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Fazil Iskander: Новые главы, Сандро из Чегема (The Gospel According to Chegem)

If you have read Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem), which you should do before reading this one, you will know what this book is about. It tells more tales of Uncle Sandro (the uncle of the narrator) in the same vein. There are more adventures of Uncle Sandro and his friends and stories from his village. As before, the Soviet system is (mildly) mocked, Soviet officials are (less mildly) mocked, Sandro and his fellow Abkhazians break the law and outwit the Soviet officials and there is a great deal of eating and drinking. The first story, for example, concerns the goatibex. This is an animal created by mating the goat and the ibex (there is, of course, no such animal in real life). It seems that this animal has been created in Abkhazia. It has also been created in a neighbouring North Caucasus republic, where they call it, of course, an ibexgoat. The local paper has defended it but Moscow report has condemned it. As a result, everyone changes their view on it. The restaurant named after it changes its name to Hellas, for example. But there a few exceptions. A man who has a model of an ibexgoat (for which he charges for photos) wants to keep it, despite the objections of the local authorities. He changes the horns into something more lurid but then, as it is now unique, he does even better with his photos. A local magazine that had supported the goatibex and continued to do so was surely going to be in trouble but nothing happened to it. Meetings are held (including with the representatives of the neighbouring republic), a lot of drink is consumed and there is much discussion, including comments on the painting of a goatibex, made by a local artist. And none of this takes into account Uncle Sandro arriving at the local newspaper (where the narrator works) with a spaniel in an Air France bag, which turns out to be key to the whole business.

Not all the stories are about Uncle Sandro. The story of Uncle Makhaz tells of a shepherd who manages to father seven daughters in a row, when what he really wants is a son, to leave his flock to. Of course, he does not believe in education for women but reluctantly accepts it when his wife sends the oldest daughter to town to get an education. She stays with a distant relative and, despite the fact that she is much stronger than this man, she ends up pregnant by him. She is able to marry an older man and, despite the fact that she apparently breaks two of his ribs on their wedding night, goes on to produce a daughter and two sons. When the next daughter goes off to stay with the same relative, Makhaz vows to drink his blood if he touches his daughter. Three months later, she is back and pregnant. In the story about an abduction, Uncle Sandro plays a major role and is up to his old tricks. This is set just after the Russian Revolution and concerns one of Uncle Sandro’s friends, an aristocrat. (According to the narrator, aristocrats, unlike in Russia, while deprived of high office, were not arrested.) He wants Sandro to help him abduct a woman with whom he is in love. Unfortunately, Sandro is in love with the same woman and she is in love with Sandro. But friendship is more important than love. However, Sandro is a wily customer and manages to get his way. Another story has another man, the foreman Kyazym, use his trickery to find out who has been robbing the kolkhoz safe. In short, all are witty and well-told stories, great fun to read and which tell us a lot about Abkhazia and its customs and the cleverness of its people, particularly when faced with Soviet bureaucracy.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Ardis
First published in English 1984 by Vintage Books
Translated by Susan Brownsberger