Hard by a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili

I wonder how many people who have left a country because of war, or for other reasons, have a lingering fear of what they were escaping and how long that might go on for. This feeling must be magnified if one person stays behind on the promise that money will be sent to get them out and that doesn’t happen. The guilt on one side and the sense of betrayal on the other must be enormous and there will be people who return to try to resolve the issue. Hard by A Great Forest is a story that covers this ground with a father and his two sons leaving Georgia, like the author, and settling in Britain, trying to raise the money to get their mother out who stayed behind to allow them to go.

Eventually, Irakli the father, goes back to Georgia and then disappears meaning that the eldest son, Sandro follows him and then all communications with him stop. It then follows that Saba, the youngest son who is now in his late 20s, also goes out to find his father and brother. It is a true quest with many obstacles that have to be overcome such as finding the trail to follow to lead Saba to his brother and father, understanding the clues when he finds them, avoiding the local police, avoiding the zoo animals that have escaped during a large flood and avoiding being shot. Like all good quests, there are wise people that guide Saba on his journey: first there is Nodar who picks him up at the airport and offers his house as a place to stay and then his car and time to ferry Saba around Tbisili and then the country and over the border into Ossetia. There are also people he meets along the way and his dead family whose voices he hears and who offer him timely advice when decisions need to be made.

The clues for the trail that Sandro leaves are ones that only a brother could understand, born of time spent together, films watched and books read. The title of the book comes from the start of Hansel and Gretel and this is woven throughout the story as Saba follows a trail of crumbs into a large forest both literal and metaphorical. He does, however, come out the other side of the forest and decides to stay in the country and be useful – something, I imagine a lot of people who flee must have a dream of doing. In letting go of the chase for his father, Saba was able to let go of the voices of the dead, his old life and find a new purpose. That must be the dream of so many displaced people.

The escaped zoo animals bring a surreal element to the story. They might represent danger or the hunted, hiding in dark places like forests and large parks and have to be faced. Saba did so on his own but there were plenty of police running around with tranquilizing guns, shooting the animals, getting it wrong and killing them and so I suppose they could also represent the people with the police as a state institutions that kept a repressed nation in its place. How dare the people escape in favour of something that isn’t Russian communism.

There are plenty of Saba’s dreams in the story that are the voices of the dead along with a play written by Irakli where Irakli becomes the central character, Valiko, on the run from his family both in the UK and back in Georgia.

The more I think about this book, the more I realise it is a Hansel and Gretel rewriting. In the fairy tale the mother dies and although there is a step-mother, the children have to rely upon each other for survival. This is the case in the book where the mother is left in Georgia, and does eventually die there, with the boys fending for themselves and all throughout the book Saba talking to Sandro in his head saying, ‘See, I can do things on my own, including following the trail you left for me.’. There is no wicked step-mother in Hard by a Great Forest but there is a father who is unable to look after his sons because of his guilt. Like Hansel, Sandro leaves a trail for Saba but also like Hansel, is eventually unable to protect Saba who must stand on his own two feet. The power shifts in Grimm’s tale from Hansel to Gretel and so it does in the book, with Saba coming out of the story with the knowledge that he can survive anything, and has, including abandonment and loss of love.

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