Book Review - Journey to Karabakh

Aka Morchiladze’s extraordinary novella opens and closes in Georgia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the civil unrest that ensues, twenty-four-year-old Gio and his slacker friends discover, if you’re not a member of the “mkhedrioni” militia in Tbilisi there’s little to do except drink, smoke and get laid.

Gio comes from a wealthy family and wants for nothing, but is tired of his aimless existence and a domineering father who makes most of his decisions for him. The previous year, Gio had fallen for a beautiful, melancholy prostitute: “Yana was everything to me. She embodied something I never even knew I wanted, something I had never even dreamed of. I think she represented the very thing people live for.”  His father disapproved of their relationship and when Yana became pregnant with his child they were forced to split up.

Now, listless and with nothing better on offer, Gio is persuaded by his best friend Goglik to drive them across the border to Ganja in order to buy cheap drugs for an acquaintance. But this is a road trip with a difference. As darkness falls, Gio unwittingly drives into Karabakh, a region hotly disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the friends are chased and shot at by a menacing group of Azeris in a 4x4. Taken prisoner, the hapless pair are beaten-up and thrown into a cell with Rafik, an Armenian military commander. In the middle of a shoot out, Gio escapes with Rafik, leaving Goglik behind.

Over the next four days, in a remote village, supposedly a guest of Rafik and his gaggle of Armenian soldiers, Gio reflects on his past, his family and the girlfriend they refused to accept. He admits to himself, “If there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that I don’t know anything.” Morchiladze’s narrator may be volatile but he’s honest.

Despite being in the middle of a war zone, Gio starts to feels more tranquil. Liberated from familial constraints, he is finally able to think for himself. When three Russian journalists turn up to write about the Armenian side of the conflict, Gio realises that he may not be as free as he had thought and plans a daring and dangerous escape.

Gio’s rite of passage through geographical and emotional conflict is as entertaining as it is illuminating about ethnic tensions in the region. His increasing cynicism and despair is also emblematic of Georgia’s own strife as various factions fight for control. As Morchiladze wryly suggests, sometimes the fight for liberty throws up more limitations than the repression it seeks to escape.

Originally published by The Independent on 27 January 2014