I have just finished an unusual book that interested me profoundly. It is a book about the Caucasus, far more vividly attractive, colorful and amazing than any work of fiction I have read for years; a book containing, for such as I, a hundred revelations that pile up astounding fact on fact until it is hard to say which is the most astonishing.
Hitherto, in my ignorance, I had regarded the Caucasus vaguely as a rugged and rather desolate terrain inhabited sparsely by savage robber bands, living -- chiefly on the proceeds of banditry -- semi-barbaric lives with few traditions and no culture worth mentioning.
Yet, in the introduction to this book, a learned professor is quoted as saying, "There are no savages in the Caucasus, and no races without cultures of their own." And what an amazing number and variety of races and cultures still exist!
But in all this strange and varied and what interested me most, as a weaver of rhyme and as one who, in happier circumstances, might have written at least some of the nation's songs, was the account of the village of Khudsorek, in Southern Transcaucasia.
It has given me a dream of what might have been in Australia had culture marched with agriculture since this country's earliest settlement -- of what might yet be in the very dim future. It is a very Utopian dream!
In the Caucasus generally handicrafts are not much practised, but, since some manufacture is essential, whole villages and towns are given over to the practice of a single craft. There are some towns, for example, which have the monopoly of hat-making. In others the whole of the inhabitants are saddlers, in another blacksmiths, and so on.
But in the village of Khudsorek, as the author has it, "all the inhabitants know but one single, joyous and immortal craft; they are all trained as professional poets."
These poets -- the post-graduates -- are known as "Ashuks" and, having won their bays, so to speak, they travel thereafter from village to village reciting the products of their craft and -- here is the part that delights me most -- receiving princely fees.
"The genuine Ashuk," we are told, "is inviolable throughout the land: he may with impunity say any kind of impertinence he likes to any ruler. . . . Even princes are not ashamed to go through the country as Ashuks." It is an alluring prospect.
Imagine the Australian Ashuk setting out on some bright spring morning to journey where he lists, confidently assured of a welcome and a rich reward.
Off he hies to Geelong or Mildura or Gunn's Gully, where he is met by the town band and escorted to the town square. Here, before the worshipping populace, and in lilting cadences he lashed into the Government, into the Centenary Committee or the National Credit Releasers or anyone he pleases, and he is applauded, feasted and showered with precious gifts; and so passes on to the next town he fancies. What a life! And what a futile dream!
The other day I met in town a friend of mine, a squatter, who greatly flattered me by alluding to a little thing I had recently published. I was very tickled and humbly grateful about it, although he had forgotten the title and was a little vague as to the subject matter.
"Anyhow," he concluded, "I know I had to laugh at it. It was jolly good." Then he lost interest in me and turned to a friend who accompanied him, and engaged in an animated, not to say lyric conversation about two-tooth wethers.
I sadly fear that the dawn of the day of the Australian Ashuk is still remote in this sunny land.
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003|