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The hippo who went shopping: a vivid portrayal of the refugee experience

A real-life zoo breakout is the first in a series of tumultuous events to befall the refugee hero of Leo Vardiashvili’s impressive debut novel

A hippopotamus walks along a submerged street in Tbilisi, June 2015, after flash floods displaced animals from the city’s zoo. Photo: AFP/Beson Gulashvili/Getty

There was a hippopotamus in the Swatch shop. His name was Boris.

When flash floods raced through Tbilisi in the spring of 2015, they destroyed enough of the city zoo to liberate almost the entire animal population and send them fleeing into the heart of the Georgian capital. Bengal tigers wandered residential streets, a frightened bear perched on an air conditioning unit a couple of floors up on a block of flats, and wolves stalked a shopping centre.

And there was Boris, the hippopotamus, making a mess of the Swatch shop until a sharp crack from a tranquilliser gun propelled a dart with a bright red flight into his hide and sent him to sleep.

The Tbilisi zoo breakout, specifically in the form of Boris’s clumsy browsing, features in the opening pages of Hard by a Great Forest, the debut novel by British-based Georgian writer Leo Vardiashvili. His protagonist, Saba, is in a taxi from the airport having just arrived in the country and is held up in stationary traffic because there is a hippopotamus in the Swatch shop.

If it was not based on a real incident, this hilarious scenario would be held up as a classic piece of east European absurdist humour. But, funny though it is, Boris in the Swatch shop actually happened and is just one example of tumultuous events triggering a legacy of bewildered displacement and trauma that ends up touching every life in its orbit.

Vardiashvili arrived in Britain from Georgia as a refugee on the cusp of his teens having fled with his family from the civil war that broke out when Georgia seceded from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991. When he started school, Vardiashvili spoke barely a word of English but within a decade had gained a degree in English literature and began writing short stories. Hard by a Great Forest took him six years to write and the book’s strong elements of autobiography help turn this hugely impressive debut into a vivid portrayal of the contemporary refugee experience.

“See, war trumps most things,” he writes on the first page. “You’ll find that a volley of AK-47 rounds fired right down your street will override almost any other concern.”

Vardiashvili’s Saba also arrived in London in the immediate aftermath of the civil war in Georgia, eight years old, placed with his 10-year-old brother Sandro and their father Irakli in a refugee hostel in Croydon, remembered as a “cold warehouse of bunkbeds, communal toilets and food tokens”.

One person was missing: their mother Eka. The family had gathered every last scrap of cash they could find but it was only enough to pay for the forged documents and bribes of three people, not four. Irakli, Saba and Sandro would go on ahead and send for Eka when they had raised enough money. At least, that was the plan.

The trio were placed in council accommodation in Tottenham where Irakli worked every job he could find to buy Eka’s freedom and bring her to London. It was never enough.

“Over the next six years we lost Eka piecemeal,” says Saba. “We lost her to gas bills and groceries, bus passes and pencil cases, books and school uniforms.” Then the news filters through from Georgia: Eka has died.

“Grief without closure has a way of fucking with you,” Saba laments. “There’s an ancient, bone-deep instinct we all share: when those we love die, it’s important that we see evidence. That’s what funerals are. They’re for our own good.”

Eka is not the only person they lose in absentia. In the years following the family’s departure every loved one they left behind dies, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends – distance preventing the London exiles from mourning in the conventional sense. The psychological strain is immense, guilt and shock exacerbated by the magnitude of their displacement. As the years pass, a guilt-riddled Irakli books several flights home but never takes them until, when both his sons are in their 20s, finally he returns to Georgia for the first time since their heartrending journey of more than two decades earlier.

After a few weeks the boys receive a concerning and enigmatic email from Irakli suggesting he is in some kind of trouble, then there is silence. Sandro travels to Georgia to look for him and emails Saba to say he’s found something, but then he vanishes too. Saba, effectively alone in the world, sets out for Georgia hoping to pick up the trail of the last remnants of his family.

It is a testament to Vardiashvili’s writing that he converts the grief and yearning of the forcibly displaced into such a pacy and frequently funny novel. Not only that, Hard by a Great Forest turns the spotlight on a European nation that has suffered more than most throughout history, particularly during the last 30 years.

The churning nature of the news cycle makes us fickle crisis-watchers. Georgia’s bullying by Russia, like the rekindling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the Caucasus, has been brushed aside by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which in turn has been usurped by the horrific events in Israel and Gaza. When the news cavalcade moves on it leaves behind a space in which fiction can play a crucial role, producing something nuanced and contemplative charting the plight of the forgotten.

Hard by a Great Forest is not a two-minute filmed report of smouldering buildings or an advertisement-spattered article to be skimmed briefly on a news app. In telling the story of one family, Vardiashvili turns Georgia into something immediate, something in which the reader becomes invested, immersing themselves in the turbulent events that have defined the Black Sea nation, its people and its cherished culture.

“Tbilisi was invaded so often the Georgian people developed a standing strategy,” writes Vardiashvili. “Each time the city was threatened, the people escaped into the mountains. Each miserable exodus was a Noah’s Ark of what it meant to be Georgian. Comforts, provisions and lives were sacrificed to rescue that which can’t be replaced – things to be preserved no matter the price. Our history.”

When Saba arrives he is persuaded to take an unlicenced taxi by its driver, Nodar, with whom he lodges and soon forges the friendship that underpins the book. Because there are dark forces apparently pursuing first Irakli then Sandro, the latter has left a trail of clues around the city for his brother made up of pages from a play Irakli had written many years earlier. The quest takes Saba and Nodar beyond Tbilisi into the remote wilds of Georgia, even encompassing the breakaway republic of South Ossetia as the plot careers towards its breathtaking climax.

Yet for all the clue-chasing and adventure, the twin yearnings of the refugee underpin every character and every scene: grief and absence.

Saba is haunted by the voices of the dead, an old neighbour, his mother, an uncle, a friend, conducting entire conversations with them in his head. Some voices are kindly, others taunting, each representing a different aspect of the guilt blighting those who escaped the kind of vicious and random explosions of violence provoked by nationalism and a thirst for power, explosions that take many lives and displace others.

Looking for clues in the Tbilisi botanical gardens, Saba recalls witnessing the grisly end of a boy who fell on to rocks there when he was a child. “What was scarier was that someone could just die like that,” he says. “No heroics. No meaning. Just shit luck”.

The cruel larceny of pointless, random death becomes commonplace in post-Soviet Georgia, while for those who manage to escape it, extreme hardship is guaranteed. For years in Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subsequent failure of any kind of effective national administration and civil war, “we lived with the smell of candle wax on our fingers,” Vardiashvili writes. “The kerosene lamps tanned our walls so slowly that you didn’t notice until you ran your fingers through the grime”.

Small wonder that swathes of the population fled the country, seeking refuge elsewhere at least until it was safe to return. Such circumstances necessitate heartrending decisions made under extraordinary pressure to protect loved ones. Hard by a Great Forest brims with good people doing good things and good people doing bad things, all of them trying to negotiate their way through unimaginable trauma and upheaval just to survive.

Vardiashvili’s hugely impressive debut might be about a place that many of us will not know well but its themes are representative of the wider story of our era. Forced migration has become the most divisive political topic on our continent, and in this wise, moving and instructive book Vardiashvili, with extraordinary maturity and lightness of touch, cuts through the deafening white noise of sloganeering arguments to present the intimate lives of traumatised people doing their best.

As Nodar tells Saba during that hippo-disrupted taxi ride: “You have a crazy problem in a crazy country full of crazy people”.

Those bewildered zoo animals lumbering through unfamiliar streets had been forcibly displaced from the sanctuary of the familiar and were just trying to make sense of their new surroundings. Yet while the world saw Boris the hippopotamus and cried out in sympathy, similarly uprooted people provoke a less unanimous chorus of compassion.

There is a recurring phrase throughout Hard by a Great Forest, uttered by characters who have little to give yet give it willingly, an old woman serving up the last of her food for an unexpected visitor, a poverty-stricken villager opening up his home to strangers in need.

The words are scattered through the book like a leitmotif, the same phrase, over and over: “A guest is a gift from God.”

Hard by a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili is published by Bloomsbury on 30th January, price £16.99

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