Book Review: Vano and Niko

The literary critic Franco Moretti defines prose by “the rule of order over mood, of the permanent over the momentary, of quiet work over genius fed by sensation.” Poetry, by contrast, is a primal method of expression that dances around us with flowery flourishes and metaphors. Prose is direct and to the point – it derives from the latin root prosa orati (“direct speech”). If the purpose of poetry is to make us feel, the purpose of prose is to make us think.

What if a work of fiction could do both? Fill our brains and feed our hearts at the same time? Vano and Niko is exactly such a work. A novel by Georgian author Erlom Akhvlediani, this collection of short parables blurs the boundary between poetry and prose.

Akhvlediani is a follower of George Orwell’s rule: “if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Vano and Niko features little character development, has no long descriptive paragraphs and is nearly free of adjectives. Akhvlediani has discovered that, in literature as well as in life, actions speak louder than words.

This book certainly isn’t light reading, however. Nothing is handed to the reader. Everything must be understood. Some readers will find this book difficult. Translator Mikheil Kakabadze, anticipating that, asks readers to take a unique approach: “I would like to ask the reader, when he or she comes across something apparently incomprehensible in these stories, instead of trying to dig too deeply for meaning, to think in images.”

Each chapter of this book is a parable in its own right. Vano and Niko – polar opposites and the story’s only recurring characters – interact to reveal life lessons or universal truisms. Vano is gentle, kind and deferential. Niko is severe, selfish and quick to anger. In one memorable parable, “Stupid Vano and Clever Niko,” the contrast between these characters is expressed in particularly beautiful language. “Vano loved. Vano loved and cried,” the story reads. “Vano cried and laughed. Vano laughed and was still stupid.” And what of Niko? “Niko wasn’t stupid, since he did not love.”

It took a special author to produce this unique work. Akhvlediani was born in Georgia in 1933 and enjoyed a career as one of Georgia’s most cherished authors and screenwriters. He wrote 18 screenplays between 1962 and 1999. Vano and Niko was written during the 1950s and, due to its deep subject matter, has occasionally featured in university philosophy curriculums.

Akhvlediani’s purpose in writing this novel is to teach us about ourselves. Vano and Niko represent the inner struggle for self identification that persists within each of us. Their relationship is constantly shifting; Vano isn’t always good and Niko isn’t always bad, and sometimes those labels mean nothing at all. But the story is a tug-of-war between our gentle, romantic self and our baser self, and in the end, Akhvlediani makes his choice.

The two characters switch roles in the novel’s final chapter, “Vano and Niko and Niko and Vano.” Niko becomes Vano, who was “a good person and always did good things to others.” The now-transformed character is treating people with kindness for the first time and realizes that he has become who he wants to be, Vano. Vano becomes Niko, who was “an evil person and did evil things to others.” He decides that evil doesn’t suit him and desires to go back to being Vano. Ultimately, both characters are Vano, and the reader is left with a world in which people are good and do good things to others.

This is Akhvlediani’s attempt at instructing the reader, showing that while a Jekyll and Hyde struggle goes on inside each of us, we have control over which comes out the winner. The story indeed has a message. But it’s more important for that message to be felt than to be understood.

(Note: Vano and Niko was first published in English in 2014 by Dalkey Archive and was translated by Mikheil Kakabadze)

Joseph Larsen

27 August 2015 21:25