Vano and Niko

What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that these short pieces (what contemporary writers would call flash fiction) resemble fables and that Akhvlediani’s characters sound a bit like Vladimir and Estragon, Clov and Hamm, and any number of Beckett creations. Which is not to say that Akhvlediani is a Beckett imitator or that his work is really all that Beckettian. The two share a tendency to explore philosophical questions through seemingly simple characters and their exchanges, but the dialectical approach is about where it ends. Which is not to say that Akhvlediani is not an absurdist. That rigid title might not fit perfectly, but it is through such a lens that I was able to find joy in Vano and Niko.

Full disclosure: I read Akhvlediani’s book, translated by Mikheil Kakabadze, immediately after finishing a short story collection by an American writer who clearly took notes during her MFA workshops. Subsequently, I enjoyed the sparseness of Vano and Niko, the immediacy of the prose, the lack of character development, and total abandonment of unnecessary description. If Hemingway’s old adage is correct, that prose is architecture not interior design, then Vano and Niko is a set of beams and girders without walls.

While the writing is not what any MFA workshop would condone, which, again, was refreshing, the book is more than a mere set of bare exchanges. Many of the brief pieces contain philosophical gems or, at the very least, food for thought. It is not without surprise that I learned of a Georgian university adding Vano and Niko to its curriculum. There are parable-like moments that could open heady discourse, yet I still can’t get past the simple pleasure of the book’s absurdity. Shall we be the academics who sift for meaning or shall we be like Vano and Niko and simply exist?

The most striking philosophical indictment came in the book’s second section, “The Story of a Lazy Mouse,” specifically a chapter called “The Teacher Fox.” The story is a simple one: a fox is tasked with raising seven baby chicks. He teaches one to count to six, then the next to count to five, and so on until the seventh chick is taught nothing. Each chick is aware of a limited number of days passing: the chick who only knows how to count to three understands that the sun has risen only three times. The chick who knows no numbers doesn’t care. No days have passed. It’s all the same.

So what’s going on? I see something here about man-made construction of value and the ridiculousness of imposing order on nature or the fluidity of signifiers. But the story ends with the fox quizzing his chicks:

How many of you were left during the springtime?
“Six,” answered the first chick, which only knew how to count to six.
The fox swallowed the first chick for giving the wrong answer.

The fox continues to ask his chicks questions they can only answer incorrectly. And he eats all of them, save for the last chick who, knowing nothing, answers “none.” The fox spares the chick temporarily—“since there were ‘none’ left, what would he eat?”—but the chick ends up eating the fox because the chick was uneducated and didn’t know that chicks are not supposed to eat foxes.

I laughed at the end of the story, but I couldn’t help but search for something deeper in this odd tale. The stupid rigidity of roles? The inherent flaws in education? How the process of true knowledge is impeded though the hierarchical structure of teacher-student? Maybe. I could tease it out and write a review that favors this reading (maybe write a paper and publish it—tenure here I come!), but imposing meaning on this silly story would perhaps mean that Akhvlediani gets the last laugh. From the grave, he managed to get me to apply analysis to a story that seems to be about the absurdity of analysis. The joke’s on me!

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