Nino Haratischwili: Mein sanfter Zwilling (My Soul Twin)
There are relationships of which it is said that the couple cannot live apart but nor can they live together. When apart they are very sad but when they are together they fight all the time. This is about one such relationship, though one that is perhaps more complicated than others.
Our narrator is Stella Tissmar. She is seemingly happily married to Mark, with a young son, Theo. Her parents had divorced when she was fairly young and Stella, her sister, Leni, and her adopted brother Ivo (the child of Stella’s father’s mistress) had opted to live with their father, not least because their mother had gone off to the United States with her boyfriend. The father – irresponsible, alcoholic and broke – turned out to be totally unsuitable so they had been taken in by Tulia, their father’s aunt, several times divorced but with no children of her own.
We learn early on that something happened between Ivo and Stella though we are not sure what. Whatever it was clearly profoundly affected Stella and also affected the rest of the family. We gradually learn some (but, not till later, all) of the details. Stella’s father, Frank, was having an affair with Emma, a married woman whose husband often travelled. Stella, aged six when it started, was taken by her father with him when he visited Emma. There she met Emma’s son, Ivo. The two were about the same age and got on very well while their respective parents entertained themselves in the bedroom. Stella will say that this was the first time she fell in love with Ivo. Gesi, Stella’s mother, seemed to be aware of the affair.
When it all fell apart and Frank and Gesi divorced, everything changed. Emma had died and her husband was in prison. Frank agreed to adopt Ivo but Ivo would not talk at all and Stella was the only one who could communicate with him and she acted as his interpreter with the rest of the family. It was an almost happy childhood: a little crazy, a little eccentric, a little neglected, and practically overflowing with love bestowed on us by these troubled adults, which could never really be healthy.
We know that subsequently Stella met and married Mark, a decent man who was a documentary film-maker while she worked as a journalist for a local publication. Ivo had gone off to the United States where he had a successful career as a journalist. He had not been back for many years. Clearly, something had happened between the pair in between Ivo’s arrival in the family and the present time but it seemed all in the past.
Early on in the book Ivo reappears, unexpectedly and unannounced. Stella’s life immediately falls apart and she ceases to be the good mother, good wife and good employee. This falling apart and her complicated relationship with Ivo (which, of course, affects her relations with her family as everyone gets involved) constitutes the bulk of the book, as well as what happened during their childhood/early adulthood. Of course the Ivo-Stella relationship is key. They know that I’m only here because of you, that I only went away because of you. And they know that you’re not where you should be, and they know that I’m not where I should be, says Ivo.
While we get a lot of back story for the whole family, the focus is on the Stella-Ivo relationship. Should they or shouldn’t they? Will they or will they not?
Though Haratischwili lives in Germany and writes in German, she is Georgian and we eventually get the Georgian connection. Ivo is chasing up a story which will take him to Georgia. He very much wants Stella to accompany him as, he tells her, what he has found there is the key to their relationship. Of course, if she goes it will very much affect her relationship with her husband and son, not to mention the rest of the family. And how can something in Georgia affect their relationship? She has never been further East than Sofia before and knew nothing about Georgia and its recent history.
As mentioned, much of the focus is on Stella’s gradual falling apart. As Tulia says they damaged each other and you ripped each other apart, and none of us want to have to go on worrying about you both and yet, she cannot see beyond Ivo, though she struggles to do so. She herself says:
Perhaps I’ve never lived the life I should have lived?
Perhaps Ivo had to borrow his life from us all?
Perhaps I really don’t know who I am?
and Who was I, if I didn’t want to remember? Trapped between countless squandered possibilities. I stared at myself and wanted to scream..
Haratischwili brings out the frightening intensity of the relationship between Stella and Ivo and Stella’s falling apart when Ivo returns. As a bystander, the reader might feel tempted to tell her to pull herself together and not damage her relationship with her very fine husband, her son and, indeed, the rest of her family, but it clearly is not as simple as that. She is caught up in something that she cannot control and Haratischwili gives us a detailed portrait of a woman confronting her demons.
First published in 2011 by Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt
First English translation in 2022 by Scribe
Translated by Charlotte Collins