The Pear Field

“I’m going to kill Vano, and then they can do what they want with me,” declares eighteen-year-old Lela in the opening pages of Nana Ekvtimishvili’s novel The Pear Field, translated by Elizabeth Heighway. Why she should want to do so, and why she has fallen out with her one-time closest friend, Vaska (even she is unsure and “can’t remember when or why she started to dislike Vaska”) are the two mysteries that drive the novel’s narrative. Yet, despite its relatively short length, it is a novel which does much more. Centred on a Georgian children’s home – the ‘School for Idiots’ as the locals call it – it paints a detailed picture of the lives of the children there, the neglect and abuse, but also the humanity and hope.

At eighteen, Lela is no longer required to stay at the children’s home but “she doesn’t know where else to go.” Instead she looks after some of the younger children, particularly Irakli who is “glued to Lela’s side.” Though many of the children are orphans, Irakli has been left at the home by his mother, whom he regularly phones from the house of a kind neighbour. Each time she promises to return for him soon but never does. Lela is irritated by Irakli’s continuing faith in his mother (by this point she has left the country and is in Greece):

“Why do you keep sticking up for her? You know she’s not coming back.”

Irakli is, of course, only one example of neglect in a novel which is littered with them. The home itself has been left to fall into ruin: one room in particular, where a balcony has collapsed, has an empty doorway leading to a fatal fall (like Chekov’s gun, Ekvtimishvili does not introduce this without later using it); in it the children use old bed springs as trampolines while the rain comes through the roof. Neglect can also be seen in the death of Sergo who runs out the gates of the home only to be killed by a car. As they leave the cemetery, the children are told not to look back:

“…you mustn’t look back. Once you’ve buried them you leave them in peace. No more crying either.”

In many ways, this is how the children live their lives.

Of all the abuse the children suffer, the sexual abuse is the worst, an aspect of their lives which Ekvtimishvili reveals slowly over the course of the novel. Much of this is focused on the character of Lela, but it is also made clear that it is widespread. Sexual abuse may seem tragically ‘typical’ for a novel set in a children’s home, but Ekvtimishvili demonstrates it is present in many forms. Take, for example, Marika, a girl around the same age as Lela but from outside the home. When they are children, Marika and Lela play together:

“There was one game in a particular, where Marika would take Lela’s knickers off followed by her own.”

It is implied that Marika feels comfortable playing this game with Lela because Lela comes from the home. When the game stops, their friendship comes to an end. Is this any different from Koba wanting to take the present day Lela out in his car?

“I’m not asking you to do it for free. I’ll pay.”

In fact, Koba wants to pay her because that is the only transaction that will excuse a relationship with Lela. The children also abuse each other: Lela recollects a ‘game’ where new girls would be taken to the pear tree field and held down by the other children, boys and girls alike, and raped. The staff are dismissive of anyone who raises concerns:

“…it was just in their nature; they wanted it too, especially if there were sweets and presents on offer.”

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Lela has also been abused by Vano, a teacher at the home. While she is still a child, he get her to undress and then masturbates in front of her; the abuse escalates until eventually he rapes her. The fact that he would lead her by the hand to a space where they would be undisturbed, now means she “can’t bear people holding her hand,” something which seems to make a wider point about how the abuse makes it difficult for her to accept any affection, perhaps one reason for her tough exterior which hides her frequently kind actions. (However, it is not Vano’s abuse of her which leads her to want to kill him, perhaps because she doesn’t regard herself as worthy of revenge). The need for toughness extends to her care for Irakli – when she arranges for him to learn English as he is going to be adopted by an American family, she ask for him to be taught “some proper vocab” by which she means swearwords and phrases like ‘Get your hands off me!’

This may make The Pear Field sound like a thoroughly bleak read, but this is not the whole truth. Difficult as their lives are, the children still experience joy and kindness, for example when stealing cherries or when a woman lowers a basket of food to them. There is still laughter, sometimes cruel, in their world. Lela herself remains undefeated and determined to act, creating her own destiny.

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9 Responses to “The Pear Field”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Arresting stuff, Grant…I admire Peirene for continuing to publish books which highlight some of the darker sides of humanity, even if the books themselves are rather bleak. It’s good to hear that there are a few chinks of light amidst the darkness here, otherwise it would be unremittingly grim…

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It does sound incredibly dark Grant, and I’m not sure I have the emotional strength for it right now. Thoguh I agree witjh Jacquie that it’s admirable Peirene bring books like this out – we need not to forget the nastier side of humanity…

  3. banff1972 Says:

    Very keen to read this. Saw an amazing Georgian film not too long ago and now I’m fascinated by the place.

  4. International Booker Prize Predictions 2021 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili (translated by Elizabeth Heighway)(or another Pereine Press title) […]

  5. The International Booker Prize 2021 Long List | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press […]

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