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Nino Haratischwili: Juja (Juja)

This was Nino Haratischwili’s first novel and it was something of a strange novel. It is one of those novels where there are several stories alternating throughout the book and you know that they are all going to eventually be connected though, initially, it may not be obvious how.

The stories have several commonalities. Firstly all follow one primary character (though, of course, with other characters making an appearance). All but one are female. All of them have difficult relationships – some with parents, some with siblings, some with partners, some with friends, most with more than one category. They tend to be loners. If they have had a romantic relationship, it has quite likely failed. All will turn out to be connected in some way to a woman called Jeanne Saré who is one of the characters to have her story. Each story, which alternates with the others, is headed with the prime date and some sort of name though not necessarily their normal name. All of them take place at least some of the time in Paris, though certainly not all the time.

The main character is Jeanne Saré. her date is 1953, the earliest, and her section is headed Ice Age as that is the title of the book she writes. She leads an unhappy existence, drifting round the non-tourist part of Paris, living in a shabby flat. She gets money/food by occasional prostitution, theft and by persuading people to feed her/give her money. Her sole pleasure,apart from food, is the occasional bath. Apart from those she is getting money and food from, she seems to have no contact with anyone else, having cut off contacts with her family.

She is writing a book, which consists of decidedly depressing notes, in an exercise book. She so longs to duel with death. Perhaps that would be a beginning, is just one comment we read about her but we read numerous exerpts from her book, e.g. I walked the streets of the kingdom of the dead, looking for my shadow; it had betrayed me. In my loneliness, which became my blessing, I searched for traces of my own self, but everything had been obliterated.

We learn that she killed herself by throwing herself in front of a train. The concierge found the exercise book. It eventually found its way into the hands of a small publisher, long since disappeared, and was published. It sold out, became a cult hit and was pirated and translated. What we also know is that around fifteen people who read it were so disturbed by it that they killed themselves. All were women.

We have a few other characters. Francesca is Australian and lives in Sydney. She has a daughter Lynn. Her husband, Frank, some years ago, killed their son Max and then himself. She had never got over it. Eventually, she decides to travel and aims for Greece but ends up in Paris where she finds he book in English translation and recognises herself in it. She will try to find out more about the author.

Patrice, known as Brother (he has two sisters) lives in Marennes but plans to study in Paris which he does, though spends his time writing at which he has some success. However it is 1968. He tries to keep away from the events of 1968 but cannot do so entirely, not least because his sister Anne takes part and is arrested.

Olga is a young student who finds the book by chance in a. bookshop, reads it and is profoundly moved by it. Despite the effeorts of her friend Nadine, she will be one of the fifteen suicides.

One odd character appears as well. She is described only as Me and is clearly the author herself. Like the other characters, she is clearly not happy with her life. Though she does not mention Paris she is in a big foreign (to her) city which is presumably Paris but she does travel around, something of a lost soul like the others.

Laura is Dutch and an art historian. One of her students, Jan who is Danish tries to persuade her to accompany him to Paris. He has read the book and also been affected by it and wants to find out more and feels Laura can help him. She eventually though reluctantly agrees but their researches seem to lead nowhere. There is no evidence Jeanne Saré existed, no evidence of a suicide by a young woman throwing herself in front of a train. Could she have been invented? But just as they are thinking that this might be the case, there appears to be some evidence that she did exist.

I have focussed on the main plot line but all the characters have back-stories and they are, in general, not happy – failed relationships, disagreements with family, loneliness, a sense of being lost and not fitting in with the rest of the world.

Two additional comments. The title comes from a song called Juja by Zemfira. You can hear it here. The words are in Russian but an English translation is given at the beginning of the book: I want nothing, Juja/I am dried out/Like a parched puddle. Yes it is just as cheerful as the rest of the book.

My second point is regarding the suicides. I have read many miserable books and have read the excerpts of Saré’s book given here. Yes, they are miserable but suicide? We read about misery every day in the papers and I cannot believe that it persuades people to throw themselves in front of a train. Yes the suicides were all (presumably sensitive) young women but, yes, be miserable after reading the book, have a good cry and so on but killing yourself because of a book? Apologies if you find my remarks insensitive. Nevertheless it is, as always with Haratischwili, an excellent read.

First published in 2010 byVerbrecher Verlag
First English translation in 2023 by Scribe
Translated by Ruth Martin