Sons of the Caucasus (A Book Review)

I wouldn’t normally touch a self-published Amazon ebook, but Tim Ogden’s debut novel, Sons of the Caucasus, is right in my niche. It’s an action-movie-in-a-book that manages to be fast-paced and thrilling while offering some insights into the mind of a soldier and, perhaps, some commentary on war, imperialism, and history. Ogden’s knowledge of military equipment and tactics and his easy narrative style make for some good action sequences. Oh – and it’s set in Georgia.

The downsides: it’s self-published, so no professional editing – I caught typos and you will too. The first few chapters are almost Randian in their us-against-them Western war machine apologetics, and when Ogden asks us to be sympathetic to a character who – if, like me, you went the college rather than military route – resents and disdains us, it can be a little difficult to comply. Our protagonist is transformed by Georgia – and believe me, I know how that goes – but we don’t see enough of it so the ending feels a little unearned. Also – I feel obligated to mention this as the resident gender studies guy of the Georgian expat internet – the book is very testosterone-heavy, with barely any female presence, and the one major female character is not strongly developed.

Still, if you have three bucks and a free afternoon, you might find this book surprisingly entertaining. Below are some of my thoughts on the weighty philosophical matters suggested by the book:

Those Who Do Not Understand History…

After losing an eye in Afghanistan, Private Dominic White finds life as an undergraduate history major sufficiently unbearable that he hops on a plane to Tbilisi the second a good enough excuse comes along. White’s abortive study of history is a perfect symbol of the overall understanding of history possessed by Ogden’s characters, which could best be described as “shocking”.

For example, as an American, I was very surprised to learn that the United Kingdom had never needed to hire mercenaries, since George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware Water Gap to battle the mercenary Hessians is perhaps one of the most famous episodes of the American Revolution. As an American, I was much less surprised to find out that Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom, which is a dearly held but erroneous belief shared by many Americans.

The character who is the source of these two blunders, we learn eventually, is involved with quite a great deal of warmongering. Is this a subtle critique of neo-conservatism? A commentary on the ignorance that fuels warfare? The crazed ramblings of a madman bent on world domination? I am reminded of John McCain, war-hero-turned-Spain-hawk, and his vapid sidekick, ever-vigilantly keeping an eye on Russia with binoculars from her back porch.

Meanwhile, White’s inability to see in three dimensions is echoed by the collapsed view of history, in which past and present are one and indistinguishable, possessed by the people he talks to. According to White’s interlocutors, Americans are modern day Crusaders; while the Seljuk Turks are labeled “Muslim Extremists”, their motives for occupying the fertile Caucasian valleys near the crux of the Silk Road as inscrutable after a thousand years as the reason for the Taliban’s persistence in resisting foreign invaders in their homeland today.

What does our hero think about all this? To him, it’s all “theoretical” – White deals in lived reality, not in abstractions or stories about the long-dead past. At the beginning of the book this assertion sounds alarmingly arrogant, but by the end I am actually convinced – history is far too easy to manipulate, and the horrors of war far too easy to ignore, to let a cherry-picked narrative dictate your decisions.

The unreliability of history is further evidenced by Ogden’s Georgians. Set in the “near-future”, this hypothetical Georgia has been turned off of democracy and soured on America. The Tbilisi elites White rubs elbows with on Rustaveli avenue heap scorn on Saakashvili for relying on the US during the 2008 war and for failing to repudiate the relationship after the US failed to come through in any significant military capacity. Meanwhile the monarchist movement has become a thing – apparently a popular trope among Georgian action plot writers – and anti-democratic popular demonstrations sweep the capital, apparently based on the hypothesis that in the “near-future” Georgians will still not have developed a strong sense of irony.

White finds these Georgians – cynical towards America, ambivalent about democracy – a refreshing change from his frivolous countrymen. It seems that having lived through a war is crucial to earning White’s respect, or at least his sympathy, although if White wants to see Georgians being every bit as frivolous and obonxious as Western college students there are some bars around Tbilisi I could point him to. White is impressed not only by the 2008 war, but by every war Georgia has fought going back seventeen hundred years, and by Georgians’ emotional connection to all of them. To White, Georgia is a country where the present is the past, where history has come alive.

So it’s no surprise that… spoiler spoiler spoiler. Have I piqued your interest? Go read the book! I’d love to hear what you think.

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6 Responses to Sons of the Caucasus (A Book Review)

  1. I’ve been looking for Georgian/Georgia-set literature since I signed up for the TLG program.

    To be honest ‘Sons of the Caucasus’ doesn’t sound like my cup of tea— although the cover design is very cool. I’ve read about a lot of Georgian writers, but hardly any of them appear to have been translated into English. ‘The Snake’s Skin’ by Robakidze sounds pretty weird, but fascinating. Apparently a lot of ‘Ali and Nino’ is plagiarised from it, so I picked that up because it’s more easily available.

    My travel guide is peppered with quotes from Rustaveli, and those are always brilliant but again, very hard to find in print (but easy and FREE on Kindle…) I’m about to start reading ‘A Hero of Our time’ which is Russian, but set around the Caucasus…

    I’m getting more than a little over-excited now, and most of my family are getting quite bored with my ‘did you know in Georgia…’ facts. This blog, by the way, was one of the best resouces of Georgia info that made me decide the TLG program was the right direction to take… so thanks…

    • panoptical says:

      You’ve heard of Dato Turashvili, no? He’s a popular author these days and his “Flight from USSR” is in print in English.

    • panoptical says:

      And thanks for reading! Glad I could be of service.

    • pasumonok says:

      ali and nino is pulp and does not really resemble “snake’s skin”. ‘snake’s skin” is tough to read, though. turashvili’s book neal mentioned will give you insight into 80s soviet georgia–it is based on a tragic true story of elite youngsters trying escape soviet union. It was first written as a play and staged in freedom theatre in tbilisi and is probably the most famous contemporary georgian play. aslo, it is called “the jeans generation”, why did they change it to such uninspiring title as “flight from ussr”?
      i’d recommend watching some films. repentance by tengiz abuladze abstractly depicts Stalin/Beria era and is pretty powerful. i’ve seen it with english subtitles. received grand price of the jury at cannes festival. here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093754/
      unfortunately, aka morchiladze’s novel “trip to karabakh” is available only in georgian, but they have made a decent film out of it, also available with subtitles, and it shows very well how things went in the 90s and why our generation is the way it is today. make sure to watch the first film, which is based on the book, there are also 2 sequels which suck. here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0480702/
      hope this helps and welcome to georgia!

      • I didn’t really want to read ‘Ali and Nino’, but it was one of a handful of books available I could afford.

        ‘The Jeans Generation’ is a brilliant title. I’ve tried to find a copy, but even on the internet I can’t find a copy for under £20. I’m hoping that I’ll strike lucky when I visit a city at the weekend— rural England isn’t a great place to find international literature!

        I’ve just read the synopsis of ‘Repentenance’ and it sounds like a piece of absurdist theatre… almost a soviet equivalent of ‘The Accidental Death of an Anarchist.’ Very much hope I can track down a subtitled copy.

        ‘Trip to Karabakh’ sounds interesting as well— and I’ll make sure to avoid the sequels!

        Thank you. I’m hoping to arrive in Georgia in September, about a month from today actually…

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