SEPTEMBER 1 IN TBILISI | Irakli Kobiashvili.
Read the story @ One Throne Magazine.
⇒Today we’re talking about a beautiful yet stunningly brutal short story called “September 1 in Tbilisi,” which was written by Irakli Kobiashvili and published in One Throne Magazine. This isn’t the sort of story that has any time for the sort of cleverness or frivolity or pretentious wordplay I usually pepper my commentaries with: the story is all business, and it gets down to business–which is to say, its conflict–in the very first sentence. This is a story that does not fuck around.
Here’s how it begins:
On the morning I’m supposed to start sixth grade, I learn that Vakhtang the Bull has sworn on his mother’s grave to kill me and drag my body through the streets of Tbilisi.
If there were an award for Best Opening Sentence, this would be one hell of a contender.
And so we plunge right into the troubles of our narrator, troubles that are numerous. Here are some of the protagonist’s problems: her father is dead (that’s right, I’m coming right out and naming her gender right off the bat–if you haven’t read the story yet, I just spoiled a crucial revelation, which I will discuss momentarily); her mother, traumatized by grief and who knows what else, rarely emerges from bed and frequently talks to her deceased husband; they live in war-torn post-Soviet Georgia (not to be confused with Georgia-the-state); her family is, like much of their community, desperately poor; and, on top of everything else, she is a disappointment to her mother, who expects her to be “ladylike” rather than practice boxing with her uncle.
So we have the external conflicts of a schoolyard bully situation and the overarching problem of living in Georgia-the-country, compounded by emotional turmoil resulting from her fraught relationship with her mentally ill mother and lingering grief over the loss of her father, not to mention her awkward cusp-of-adolescence angst and identity confusion (i.e., I like man things like boxing, but that’s not okay…) that often accompany this age.
We can discuss this story’s structure in terms of a punch, like a left hook (or a right hook, I don’t care). In the first part of the story, the “arm” pulls back, positioning core muscles and a lot of energy behind what’s to come next. This is the set-up, in which the protagonist is talking to her friend and sort of getting ready for school while the author deftly slips in passages of backstory and exposition (in careful amounts, always well-timed) to give us a sense of what’s at stake for the narrator, Nino (we learn her name at the end). What’s happening is the author is setting up his opponent (the reader? sure, why not) with a series of soft, glancing jabs that are telling us a lot about who the narrator is.
To switch metaphors a moment, all the emotional game pieces are being arranged so that, by the time we reach Vakhtang the Bull in person, the stakes of the narrator’s confrontation are much greater than simply that of a girl trying to avoid a pummeling by some bully. No, she is confronting her society (Georgia-the-country in all its brutality and privation), she’s confronting the loss of her father (and, for that matter, her mother), she’s confronting the outside forces that tell her, Ladies Don’t Fight. So, Vakhtang the Bull isn’t really a human sized character any more than Moby-Dick is a whale-sized whale. I guess the set-up, the winding-back that commences this left hook of a story raises the emotional stakes of the narrative so high that the antagonist himself is magnified substantially by Nino’s complex emotional predicament.
The second piece of the author’s left hook is the actual fight with V-the-B, in all its detailed, carefully choreographed glory. This is the part of the story that smashes the reader in the side of the face.
The final thing I want to touch on is this: the revelation (Twist? I don’t like that term, but call it what you want) that Nino is in fact a girl puts the emotional narrative into a pretty major swerve. Some readers may have an issue with the careful omission of her gender during the beginning of the story. Personally, I think the first person voice makes it work, since it’s not as if someone will naturally state from the beginning that they’re a girl or boy. Moreover, this non-statement of her gender subtly reinforces the fact that gender is not much of an issue for her, even if it is for society. This, I suppose, is what made her such a target for torment and threats by the likes of Vakhtang the Bull. It wasn’t simply that he was at the age when boys like to torment girls (really, his is the age when girls are becoming increasingly interesting.)
At the very end of the story, Nino is careful to keep any mud from getting on her skirt, suggesting she holds some of society’s “feminine” tendencies as well, in addition to being able to beat the snot out of a schoolyard bully. That’s a really great note to end on, since it hints at her realization of society’s expectations for her and her need to adapt to these expectations. Maybe this is a sign that she’s becoming more practical, or that her need to fight has been relieved through this single violent confrontation. There are a lot of ways to read the ending, I think, so don’t look at it as a sign that she’s simply succumbing to gender norms. She doesn’t seem like the type.