Recalling daily life in Soviet Georgia: “The Amorous Detective and Other Stories” by Jumber Khantadze4 min read

 In Caucasus, Review, Reviews
In this memoir, made up of a collection of short vignettes, Jumber Khantadze recounts his experiences from the 1930s-1970s of life in Soviet Georgia, revealing a very different history than usually portrayed. 

Khantadze was born on Epiphany in 1933. He studied metallurgy at the Georgian Polytechnic Institute, and spent most of his life working in this field, publishing over 75 scientific papers. On the side, he wrote six books, including an account of how alpine skiing became popular in Georgia, which won the State Prize of Georgia in 1999. In The Amorous Detective and Other Stories (2021), Khantadze recounts anecdotes from his childhood into adulthood, focusing on the Great Terror of the 1930s, World War II and its aftermath, and the space race of the 1960s. Originally written in Georgian, the collection was translated by Archil Khantadze, the author’s son.

The collection consists of 11 short stories set in chronological order. Each tale is only a couple of pages long, with the entire book consisting of a concise 70 pages. Interspersed throughout the book are black and white photos of the author, his friends, and relevant landmarks.

Though Khantadze’s writing is rather simplistic, he is able to convey a full range of emotions as well as relate the humour that arises in many of the situations he recounts. This is particularly the case in the longest story included in the book, itself made up of six short vignettes. 

In “The Germans,” Khantadze focuses on the experiences of German prisoners of war who were transferred to Georgia to act as a free labour force. These vignettes are some of the most emotional in the collection. In one, he describes how his neighbour’s Russian cousin Natasha, who arrived in the city as a refugee, burst into tears at the sight of a German POW. Khantadze explains how after seeing Natasha’s reaction, he “ran out into the street and saw the middle-aged German man sitting on the steps of our entrance with his head bowed low and sobbing quietly,” portraying the emotional toll the conflict had on both parties. Though anti-German sentiments had been underestimated by the authorities in other parts of the Soviet Union, Khantadze relates how generally there was much more tolerance in Georgia. In another of the episodes, he recounts a German POW who gave an impromptu concert after tuning the neighbour’s piano. Khantadze notes that the POW had been a student at the Berlin Conservatory before being conscripted, and that “he was also much better at playing the piano than shooting a Schmeisser, but nobody had really cared.” In the second-to-last vignette, Khantadze recounts the simple joy a group of German POWs — who had once been farmers — had at seeing their local German breed of cow in a Tbilisi yard. 

While many of the stories touch upon the tragedies of life within the Soviet Union, Khantadze himself holding no love or trust in Stalin or socialism-communism, the emphasis is on the joys of life and the more run-of-the-mill experiences of a boy growing up in Tbilisi at this time. For example, in the title story “The Amorous Detective,” Khantadze recounts how he and his friends spent a night in the local militia precinct after being caught in a hen-house, having climbed the roof to see if a friend’s crush was still in class. 

In a similar vein, in “The Kindergarten,” Khantadze recounts an experience that all parents are likely to relate to. As a young boy, Khantadze’s son Archil attended the English kindergarten in Tbilisi. Soon after starting lessons, Archil began complaining that while he got bread and butter and cheese sandwiches, the other kids were getting fresh rump steaks and beefsteaks. When he refuses to go back to school, Khantadze’s wife saves the day by saying: “yes, but have any of the Mums ever brought trout to their children, and trout caught by their Daddy too? Certainly if I were you I wouldn’t care a fig for those stupid rump steaks and beefsteaks.” Though taking place over 50 years ago, this story is reminiscent of the arguments that still break out today over the newest fashions or technology children see their peers with. 

By focusing on human experiences and daily life, Khantadze creates a valuable resource regarding life in Soviet Georgia. And with the author’s simple writing style and the brevity of the stories, this is a book for all ages. 

Book details: Khantadze, Jumber, The Amorous Detective and Other Stories, translated by Archil Khantadze, second edition, 2021, Shemetsneba. Buy it here

Feature Image: Prospero’s Bookshop
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