In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jonathan Garfinkel’s novel In a Land without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark is a dark, ambitious, and unforgettable debut.
Quill & Quire wrote of the book:
Suspense-driven prose that jumps through time and milks the temporal gap for dramatic tension. … Garfinkel navigates the complex environment of post-Soviet Georgia with confidence, drawing persuasively from the country’s political history to contextualize his characters’ personal narratives.
In his own words, here is Jonathan Garfinkel’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel In a Land without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark:
In a Land without Dogs The Cats Learn to Bark is a novel whose characters are, in many ways, guided by music. By the music of revolution, the music of change, the music of chance, the music that is expansiveness, possibility and self-expression. From 1970s Soviet Moscow, to 1990s post-Soviet Tbilisi, to early 2000s Toronto and then back to 2003 Rose Revolution Tbilisi, people live for and with music in important ways. It speaks to the world around them and to their evolving (or devolving) political situations. Jazz, punk, classic rock, New Wave, funk, blues, Georgian polyphonic: it’s all a calling toward change, the ancient juxtaposed against a future that we perceive as some kind of freedom. Isn’t that what music was, when you listened as an adolescent, inside your hallowed bedroom walls? On your favourite headphones, or crappy speakers, to get away from the confusion of adults? Perhaps we are all listening for a way out, a clue to something more authentic.
Since music is both a character motivator and catalyst in my novel, the songs I’ve chosen all appear in one way or another.
John Coltrane, Blue Train
In the first section of In a Land without Dogs, the story is told by American Fulbright Gary Ruckler, attending Moscow State University in 1975. He’s there because he wants to study Russian literature in its original, but his deeper love is music – specifically jazz. He brings a crate full of his favourite records and turntable with him to Moscow, his one American indulgence. While unpacking in his dormitory, a Soviet-Chechen classmate, Aslan, black-marketeer, genetics student and jazz trumpet player, obsessed with all things American, becomes excited by Gary’s record collection. The two bond over their shared love of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. It is through Aslan that Gary learns about the budding Soviet jazz scene, or as Aslan calls it, “The Revolution without Words.”
I chose Blue Train as the first track because it was the first jazz record I listened to. As a kid I knew nothing of jazz; I was thirteen years old when I walked up the stairs of Sam the Record Man in Toronto on Yonge Street and told the record seller: “I want to listen to jazz. What should I start with?” He must’ve thought I was insane or totally naïve – likely I was both. But he handed me this record, and it was a formidable selection. I’ll never forget the first time I listened to it: cool, restrained, seemingly formless. There were no words or lyrics to hang on to. It felt open and full of possibility. In time I’d learn the structures. But I was hooked, no turning back, and John Coltrane’s tasteful lead – along with Lee Morgan on trumpet – would remain imprinted on me forever.
Bessie Smith, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Classic Bessie Smith. A song of changed fortunes, the fall from high to low. One of the refrains in my novel, No one is who they say they are, is embodied in these lyrics: how fates change, and destinations alter, and history intrudes in surprising and oft difficult ways. Bessie Smith turns this shifting of fates and identities into a perfect eulogy, a severed moaning, a blue refrain.
Led Zeppelin, Black Dog
I don’t really listen to Zeppelin anymore, but as a teenager I was entranced. How could I not be? When CDs came into fashion, my cousin Gary gave me the entirety of his record collection, believing the future was digital. In the pile of records was an unlabelled album with a peeled oil painting and a hunched man carrying a pile of branches on his back. No band name, no album name, nothing. When I put it on for the first time, I was seduced by Robert Plant’s falsetto and the mystery of Jimmy Page’s guitar. Hey hey mama the way you move gonna make you sweat gonna make you groove. It was a calling from mystery. In time, of course, it became familiar – and redundant.
In the beginning of my book, Aslan wears a seminal Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy t-shirt he procured from an unsuspecting American tourist. In the context of their conversations Gary and Aslan discuss Zeppelin’s blues, which Aslan accuses as a kind of colonial usurping of Afro-American tradition, drawing parallels with the Russian colonial literature of Mikhail Lermontov, the 19th century poet Gary has come to study.
The GTC Trio, Swan Cake
I first met Vladimir Tarasov in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2006 where I was living. Tarasov was the former percussionist and drummer of the famous ’70s Soviet jazz band GTC, sometimes known as Ganelin Trio. It was through Tarasov I learned about the importance of jazz in the Soviet Union. He described to me Café Neringa in Vilnius, in the 70s, where the band held an informal residence. While the band played their improvisational, free-jazz, poets like Joseph Brodsky and Tomas Venclova would read their work. Jazz, according to Tarasov, was the revolution without words. In the Soviet world, this was no small achievement. In this rendering, GTC takes Swan Lake and turns it into something cakey: a big, hearty ‘fuck you’ to the Russian empire and Soviet Imperial Agenda.
Cannonball Adderley, Autumn Leaves
I’ve moved and lived in countless cities, countries and continents. One year, I counted 20 different apartments. I suppose you can call me a nomad, though my bags are always crammed full of books, paper and tailored suits – an impractical nomad. The one consistent tradition I have is that whenever I arrive at a new place, I put on Somethin’ Else by Cannonball Adderley. The first track, Autumn Leaves, is as perfect a jazz number as there is. The leading bass line, the warm tenor sax, and Miles Davis’ cool as shit trumpet. It’s like coming home.
Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, In a Sentimental Mood
Halfway through the novel, in 2003 Tbilisi, we’re introduced to Daniel Daniel, a Georgian avant-garde jazz trumpet player and proprietor of a local record store. It is here the North American Joseph Grabinsky – on a search for his family roots – listens to In a Sentimental Mood while waiting for the arrival of his father, someone he hasn’t seen in twenty years. His father doesn’t show up – no surprise in their fraught history – but Joseph takes solace in this musical collaboration of exceptional talent. In fact, Joseph believes the record store, and this singular piece of music, is perhaps more interesting than any impulse familial or ancestral. I’m inclined to believe this is one of the best jazz albums of all time, a stalwart collaboration, by two geniuses of their day.
Joy Division, Atrocity Exhibition
As a child born in the ’70s, I inherited the legacy of Joy Division. Angry, confused, it provided a distance to make sense of things in the cruel climate of ’80s Reagan and Thatcher neo-Liberalism – much of what has survived to this day. Thus Ian Curtis became my anti-authoritarian childhood hero: he knew the world was headed down the tubes and promptly took his early exit. In the landscape of In a Land Without Dogs, in Daniel Daniel’s record store, Joy Division holds a special place for the lost generation of Georgia, those who grew up in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union. For Georgia suffered incredibly during this time, including a total collapse of its infrastructure, and Joy Division’s Atrocity Exhibition became one of their anthems. In this place of hardship and chaos, a certain beauty emerged from the edges.
Charlie Parker, Ornithology
While Joseph is more inclined toward 60s hardbop jazz, Daniel Daniel, himself a free jazz trumpet player, regards Charlie Parker as the master, a musical genius who could fold so many notes into a melody. How did he do it? For Daniel Daniel, he believed Parker had to have many identities, many selves, in order to understand the complexity of his music. To live and embody it. So a Charlie Parker solo flows from his inner truth. Which speaks to another: if no one is who they say they are, then we are in fact multiple.
Frank Sinatra, My Way
Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia, makes a cameo appearance in In a Land Without Dogs during the Rose Revolution demonstrations of 2003 in Tbilisi that would effectively bring him into power. In my version of events, he leads Daniel Daniel and Joseph on a hunting excursion as a kind of PR gambit to show how tourist friendly and pro-West Georgia could be, not the Russian puppet people believed it was. On their brief road trip, Saakashvili blasts “My Way” by Frank Sintara. It’s an anthem for the West, and for the country Saakashvili is hoping Georgia will become. In many ways Saakashvili did bring Georgia out of the influence of Russian imperialism – witness the war of 2008 – but as the events of today show, it is by no means a done deal. We see in the current war in Ukraine, Putin’s desire for empire is nowhere near finished; many in Georgia fear they are next.
Hamlet Gonashvili, Oroleva
I’m ending my playlist, not with Sinatra (which would be apt), but with a traditional Georgian polyphonic song. It captures the mythological qualities of the Caucasus, and the beauty of its music, a hearkening to the ancient. I cannot think of a place where sound emerges from landscape as precisely and truly as in Georgia. Here, Prometheus was said to have been chained to Mount Kazbek, for having stolen fire from the gods. This is the land we’re talking about, and the music, haunted, multi-layered, echoes this feeling.
I found this CD on my first trip to Tbilisi. The year was 2002; Georgia was a rough place, a cold place, with high levels of corruption, violence and crime. That week, the Russians had just turned off the gas; I was always looking for things to keep me warm. In an underground tunnel, I found an old woman selling burned CDs, with photocopied covers. I gravitated towards one; Hamlet Gonashvili. I bought it and must’ve listened to it 1000 times. Somehow the music did warm me. Later I learned Hamlet Gonashvili was the most popular singer from the Rustavi Choir. He died tragically after falling from a fruit tree while picking fruit.
Interestingly, my friend Carl Linich, an expert on Georgian choral music, told me his own story of Hamlet Gonashvili in a recent email: “Oroleva was the song that effectively inspired and facilitated my lifelong study and dedication to ornamented Kakhetian style singing. What happened was: I fell in love with Gonashvili’s recording of Orovela in 1990-91, and I wanted to learn it. However, I didn’t have the words. So on my first trip to Georgia in October of 1991, I made it my mission to get those words – and I succeeded. When I got home, I tried to hear what Hamlet was doing, but I couldn’t catch it. I put my LP record on the turntable and spun it by hand. This enabled me to start learning the melodic patterns of the ornaments. Unfortunately, Hamlet died before I ever had a chance to meet him, but he remains, through his recordings, my first teacher of Kakhetian ornamented singing, which remains my favorite to this day.”
A translation of the lyrics courtesy of Carl:
Go out and come back, plow.
Small wheel, sing the bass.
Cut into the ground,
and cut the roots of the weeds.
My darling plow,
With your bent neck,
You are the bringer of bread,
And the preserver of barley.
Jonathan Garfinkel is an award-winning author. His plays include Cockroach (adapted from the novel by Rawi Hage) and House of Many Tongues, nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. The controversial The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret has been performed across Canada, Russia, Ukraine, and Germany. He is the author of the poetry collection Glass Psalms and the chapbook Bociany. His memoir, Ambivalence: Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide, has been published in numerous countries to wide critical acclaim, and his long-form nonfiction has appeared in the Walrus, Tablet, the Globe and Mail, and PEN International, as well as Cabin Fever: An Anthology of the Best New Canadian Non-Fiction. Named by the Toronto Star as “one to watch,” Garfinkel is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the field of Medical and Health Humanities at the University of Alberta, where he is writing a memoir about life with type 1 diabetes, and the revolutionary open-source Loop artificial pancreas system. He lives in Berlin and Toronto.