Translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway
NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST, CENTRAL ASIA AND THE SOUTH CAUCASUS
The Pear Field is published in English for the first time by Peirene Press this autumn as part of their ‘Closed Universe’ series of translated literature, which also includes Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, which I reviewed early this year. Of course, since the series was launched, we all feel as though our own personal universes have become a little more closed, which makes the choice of theme seem rather prescient.
Author and film director Nana Ekvtimishvili has set this novel in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, at a boarding school for children with disabilities, otherwise locally known as the School for Idiots. It seems to be set in the immediate post-Soviet period, and it is immediately evident that this school is not situated within any kind of progressive or enlightened environment when it comes to child care – or child protection.
The dangerous appeal for the children of the so-called ‘trampoline room’ is evoked vividly: a room high up in the school building, filled with ancient decommissioned bed frames, and with a doorway that opens directly into the open air since the time a derelict balcony unexpectedly collapsed to the ground.
The book’s main character is 18-year-old Lela, who has been institutionalised her whole life. She knows nothing about her background, bar the fact that she previously lived in a children’s home, and was moved to the school when she reached the appropriate age for schooling, such as it is.
Life is hard for the children at the school. The conditions are unsanitary, clothes and furnishings are worn and well-used, and the sexual abuse of female children is prevalent. Perhaps owing to the spare conditions, on rare occasions when the school grounds are hired out for weddings, the associated feasts are described in tantalising detail:
The children pile food onto their plates: hot khachapuri, fried chicken, liver with walnuts, vegetable phkali, walnut sauce, clay-baked shoti puri flatbreads and everything else that’s on offer.
The action takes place almost entirely within the walls of the school, with newcomers being the focus of intense fascination. The story moves along in an episodic fashion, as we learn about the children that Lela comes into contact with, as well as semi-mythical tales of previous residents who have moved on, for good or for bad. Lela is officially too old to be a pupil at the school, but has no idea what to do next, and for the time being is permitted to stay put, acting as a sort of unpaid assistant and later also a kind of poorly remunerated parking attendant, as the school’s forecourt is often used by locals for a small fee.
There were a lot of characters to keep track of, and I found it tricky at first to remember who was who, particularly as many of the first names were unfamiliar to me. As the parent of a child with a disability I found it a particularly difficult read, while the action focuses predominantly on the ‘normal’ children at the school (of which there are many, either abandoned or orphaned) and more or less ignores the stories of those with physical or mental impairments, though they would surely be as worthy of interest.
Lela, however, is a sympathetic character, who has endured a lifetime of abuse and lack of care and has still managed to retain a strong sense of justice. Although quite rough and ready, she is a champion and support for others, in particular a vulnerable nine-year-old boy, Irakli. Meanwhile, she harbours a secret determination to seek murderous revenge on Vano, an ageing teacher and a dangerous sexual predator.
Ekvtimishvili is best known as a filmmaker: she co-directed award-winning film In Bloom in 2013, and her latest movie My Happy Family was released in 2017. The Pear Field, which was published in Georgia in 2015, is Ekvtmishvili’s first novel. It has been the recipient of several awards, and has already been published in other languages, including German. I found it to be an interesting if sometimes disturbing introduction to Georgian fiction.