See entire diary (Danish language only)

Georgia 14. - 24. May 2005.

"Welcome to the Wonderland" said the invitation from the Hamsun Society in Georgia, the country that made such an impression on Hamsun and reversibly Hamsun made an impression on Georgians. I became curious, what made Georgians love Hamsun so deeply, that a Hamsun Society was founded?

President of the society is Olga Zhgenti, art lecturer in Tbilisi and Batumi. The society was founded in 2003 and has already more that 100 members, among those notable writers and artists. Also many young people are members. I was immediately struck by their ardour and eagerness.

Olga Zhgenti

“Hamsun in Caucasus" is the title on a drama-documentary, that Georgian film makers are shooting right now. The film is based on Hamsun's "In Wonderland". Director and script writer is the president of the Hamsun Society in Caucasus Olga Zhgenti. She is not unfamiliar with the job as her father was the famous scriptwriter of more than 20 films Suliko Zhgenti (1925-2000). The film is shot on locations in Georgia, Azerbaijan and in Hamarøy. Leif Hamsun was also interviewed for the film, which soon will have it's first performance.
The Hamsun Society has also had "Queen Tamara" translated from German to Georgian and their plans are to translate and publish all Hamsun's novels.

But how was it, that Hamsun became connected so firmly with Georgia? It all started many years ago in 1898 as Hamsun embarks on a long travel together with his first wife Bergljot. The journey resulted in 1903 in the book "In Wonderland".
The book ends with these words, that goes directly to the heart:
"It is afternoon. I am sitting at the open window watching naked men riding horses out into the Black Sea. Their bodies are dark against the blue sea. And the sun is still shining on the ruins of Tamara's castle rising out of the furry forest.
Tomorrow we are going to Baku and then further east. Then we will have left this country. But I will always be longing back here. Because I have drunk from the river Kura."

"...the river Kura."

Filled with expectancy we set course for the Wonderland, towards an unknown country and towards unknown people.
Strange, here we are in the unknown country surrounded by unknown people and still we sense something familiar and feel very welcome.
Through the hazy morning light and rainy wet streets we had the first glimpse of Tbilisi, lying between the mountains and the river Kur as Hamsun called it, the local name is Mtkvari.
Hamsun's words came to my mind:
"Now we can see Tbilisi in the distance, as dots, as another world. Over the city lies a fog like smoke. So this is Tbilisi as so many many Russian poets have described and where so much in the Russian novel has taken place. I fell like a young man and look amazed around me and hear my heart beat. I feel the same sensation as when I first heard a lecture by Georg Brandes."
Many pages could be written on our adventures here, but time and space does not allow this. You'll have to do with a few memories.

Real men!

We were quite excited as we arrived at the former hotel London, where Hamsun stayed in 1899, it is now private flats, a memorial plaque reminds of Hamsun's visit.
The building is beautiful and well-kept from the outside, inside one could maybe still sense the grandeur of former times, the large paintings with maritime motives were still there, but only sign of decay and negligence. It was different when Hamsun was there. In his own description from 106 years ago one read the following:
"My own hotel, London, had star. The city had 160 thousand inhabitants of which there were twice as many men as women. 70 languages were spoken in the city. The average summer temperature was 21 and the average winter cold was 1 degree. Tbilisi has been under Roman, Persian and Turkish dominion and is now under Russian. Her rise in newer times Tbilisi owes her favourable position as crossroad for commercial traffic fra the Caspian and from the Black Seas, from the highlands of Armenia and from Russia over the Caucasian mountains. the city has a splendid museum, theatre, art collection, botanical garden."
Today the city has 1,3 million inhabitants.
Opposite hotel London lies the park still green and inviting like an oasis in the middle of the traffic like in Hamsun's days, though the people are modern dressed and one also see a lot of women! Hamsun's description continues:
"Opposite the hotel lies a large park and I set out for it, walk through it and comes out on the other side. Most people that I see wear Caucasian costumes with arms; some are also wearing European suits and felt hat; officers are wearing Cherkessian uniforms. I see practically no women out."

The plaque at Hotel London The former Hotel London (with 2 women!)

Highlights to us were the meetings with different members of the Hamsun Society, among others the artist Otar Djaparidze, a very intense admirer of Hamsun. He practically lived in a museum, yes one could visit the rooms, that were filled with the works of his father Ucha Djaparidze and with his own paintings.Olga was translating, none of the artists we met spoke other languages than Georgian and Russian, but strangely enough: every time we had the sensation of understanding each other without spoken words. I will also never forget the moving moment as he showed the family treasure belonging to his late uncle: a signed photograph of Knut Hamsun, where Hamsun in 1935 is expressing his gratitude for a kind letter. The letter to Hamsun was written in German and starts like this:
"Almost every day I walk past Hotel London, where you stayed during your visit in Tbilisi......"
and the letter ends with these beautiful wishes:
"Fare well and live long great Hamsun, and to the millions who love you now and to the millions who will love you during the coming centuries you may add my name. Your faithful admirer and friend in Georgia.
With patience I will wait for a sign of life, that you have received my letter and the book included.
USSR Caukasus Tbilisi. Gregor Djaparidze."

The book mentioned was a work by the Georgian national poet Rustaveli. Djaparidze did receive the sign of life and the family now owns a treasure and what this treasure means is seen from gentle touching of the picture, like a caress. I had a foreboding, that Hamsun was remembered i Georgia, but here I started to sense the depth of their feelings and how well the Georgians understand the Hamsunian disposition. Hamsun's writing is immediately understood and the poet Hamsun is in the seat of honour.

Otar Djaparidze and yours truly with Hamsun's photo Otar Djaparidze's painting (top) and his father's (below)

In the atelier and flat of the artist Dimitri (Dima) Eristavi, also an intense Hamsun admirer, who immediately points to some of Hamsun's (well-read) books lying on the table, here over coffee and ice-cream surrounded by all his beautiful paintings and a spectacular view we had through Olga's translation an intense talk with an exiting personality with an artistic sensitive mind and with deep understanding of Hamsun's works. It turned out to be the same for all we met, this immediate and intense understanding of Hamsun's words. On my question why all were so enthusiastic about such a Nordic artist, the answer was unison and straight-forward: Because he understands us! Apparently Hamsun's words had not lost their impact through 2 translations from Norwegian through Russian or German into Georgian.

In Dmitri Eristavi's atelier

Together with Olga we were invited to visit the artist and sculptor Irakli Ochiauri in his atelier, a meeting with a warm Hamsun admirer and a great personality. As he took my hand, he asked through Olga: Hamsun is in my atelier, do you see him? Indeed, he had painted the young Hamsun into a large frieze. Amazing, here Hamsun stands in the middle of all the national Georgian heroes. One is again and again surprised and moved by the Georgian love for Hamsun and their knowledge about Hamsun. Here is an understanding of Hamsun's personality, an understanding that breaks every cultural border.One is again reminded of the essence of Hamsun's talent: To create words that go to the hearts and speak to one personally wherever in the world you may live. Over coffee, ice-cream and strawberries we had a long and animated discussion on Hamsun and the world and also on the political Hamsun - by the way the only occasion where this subject was touched.But again: not criticism but understanding was the key word. In a catalogue with his works that he gave us he wrote: "With love and respect for your love of Hamsun".

Irakli Ochiauri and Knut Hamsun From Irakli Ochiauri's atelier

An unforgettable experience now awaited us, an invitation to visit 2 poets - also living in one of the "artists' blocks".
Never will I forget the exciting conversation over vodka and chocolate with the famous poet Otar Chiladze, who is now for the second time being proposed for the Nobel price in literature, he and his brother Tamaz, also a poet, are both warm Hamsun admirers. We were lifted into a world of warm and compassionate words, all intermediated through Olga, who translated their love and admiration for Hamsun. Toast were proposed and many wise words spoken. I had the familiar sensation within me, that I had understood the words before they actually reached me through the Olga's translation. We left in high spirits and it was not due to the 2 small vodkas that I had had.

Literary discussions... and political discussions

"Water from the river Kura. And that was the worst of all things. For he, who has drunk from the river Kura will always be longing back to Caucasus."

An exhibition by the famous painter Edmund Gabriel Kalandadze, together with Keti we spent an exiting hour seeing and discussing, the colours almost beamed at us. Afterwards Olga and we were invited to Edmund's atelier, he also lived in the "artists' block". We were bid heartily welcome by Edmund and his daughter Tsira, who spoke perfectly English, so Olga was released from translating. It was an unforgettable experience. Again we met an artist, who had loved Hamsun his whole life, a hand stretched out and revealed were Hamsun's books. Over Edmund's superb homemade Georgian wine and the well known cheese-bread discussions went fast and lively - primarily about Hamsun. My knowledge about Hamsun is extended every day, here at Edmund I saw how Hamsun's words are transformed into pictures by the reader. It is difficult to pass on, but every day we were elevated by the descriptions and feelings released when talking about Hamsun. Edmund told, that Hamsun had inspired him to become a painter, but no, he did not paint Hamsun directly but Hamsun was present in every picture he had made since his youth. He was deeply touched by the human being Hamsun "who loved people so deeply, that he could not bear to hear about people suffering", Edmund had tears in his eyes while talking about his fascination of Hamsun.

In Edmund Kalandadze's atelier

The evening was spent at yet another famous painter and poet Elgudsha Berdsenischwili, who had a flat in the centre of the city, and his wife Natalia. Over Turkish coffee, cake, juice and strawberries we had in intense and interesting conversation on Hamsun. Olga told, with a twinkle in her eye, that Edmund and Elgudsha had a competition on who loved Hamsun the most! Natalia is a warm-hearted lady, perfect in German language, so Olga was again released from translating. Natalia is translating "Queen Tamara" from the German first edition, since nobody is capable to translate directly from Norwegian. Elgudsha, a grand and colourful personality was long contemplating what to write as dedication in a catalogue, that we presented to us. The following words lit up from the flyleaf: "We love Hamsun and that means that we love life and human beings".
Never was I met with so many warm and loving words about the person Knut Hamsun. I was already deeply fascinated by Hamsun from before, but meeting him in Georgia has extended my understanding even further.

At the home of Elgudsha Berdsenischwili

Georgia, this country which left such an impression on Hamsun and now on us as well. We will never forget the warmth and hospitality we met everywhere, especially from Olga and her family.
No, we did not drink of the river Kura, it would not have been so healthful, but we made toasts in Queen Tamara champagne the last evening and promised to return to the Wonderland again.

Leila, Keti and Olga Zhgenti and yours truly

See the entire diary (Danish language only)

(All quotations are in my own translation. Quotations of Hamsun's "I Eventyrland" I have translated from the first edition from 1903)

© Kirsten Hedvig Rasmussen