span the novella, four decisive moments that shape his personal history are explored—his father’s death, extending himself to save someone dear, love, and rebirth through a new identity. Through these, we see that Gregory Gregorovitch is more suited to playing Hamlet than Macbeth and that it is not the luxury of happiness but rather survival that has occupied him. But, where Baer ultimately lands him, in the Kakheti region of Georgia—as a winemaker in a magnificent, ancient, and fertile cradle of winemaking along an intersection of the Great Silk Road—he could do no better.
The novella opens with its most memorable vignette—how Grisha helps “Lisa”, Elizaveta Cogan, a dear friend, get out of Tashkent and off on a full scholarship to a Foreign Language Institute in Moscow. “She hardly knows if she’s eaten or not, lives on poetry between a cup of black tea and two puffs of air.” (p.13) Lisa is first in her university class, but Jewish, which is problematic for the dean who is considering the voluptuous Tamara–half-Tartar, half-Uzbek, also his second cousin—over her. Grisha, while seeming perfectly disinterested, persuades the dean to pick Lisa. His reasoning illustrates the calculations that people concerned themselves with when it came to the Communist Party—Lisa Cogan, Jew, is the unpopular but actually ‘safer bet’ because if she is not selected, she is more likely to appeal the decision and to cause trouble for the dean than her competition. And choosing Tamara could be read as endorsing an Uzbek over Russian perspective, signaling a dangerous leaning.
Lisa gets the scholarship to Moscow and emerges as the other strong voice of note in the novella.
When a chance encounter at the 1971 Cotton Harvest Dance Party brings the beautiful American, Sally Washington, into Grisha’s life, he is smitten. Baer’s description of the dance itself is magical–
“Our tsoyck kolkoz ladies make such whirling spirals that their striped ikat dresses bring to mind the story of tigers tricked into chasing each other around a banyan tree until they melted down to butter.” (p 26)
Sally Washington is “a lightly brown Aphrodite in knee-high white boots and a fringe of purple mini skirt that showed more beautiful leg than he could take in at a glance.” (p. 27). She not only matches Grisha step for step on the dance floor, in one of the book’s most comic scenes, but she is interesting. As her jet was landing in Tashkent, she was reading the last volume in Deutscher’s iconic biography of Leon Trotsky, The Prophet Outcast, which could not be a better metaphor for Grisha. And she challenges him: “Why do you always use Shakespeare as some kind of excuse not to say what you mean?”
As the infatuation unfolds, Baer introduces us to herb-infused vodka, poet-troubadour Bulat Okudjava’s enchanting songs, the Alaisky Bazar—an outdoor market/cornucopia of produce, meat and Lada parts—and a feast of first-class pilaf, aimed to put Sally in the mood. Baer also covers fascinating history, linking race, cotton, politics, and jazz.
Sally’s husband, Dan, who specializes in Twentieth Century Soviet-American relations, serves an iconic purpose—the Western outsider/official/rival. He is doing historical research on a group of African American agricultural experts who arrived in Tashkent in 1932 to help modernize cotton production by hybridizing a short-season cotton suited to Tashkent’s broiling summers. They were led by Communist Party member Oliver Golden. Paul Robeson and Langston Huges visited Tashkent during this period too… At night, after work, their voices carried the blues over the cotton fields of Soviet Central Asia.
Baer doesn’t get into details but she lights a spark. The imagined egalitarianism of Soviet Russia must have been a huge draw to these men and a marked contrast to the segregated American South and the general treatment of black workers in America. Dan Washington is thus someone who could potentially understand, even assist, Grisha. When he doesn’t immediately express sympathy for Grisha’s status as a “zek” (a gulag ghost), Grisha pushes him away concluding they have opposing views of history and decides to focus on scoring with his wife. Washington defends himself– “You were a victim. You got a raw deal. Not trying to take that away. But remember, this was a time when the only worker’s state in the world faced threats from all sides.” (p. 43)
The novella spans blocks of years but credibly. Not knowing what his future holds, Grisha says farewell to Lisa in Moscow before he assumes his new identity as Peotr Peotrovich, winemaker, from Georgia’s Kakheti region. At the Golden Fleece restaurant, they feast on satsivi chicken “smothered in a creamy sauce of pomegranates and walnuts, upon a mound of fluffy rice, pureed greens with goat cheese and lemon.” (p. 70)
“Foolish, isn’t it, how we feel so gay one moment that we can bang two spoons together and sing like a whole orchestra, and the next we are crying our hearts out and pounding on a friend’s head as if to kill him.” (p. 72)
As Peotr, Grisha feels freer and writes a book of primitive poetry, which is read by Lisa, who recognizes his voice and reenters his life through an exchange of impassioned letters that are elegies to poets and to free artistic expression. Their correspondence takes them into the early 1990’s, when Georgia is embroiled in civil war.
“You write what is undeniable and true, without false sentiment or exaggeration. In a few words, you have revealed our disastrous epoch, the Terror distilled in images like waves crashing so loudly on the shore that one cannot sleep. Yet there is a place for the spirit and enjoyment of life; you give us breath and hope, bread and wine.” (p. 79)
Peotr admits he still hears the unquiet dead from time to time but does not let them take over his life. (p. 87) “The truth is dear Lisa that I have lived my life in the only way I knew how, a dog nose catching a pleasant scent when it came along.” (p. 91)
In all, Grisha is a great read, as light or as heavy as the reader cares to make it. The trajectory of Grisha’s life has a fantastical quality to it, though several hints of the real world are there, namely Baer’s exploration of exile against the backdrop of stifling political repression. In answer to that eternal question– do we get what we deserve in life—Baer gives us a Grisha who emerges a better man for his suffering. After the book ended, I was as full and satisfied, as if I had eaten a full meal. The only thing better was attending the Sonoma County Book Fair and hearing her melodic voice, reading in person.
GRISHA THE SCRIVENER by Barbara Baer, 112 pp. Denver, Ghost Roads Press, 2009. Paper, $15.95.