The Unsentimentality of Childhood: reviewing The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili6 min read
Every once in a while, you read a novella so powerful you’re stuck in that world, a trance that lasts days after you’ve completed the book. When the spell ends its hold on you, you are overcome with sadness for the characters and universe in which the novella takes place. The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili is one of those novellas that shocks the reader with a punch in the gut, leaving lamentations for childhood in post-Soviet Georgia.
Nana Ekvtimishvili is a Georgian writer and director from Tbilisi. First published in 1999 in the Georgian literary magazine Arili, she’s directed many films since then. Her films have won international awards in Berlin, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles, Sarajevo, and In Bloom was entered for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014. The Pear Field is Ekvtimishvili’s first novel, translated into German in 2018, and finally, to English in 2020 by Elizabeth Heighway.
The Pear Field centers on Lela, an eighteen year old orphan and graduate of the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children on Kerch Street. Kerch Street is a street that “boasts no heroes,” in a sleepy part of newly independent Georgia. Most of the students are orphans or children abandoned by their parents. They are monitored by a shrinking group of adults, apathetic at best, cruel at worst. Other than fast friendships or the inkling of a chance to leave this school, life goes on in utter passivity.
Every anecdote Ekvtimishvili employs about this school, when woven together, creates this listless atmosphere ripe with mishaps that arise from boredom and the senseless abuse at the hands of unchecked authority. The familiar torpor of poverty permeates every inch of Kerch Street and through many aspects of Lela’s life.
Lela’s childhood is not remarkably sad, despite her circumstances. Ekvtimishvili provides the reader with vignettes of Lela’s life, usually marked by a significant person. There’s Marika, the girl from the town who she learns to explore sexuality with, who later realizes that she inhabits a very different world than Lela outside the walls of the School for Idiots. There’s Levan, one of the rag-tag orphans of Lela’s friend group, who provides the bitter humor in every situation. There’s Goderdzi’s cousin, an off-duty policeman who gets so fired up from music at a wedding that he fires several shots of his handgun into the ceiling. Ekvtimishvili is extremely skilled in establishing this rich, alternative world through characters and dialogue. You find yourself rooting for the humanity in every character. Perhaps they are prototypical personas found in any village in the post-Soviet world – situationally hopeless and lovable.
Nature and loss
Symbols of nature and it’s relentless claim on civilization are seen throughout the book, thoughtfully pieced together to create the impassitivity of life on Kerch Street. A prized cherry tree is the source of unending trouble over the years and the mishaps that ensue over the children attempting to steal it’s juicy fruit take place near the middle of the novel.
The novella’s namesake, The Pear Field, is a patch of swamp between the school’s wash block and dormitories. It’s an area covered in small pear trees that every student stays away from. “The pears rarely ripen before the weather turns cold but instead remains rock-hard; those that do ripen never turn sweet but beat the taste of the peculiar groundwater that seeps into their flesh” The boggy soil pulls in any child that dares to walk onto the field, almost a symbol of those who seek to leave this life.
Ekvtimishvili’s delicate anecdotes are subtle. If not powerful allegories of the loss of purpose at the fall of the Soviet Union, they are sweet representations of the joy that exist in the cracks of rural life in a dying village.
Pity on the orphans
The kindness of strangers is another theme employed with Ekvtimishvili. Although the orphans are horribly behaved and get in every trouble imaginable, there are glimpses of humanity in the villagers. Faceless adults in the town play a big role in the lives of these children. A woman waves two of the children over to lower a basket, filled to the brim with sweets, cakes, dried fruit, walnut churchkhela and oranges. A gruff-silent man lets the children steal firewood from his shed in the dead of winter. These people stand out among the real monsters that many adults represent in the children’s lives. Among such evil, sometimes only pity from strangers prevails.
Our introduction to Lela in the novel begins with her, repeating a promise to herself. “I have to kill Vano…” This helpless rage resonates much of the spite typically seen in children who have been wronged, but you’ll just have to read the rest of the book to see if Lela carries out her promise from the first page.
Lela’s observations are frank and unsentimental in the way children can be. She watches two women emerge from the rain, “their soaking-wet hair lies completely flat, making their heads look shrunken, and the contrast between this and their ample rear ends makes them look like wet chickens.” Another: “There’s a needle-work book lying open on the desk and Lela is so struck by the similarity between one of the geometric patterns and Gulnara’s angular nose that she wonders whether that’s where Gulnara got the design from.”
These are just two of the numerous striking images Ekvtimishvili uses throughout the book, perfectly encapsulating the wondrous mind of a child in all of Lela’s narration. While Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press cites that Ekvtimishvili has the “ability to bring out the great in the small and give voice to the many children who have denied one” – instead, I think Ekvtimishvili’s words are merely a gentle echo rather than advocate. There is no happy ending. There’s not even a semblance of justice in the ending of The Pear Field.
Praise for The Pear Field
This tale has not only captivated me, but the literary world as well. The Pear Field has been shortlisted for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Literature Prize and longlisted for the International Booker Prize. The mere care and initiative that went into the publication of this book adds to the power this book holds. The Pear Field is published by Peirene Press, a London-based award-winning boutique publishing house that specializes in high-quality first-translations of contemporary novellas. As such, this might be the very first book written by a Georgian author that many international readers may ever encounter, and it’s thanks to powerhouses like Peirene that make this possible.
The Pear Field is also a project of the UK-based charity Women for Refugee Women. Every purchase from Peirene supports women who are seeking asylum, through English classes, writing workshops, and more. “Women for Refugee Women also advocates for a fairer asylum process and works towards a world in which all women who cross borders have the right to liberty, safety, and dignity.” If not the cause, and if not the mission of the publishing house, it is Nana Ekvtimishvili’s extremely provocative narration that left me in a trace, days later, that should convince you to pick up this book.
Book details: Ekvtimishvili, Nana. The Pear Field, 2019. Peirene Press. It is available to buy here.