Peirene Press are one of my all-time favourite publishing houses. I love that they champion European novellas which would not otherwise be translated into English, and will always support what they do. I had not read any of their titles for quite some time, sadly, but was so intrigued by Georgian author Nana Ekvtimishvili’s The Pear Field that I got my hands on a copy as soon as I possibly could.
I was lucky enough to travel to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, in January 2020, and have been keen to seek out literature from the country ever since. It has, however, proven rather difficult to get hold of books in translation, particularly which are still in print. I am therefore very grateful to Peirene for publishing this novella, and to Elizabeth Heighway for her flawless translation. Part of Peirene’s ‘Closed Universe’ series, The Pear Field was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021, and has also been longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.
The Pear Field is set in a ‘newly independent’ Georgia, free on the surface from Soviet influence, and takes place on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi. Here, a young woman named Lela lives at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children; the locals cruelly refer to it as the ‘School for Idiots’. Lela is eighteen, and old enough to leave the school, but she has nowhere to go. She decides, early on in the narrative, ‘both for her own escape and for the future she hopes to give Irakli, a young boy at the school’ whom she has formed a close bond with. When a couple from the United States decided that they want to adopt a Georgian child, Lela is ‘determined to do everything she can to help Irakli make the most of this chance.’
Around the residential school, ‘… most of the streets have no names and… whole neighbourhoods consist of nothing but Soviet high-rises grouped into blocks, grouped in turn into microdistricts…’. We first meet Lela on ‘a sunny day in late spring, in the wash block of the School for Idiots’, which can be found at the end of a ‘forgotten, sun-scorched street’. The pear field of the novella’s title is on the same campus; it is permanently waterlogged, and the fruit inedible. It proves to be a point of horror for the children, who dream of crossing it to escape, but are fearful of what it may hold. Of Lela, the author writes: ‘… running onto the pear field fills her with terror, the fear that she might not make it across, as she imagines the branches taking hold, throwing her onto the ground, pulling her body into the soft boggy soil, the roots snaking around her and swallowing her up for ever.’
Lela ‘dresses like a boy and at first glance she looks like one too, especially when she’s running flat out. Up close, though, you can see her fine, fair eyebrows, her dark eyes, slim face and cracked red lips…’. She knows nothing of her background, or why she came to be placed in the home. For her, the future looks difficult. She has a tendency to be cruel, and her moods are quicksilver; I did not much warm to her at all. Ekvtimishivili tells us: ‘There’s no hope of her getting a job. After all, as Tiniko points out, if normal people can’t find work, what chance is there for a girl fresh out of a school for the intellectually disabled?’ Soon afterwards, however, Lela finds employment monitoring a local garage, which allows her to move from the school into a gatehouse.
In just 163 translated pages, Ekvtimishivili gives a sweeping and vivid view of twentieth century Georgian history. This was the element of the story which I found by far the most interesting. The wider social and cultural details really drew my attention. There is a lot of poverty, and much brutality and exploitation within the school system, and outside it, is exposed. Many dark, and sometimes shocking, themes are touched upon, although in some places it does not feel as if they have quite been explored in enough detail. The school building itself is dilapidated; the roof leaks, windows are broken; a balcony completely breaks off, and miraculously does not injure any of the children playing below it. There is the ever-pervading ‘smell of dirty children, or sometimes of clothes scrubbed clean with laundry soap; the smell of musty linen and hand-me-down bedding; the smell of paraffin lamps and, in winter, wood stoves; the smell of old armchairs and sticky tape covering cracks in the windows and Chinese mallow plants lined up on the sill.’
I felt a little detached from the characters throughout, and did not always feel as though they were presented in as much detail as I would personally have liked. This detachment is perhaps a consequence of the translation, as the matter-of-fact prose could well be, too. There are a lot of characters introduced in a very short span of time; many of them just appear, without explanation, and it often takes a while to work out the relationships between individuals.
The Pear Tree is Ekvtimishvili’s debut novel, and was first published in 2015. It was awarded a prestigious prize for best Georgian novel, and two others for the best debut soon afterwards. The novella had previously been translated into Dutch and German ‘to much critical acclaim’. It is not one of my favourite Peirene publications, not by a long way, but I do feel grateful to have finally been able to read a piece of Georgian literature without having to learn the language. Ekvtimishvili captures the essence of the school, and the wider surroundings rather well, but whilst this was certainly a readable book, I found it a little underwhelming.