Abkhazia--the real-life if little-known Caucasian republic that was once called Colchis (before the Greeks)--is the setting for Soviet writer Iskander's warm, amusing, gently inventive epic/picaresque novel. A book more of episodes than accumulating chapters, it's focused on one Sandro, from the Abkhazian town of Chegem; and the vignettes range from the 1880s to the 1960s, from Czarist princes to Bolshevik/Menshevik strife, to Stalin and Khrushchev. The Chegemians, exemplified by Sandro, are polite, honest, stubborn, wily; they are bitter enemies of the neighboring Endurskies; and they take just about everything in stride, confident that they'll always have among them at least one hero like Sandro who knows how to remedy situations, local or historical, once they go awry. Among the brightest scenes: Sandro repeatedly jumps a horse over an indoor inn table at which a fellow Chegemian is having his pants beat off him at cards; an hilarious attack by a hapless Menshevik trojan horse; a holy tree which audibly protests against Abkhazian farm collectivization in the Twenties; and a banquet for Stalin (""the Big Mustache""), Berea, and Voroshilov--with Sandro as part of the virile Abkhazian folk-dance-troupe entertainment. . . and some indoor William Tell antics by the thoroughly soused leaders. Because Iskander's not-quite-a-novel starts from nowhere, it ends up comfortably there too. (And apparently still other episodes of Sandro are yet to be translated and published.) But, taken on its own shapeless terms, this is a sunny national folk-emblem of considerable wit and wisdom and charm.