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Based on true events, this novel set in a Soviet prison is “both a feat of fractured storytelling and a beautiful excavation of a recent, haunting past” (Publishers Weekly).
As a political dissident, Berdzenishvili lands in jail, serving a sentence on trumped-up charges of activism and agitation. But rather than being the hell he expected, jail allows him access to a wide array of intellectuals, professionals, citizens of all walks of life, many of whom, he freely admits, he would not have had the chance to meet if he had not been in jail.
Here he bears witness to those lives. Each chapter carries a single person’s name and focuses on a single story. Collectively, however, these portraits create a multifaceted and vast picture of life in the Soviet Union, including during its demise. A nation seeks to suppress its brightest citizens, to keep them locked away in the dark. But in that darkness, unbeknown to the jailor, bonds stronger than walls were forming.
Berdzenishvili's surprising, noteworthy autobiographical novel recalls life within the gulags in the last years of the U.S.S.R. Urged to recount his time there while in the care of an American doctor whose mother was born in a prison camp, the narrator presents, through a series of character-focused vignettes, a vivid and often hilarious portrait of the strange society the prisoners created. Locked away from the world, free-thinking prisoners among them Zhora, who fervently and superstitiously loves numbers, and Butov, who takes on a Sherlock Holmes role in the camp form strong bonds through their philosophical debates, jokes, and discussions, creating in some ways a haven rather than a prison. These are years the narrator remembers fondly, "because of the people that surrounded me, people the KGB had so zealously brought together." Among all of these brilliant characters, there are the stories of the narrator and his brother, political dissidents imprisoned for their passionate visions of a free Georgian republic, both before and during their imprisonments. In the final chapters, Berdzenishvili's depictions of what the gulag has taken away from him namely, his wife and daughter are deeply moving in their forthrightness and simplicity. Berdzenishvili pulls off both a feat of fractured storytelling and a beautiful excavation of a recent, haunting past.