Early in Leo Vardiashvili’s Hard by a Great Forest, its narrator, Saba Sulidze-Donauri, finds himself in a taxi in Tbilisi. As the taxi winds its way through the darkened streets, Saba begins to realise something is amiss. People are huddled under streetlights, talking and smoking, and police cars are parked on every corner, lights flashing. Finally the taxi is brought to a halt by the sight of a rhino standing in the middle of the road, a mangled shopfront behind it. “Is that a fuckin’ rhino?” Saba demands, at which the driver smiles, and tells him, “That’s not a rhino. That’s Boris.”
Boris is one of a host of animals that have escaped from the zoo after a flood washes through the city. It’s a scene that captures something essential about Vardiashvili’s strikingly assured debut: not just its juxtaposition of the deadpan and the fantastic but also the black humour that leavens the darkness and grief into which the book descends as it proceeds.
Saba is in Georgia to find his brother, Sandro, who has gone missing while searching for their father, Irakli, who has also disappeared during a visit to the country. Although Georgian by birth, Saba and Sandro have spent most of their lives in England, after Irakli fled Georgia with the pair of them when the nation descended into civil war in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Even without the added concern about his brother and father, Saba’s return home would have been an emotional affair: while the three of them escaped, Saba and Sandro’s mother, Eka, did not manage to get away and, despite Irakli’s increasingly desperate efforts to finance a passage out of Georgia for her, died before she could be reunited with her sons.
This sense of loss and dislocation is threaded deep into the novel. While, as Saba observes at one point, “England never felt permanent”, their connection to their homeland is also tenuous. Aside from him and his brother and father, his family has “gone extinct over the 17 years we were absent. Grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts and cousins blinked out like cheap Christmas lights”. Saba quickly discovers that while his family might be gone, they are not forgotten. People in Tbilisi and elsewhere have scores both old and new to settle with them.
Despite its weighty themes, Hard by a Great Forest is a surprisingly light-footed creation. Partly this is down to Saba’s voice, which inhabits a register that is at once wounded and blackly humorous. But it is also because of the fluid manner in which Vardiashvili weaves together its various elements. In its opening pages the novel appears to be a noirish mystery story about the disappearance of Sandro and Irakli, a quality that is underlined by the deployment of a cast of crooked cops and the taxi driver, Nodar, who befriends Saba and becomes his companion and guide. But by the time Saba arrives in Tbilisi, the tone has begun to shift, as the animals roaming through the streets suggest something altogether stranger and wilder, transforming Tbilisi into a magical forest in which are to be found not just rhinos but also wolves and even a tiger. Meanwhile, the confiscation of Saba’s passport by the police, and their unexplained interest in his movements and those of his father and brother, offer echoes of Kafka.
Perhaps most important, however, is the book’s use of fairytales and in particular Hansel and Gretel, from which the novel takes its title. As Saba searches for Sandro and Irakli, he discovers his brother has left him a trail of cryptic clues in the form of graffiti on walls and pages from a play Irakli wrote many years before. Like breadcrumbs, these clues lead Saba towards his missing father.
There is no question this device occasionally demands that the reader carefully suspend their disbelief. After all, why couldn’t Sandro have just sent a text or an email telling Saba where to go? Surely that would be more effective than sending him on a risky journey through a foreign country? Nonetheless, in combination with the chorus of dead family and friends whose voices intrude into his thoughts, this device lends Saba’s depiction of his experiences a strange, almost archetypal power.
More powerful again are the book’s final sections, in which the fairytale resonances are absorbed into a wrenching account of Saba and Nodar’s journey across the border into the Russian-occupied territory of Ossetia. Shot through with real anger and pain, these pages give shape to the loss at the heart of Saba’s being and to the grief and fury of those left shattered by the conflict in the region.
Several times in Hard by a Great Forest Saba is counselled that it is necessary to read fairytales to their conclusion. And Vardiashvili clearly understands the old maxim of storytelling that demands a protagonist should have had everything they care about stripped away by a story’s end. Nonetheless the book’s final pages do offer a moment of startling beauty, when some goodness from another kinder world leaks into our own. While that consolation proves to be short-lived, it is a sign of the sophistication of this impressive and often deeply affecting novel that it also suggests a way out of the prison of the past.
Bloomsbury, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Hard by a Great Forest".
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