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Georgia: Novelist-Philosopher Wins Prestigious German Award

By Bidzina Ramishvili Although he writes in his native German language, Giwi Margwelaschwili (Givi Margvelashvili) is considered one of the main living representatives of Georgian phenomenology, a philosophical current that studies consciousness as experienced from a first-person viewpoint. Phenomenology, which is based on the work of 20th century German philosopher Edmund Husserl, has influenced the development of existentialism both in France and Germany. Himself a specialist of German existentialism, the 79-year-old novelist-philosopher Margwelaschwili was awarded last week the prestigious Goethe Medal at a ceremony in Weimar.

PRAGUE, March 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Goethe Medal was first awarded in 1955 to honor foreign personalities who contribute to bringing together different cultures.

Since then, the German-headquartered Goethe Institute has honored more than 300 people from nearly 60 countries.

Among the recipients are French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu; Austrian-born American psychologist Bruno Bettelheim; French and Hungarian composers Pierre Boulez and Gyorgy Ligeti; Italian stage director Giorgio Strehler; Hungarian film director Istvan Szabo; and German-born American movie director Billy Wilder.

Since 1992, the award ceremony has been taking place on March 22, which marks the anniversary of the death of 18th century German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

This year's medal was awarded to three laureates -- Margwelaschwili , Portuguese stage director Vera San Payo de Lemos, and Iranian-born German poet SAID.

Welcome Surprise

Uwe Rieken, the director of the Goethe Institute in Tbilisi, says he was surprised to hear Margwelaschwili had won the award.

"It was at my own insistence that we nominated a representative of Georgia's cultural [elite]," Rieken said. "But to be honest, I didn't hope our nominee would be selected. That's why I was overwhelmed [with joy] when the news broke [that he got the award]."

Margwelaschwili was born in Berlin in 1927 into a family of immigrants who had fled the Bolshevik takeover in Georgia a few years earlier. His father Tite was the head of Germany's Georgian emigre community.

The young Giwi was educated in German and it is in Berlin that he and his family saw World War II unfold.

In 1946, Joseph Stalin's NKVD -- the predecessor of the KGB -- lured Giwi and his father to Soviet-occupied eastern Berlin.

Tite Margwelaschwili disappeared in a Soviet labor camp and Giwi spent several months at a former Nazi concentration camp the NKVD had been running since 1945.

Giwi was later forcibly brought to Soviet Georgia. While living in Tbilisi he began studying the Georgian language, and wrote fiction and philosophical essays in German.

Paradoxical Upbringing

Former Georgian Education Minister Aleksandre Kartozia is a specialist of German culture and a leading expert of Margwelaschwili's work.

"Giwi said once in an interview that it was strange, paradoxical, that his mother would be Georgian, but that German would be his mother tongue," Kartozia said. "Destiny took him away from his native country and sent him to his historical homeland, his father's land. That is, his native language was not his mother's native language, and his native land was not his father's native land."

In 1946, Joseph Stalin's NKVD -- the predecessor of the KGB -- lured Giwi and his father to Soviet-occupied eastern Berlin.

Another great admirer of Margwelaschwili is Johanna Heinle, the former director of the Goethe Institute in Tbilisi. She said at his award ceremony that she believes Margwelaschwili's outstanding character is deeply rooted in his Georgian origins.

"Giwi may be bound very tightly to the German language both because German is his native language and because Germany is his birthplace," Heinle said. "Yet, his way of thinking and his wit are more Georgian than German."

Another paradox in Magvelashvili's life is that none of his books was ever published in Soviet Georgia because of censorship. It is only when he returned to Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Margwelaschwili's work first reached bookstalls.

Kartozia says Margwelaschwili's philosophical thought cannot be understood without taking his personal life into consideration.

"One of the key words of [20th century German philosopher Martin] Heidegger's philosophical thought is 'Geworfenheit' -- literally 'being dropped' -- which he used to describe how men are thrown into situations, time, or space without their consent. It so happened that Giwi [Margwelaschwili] was taken out of his natural environment, taken away from his life and 'dropped' into something else. Into what? Into literature," Kartozia said. "This man has been writing all his life and it is natural that he should write about people who resemble him. He does not write about individuals, he writes about characters. He does not write about real people, he writes about people who live in literature, in texts. This explains why the heroes of his novels and stories are characters, not real people."

Parallel Characteristics

A typical feature of Margwelaschwili's work is "the book within the book."

His fictional characters lead two parallel lives, one being the life assigned on them by the plot. They try to change things and act independently from the author. This is why Margwelaschwili often turns to the masterworks of world literature.

In one of his books, the characters of a poor translation of "The Knight in a Panther's Skin," [Shota Rustaveli's] 12th century epic join forces to rebel against the translator.

In one of his most recent works, the author asks Harry Potter to lend him a magic lantern that could bring readers to his own novel.

Another book describes how parents take their children from the Gospel of St. Matthew into the Gospel of St. Luke because the latter contains no description of how King Herod slayed children.

In one of his most recent works, the author asks Harry Potter, [the main character of J.K. Rowling's eponymous novels], to lend him a magic lantern that could bring readers to his own novel.

"Imagine a fictional character that finds itself in a very confusing and bad plot, or 'theme,' [as Giwi says]," former Georgian Education Minister Kartozia said of Margwelaschwili's style. "It tries to free itself, but cannot because it's caught in the midst of this 'theme.' It needs help, and that's where Giwi comes to help it. Giwi acts in a way that will help this poor fictional character get out of the 'theme.' In that sense, Giwi is the 'Great Liberator.'"

Awaiting Correction

Literary critics say one problem with Magvelashvili's books is that they are extremely difficult to translate because their author experiments by resorting to puns and creating his own language.

This explains why non-German readers, Georgians included, are more familiar with Margwelaschwili's name than they are with his work.

But even in Germany Margwelaschwili does not have that many readers and most of his work remains unpublished to this day. Yet, he told RFE/RL he believes an efficient marketing policy would bring him many more readers.

"I must admit that some men of letters and professional publishers think that what I write is complicated, overloaded with ideas, in other words, ‘heavy,'" Margwelaschwili said. "But on the other hand my books have a readership [in Germany], even though those readers are scattered and need to be organized and mobilized."

Caught between two cultures as between the front and back covers of a book, Margwelaschwili is waiting for the 'Great Correction' -- as the title of one of his novels reads -- to be brought to his life.