“Hard By a Great Forest” by Leo Vardiashvili is a review of a quest that takes place in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Leo Vardiashvili’s first novel is set against the surreal scene of a biblical flood in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The story centers on war, family separation, and a conflicted return home, exploring themes of sacrifice, guilt, and betrayal. Dark mysteries drive the plot, while moments of humor provide a contrast.
The narrator, Saba, reveals that his mother chose to stay in Georgia so that he and others could escape during the civil wars that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was during a harsh winter where Tbilisi was left without basic necessities such as electricity, gas, water, and food in the shops. Saba shares a similar childhood experience with the author, who also fled Georgia with his family at the age of 12 and arrived in London in 1995. Vardiashvili, writing in English, joins other novelists like Nino Haratischwili, who wrote “The Eighth Life (for Brilka)” in German, in creating a diasporic literature that shares common themes but is written in languages other than their ancestral Georgian.
Saba, who is susceptible to panic attacks, goes back to Tbilisi in his twenties in search of his father, Irakli, and older brother, Sandro, who both went missing while looking for each other. Irakli had gone back to his home country to come to terms with the death of his wife, who had passed away while he was away trying to gather enough money to bring her to London. As Saba faces interactions with the authorities who take his passport, he contemplates the opposing guidance from the spirits of his deceased loved ones.
Saba’s mother, Eka, used to tell him forbidden tales of wizards and princes, known as samizdat fairytales, during the time of Soviet rule. These stories were copied at great risk. The novel takes its title from words written by Sandro in an alley, referencing the story of Hansel and Gretel. Saba must decipher a series of coded clues in order to follow his father and brother, but this leads him into dangerous territory as he navigates through the aftermath of wars that are still ongoing.
In 2015, the Tbilisi zoo was affected by a flood. This event is mentioned as occurring only two years after the Russia-Georgia war in 2008. Saba joins forces with Nodar, a taxi driver from the disputed area of South Ossetia, and together they travel across Tbilisi, from the Mtatsminda cliff with its broadcasting tower, to “Leninless Square” in Sololaki where Saba witnessed the toppling of the Lenin statue as a child. They leave the city and journey from the snowy watchtowers of Svaneti in the high Caucasus to the war-torn South Ossetia, where they encounter burned villages, fields covered in salt, orphanages, and traumatized children from bombings. These tragic deaths are a stark contrast to the fairytales that Saba remembers, where every death had a heroic purpose and was accompanied by fanfare.
Nodar remarks that the Russians cannot be held responsible for everything. Meanwhile, Saba discovers that Georgians are fighting amongst themselves as soldiers prevent Ossetian civilians from going back to their homes in the breakaway zone. The civilians are viewed as traitors supporting Russian occupation. Nodar expresses his views on the situation, stating that whether they are Russian or Georgian, it does not matter. A shell is a shell and it is still lethal.
For Nodar, “tomorrow’s hangover is proof of today’s sins”. In a former colony where “comrade” in Russian is a needling insult implying collaboration, Georgia’s post-Soviet hangover persists in torture chambers beneath new police stations, and callous systems that corrupt honest men.
The book contains vivid scenes, ranging from Saba’s surprised return to his childhood home where he is met with memories that feel like landmines, to a journey through melted glacier water. Some scenes are both heartbreaking and humorous, like a grieving couple in a cemetery who are appalled by the poor quality of the wine they pour as an offering (“Wine isn’t just in our blood, it is our blood”). The pages are filled with clever phrases such as a “waddle” of penguins and the “idling tremble” of an alcoholic’s hands. In one scene, visitors at a hospital witness the sight of heads popping up from rusty steel-frame beds, resembling sickly meerkats.
Eka encouraged her sons to use their imagination, while their uncle Anzor shared stories of their ancestors’ bravery in defending their culture and traditions. However, the novel also challenges the idea of glorifying violence. Irakli, one of the characters, struggles with the idea of holding grudges and learns to forgive certain betrayals. His grandmother Lena urges him to let go of the cycle of revenge and confront the divided past. This novel may serve as an example for promoting reconciliation and understanding.
On Sunday, March 17, 2024, Maya Jaggi will be launching the Oxford literary festival’s annual event featuring Georgian literature and culture. Jaggi is the founding director of this program.