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'Hard by a Great Forest' traces a family's journey back to a land they fleed

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Leo Vardiashvili’s new novel is about a family that's trying to find themselves again through the thick forests of lost history and, yes, fearsome woods. Saba and Sandro come to London with their father, Irakli, in 1992 as civil war breaks out in Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The author sets the scene from the very first.

LEO VARDIASHVILI: (Reading) Where's Eka? We must have asked a thousand times. Our mother stayed so that we could escape. You see, war trumps most things. You'll find that a volley of AK-47 rounds fired right down your street will override almost any other concern. We heard gunfire by night and saw brass twinkling on the pavement in the morning, as though it had rained shell casings all over Tbilisi. Sounds manageable so far. But when a stray tank shell breaks the sound barrier by your bedroom window, screams on and deletes the corner grocery shop and the entire family living above it, you'll begin to make plans.

SIMON: That is Leo Vardiashvili, whose family came to London when he was 12. His novel is "Hard By A Great Forest." Thank you so much for being with us.

VARDIASHVILI: Thank you for having me, Scott. It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Fair to say a lot of your own experience wound into this novel, isn't it?

VARDIASHVILI: It's very fair to say, yes. I'm similar to the main character in that I left Georgia - not as early. I actually stayed there through the civil war. But we left in '95 and came to the U.K. as refugees. And the main character was in the same situation, going back to Georgia. He went back reluctantly. I went back willingly. And I didn't have to contend with the escaped zoo animals and so on that go on in the novel.

SIMON: Well, I want to ask about that and so much else. We also want to make plain your mother was able to come, unlike the mother in this novel. But your grandmother couldn't, right?

VARDIASHVILI: My grandmother I never got to see again. We exchanged letters, obviously. And back then, we used to do this thing where we would send tapes - voice recordings - rather than letters. But I never really got to see her again, and that was quite upsetting. It's one of those things that sticks around as an effect of war once the cameras and the reporters have left. It's the stuff they don't really see.

SIMON: Yeah. And may I ask you about that time in your Because I read a piece you wrote that you had a game with shell casings.

VARDIASHVILI: I did, yes. I don't remember the civil war badly. I know that's a weird thing to say, but I was 12, so I was still a kid. And the shell casings game was simply us collecting shell casings on the way to school and then comparing them and arguing over who had the best one. But that's children for you. I guess they don't always see the...

SIMON: Yeah.

VARDIASHVILI: ...Seriousness of what's going on.

SIMON: In your novel, "Hard By A Great Forest," as we said, the mother dies. And the father, years later, decides to return to Georgia. But then the sons get a message. It's pretty blunt, isn't it?

VARDIASHVILI: It is. And it sets up the central mystery. So the message is, essentially, do not follow me. I've left a trail that I can't erase. Do not follow me. So, of course, in the traditional kind of mystery style, they ignore his instructions and follow. So it's the oldest son that goes and follows him first and finds this trail. And surprise, surprise, he disappears also. So it's up to Saba, who's the youngest - the youngest son. He's essentially alone in the world at this point, no other family. So he has no choice but to go back to Georgia and find this breadcrumb trail and try and find his father and brother.

SIMON: And tell us about the wild animals that run through the story.

VARDIASHVILI: It's the strangest part - the strangest element in the book, I think. But it's actually - it really did happen. In 2015, there was a flash flooding in Tbilisi, and the zoo happens to be along the river. Therefore, all the fences were washed away, and literally the entire zoo got emptied into the city. So a lot of the details of the hippo, the wolves running around Tbilisi and the scary Bengal tiger, which makes an appearance in the novel - I won't spoil anything there - but that all really did happen. So when I saw that article on the BBC, I think it was, I thought, this is too good to pass up. I had to include this.

SIMON: Are we right to see it as a metaphor, as well?

VARDIASHVILI: Someone pointed this out to me recently that I hadn't picked up on it, even though I wrote the damn book myself. But the animals are themselves refugees, so they've been freed by - from their home. They've escaped their home, and they find themselves in alien surroundings, trying to make their way through this city, which kind of reflects the themes of the novel, doesn't it?

SIMON: Yeah. Tell us about your trip back to Georgia. It sounds extraordinary.

VARDIASHVILI: My first trip, it was like time traveling. We got on the plane. I was fine. I got off the plane, and I time-traveled into my childhood. I didn't realize how much of Tbilisi and my neighborhood I would actually recognize. I kind of thought I'd go into it like a blank slate, and it would all be new to me. But surprisingly, I remembered almost everything. And that freaked me out a little bit, to be honest. And that was the inception of me starting to write this novel - is trying to make sense of it, even just to myself.

SIMON: What about your bus trip - or should I say lack of a bus trip one day?

VARDIASHVILI: Oh, the lack of the bus trip. It's a perfect summary of Georgian hospitality, which if you look at travel guides for Georgia, they always mention the hospitality of the people of Georgia. But essentially, I was just outside of Tbilisi, in a tiny village, and the last bus just didn't turn up. These things happen in Georgia sometimes. But I was stuck in a village that had maybe 10 homesteads or houses on it. The hike into Tbilisi would have been a few hours. I was kind of stuck. And a farmer came across me on the way home, I suppose. And he kind of went, there's no buses, mate, until half 6 tomorrow. And then kind of just casually motioned me to come with him as though that was a normal, acceptable thing. And I did go along with him, and I stayed at his house. And what I didn't realize is they literally offered me their best food and put me up in this room which was heated. And I didn't realize that the rest of the house wasn't heated. So they literally - they treated me like some kind of royalty, which is a very Georgian thing to do. A guest is a gift from God. That's the proverb that gets mentioned a lot in the novel. And people really do live by that.

SIMON: Yeah. What do you wish the West would understand about Georgia and Georgians? Stories like that?

VARDIASHVILI: Stories like that, yes, for sure - just the Georgian mentality of smiling in the face of adversity. I think that's very key, especially these days. There is a saying in Georgian that if you can still laugh at a situation or a hardship, it hasn't beaten you yet. And as soon as you stop laughing, then you might be in trouble. So I love that about the Georgian people, that they will take the darkest situation and make a joke and have you falling out of your chair laughing at it.

SIMON: Leo Vardiashvili - his novel, "Hard By A Great Forest." Thank you so much for being with us.

VARDIASHVILI: Thank you, Scott. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.