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Nino Haratischwili: Das achte Leben (The Eighth Life)

Nino Haratischwili’s monumental novel (944 pages) can best be described as being threefold. Firstly, she tells the stories (lots of stories) about an extended family, over several generations, including the various people associated with them, mainly friends and/or lovers. Secondly she gives us the story of Georgia from approximately the beginning of the twentieth century. Georgia is, of course, as she tells us, the most beautiful country in the world and she gives us a wonderful legend which tells why this is so.

Last and maybe least, she tells us the story of the Soviet Union, its formation, its rise and its fall. Georgia was part of the Soviet Union and much of the story of the Soviet Union concerns Georgia but she also tells us about the wider Soviet Union, partially because some of her Georgian characters go to other parts of the Soviet Union and partially because what happened in the Soviet Union as a whole often had considerable impact on Georgia. She clearly did not like the Soviet Union and is highly critical of it and its supporters and officials. These three strands very much interact with one another.

Before getting into the fictitious characters, I must mention three Georgians – she is not afraid to admit it – who play a role in this book and who played a considerable role in the wider Soviet Union. The least important and least mentioned was Grigory Mairanovsky. He developed nasty poisons and experimented on political prisoners with them. He is named.

The other two are never given their real names, though they are very easy to identify. The first is given various nicknames, till finally, once he comes to power, he is called the Generalissimus. He is Stalin and he plays a considerable role in this book, not so much directly, but more as a malign influence, with his cruelty and brutality, his irrationality and because of the fear he put into everyone in the country, though, as Haratischwili points out, he was very much mourned on his death.

The second is known as Little Big Man (I assume nothing to do with Thomas Berger’s book or the film made from it.) He is Lavrentiy Beria, head of the Soviet secret police and responsible for millions of deaths. He plays a role as a character in this book, interacting very much directly with two of the fictitious characters and indirectly with one other. We follow his rise, his career and his downfall, soon after Stalin’s death in 1953, and his subsequent execution, all orchestrated by Nikita Khrushchev, who was Ukrainian, not Georgian.

The family we are concerned with is called Jashi. After a brief introduction to the narrator, Niza, and her fairly complicated situation, we head back in time to the narrator’s great-grandmother, Anastasia, but known as Stasia. Stasia is not very keen on men and not very keen on playing the traditional role played by women in Georgia in the early twentieth century, i.e. before the Russian Revolution.

I know how things work in this world.
And how do they work?
Not exactly to the advantage of us women, shall we say?

She goes on to say that she does not consider men and women equal. Rather she considers women superior to men. However, she does end up marrying the man she is speaking to, Simon Jashi, a lieutenant in the White Guard.

Haratischwili now tells us that she is introducing another key character, namely a recipe for hot chocolate. Stasia’s father was, by profession the owner of a patisserie. He had developed a special hot chocolate but only sold a much watered-downed version as, he maintained, anyone who drank the real thing would crave more and never be satisfied and would quite likely suffer severe negative consequences. The recipe is passed down secretly through the generations – the current narrator seems to have it – and the chocolate appears throughout the book, often in key situations.

We follow a host of characters, including Stasia, her husband Simon, her step-sister, the incomparably beautiful Christine, Kostya and Kitty, the children of Simon and Stasia, Christine’s husband Ramas, their descendants, including our narrator, Niza, her sister Daria, and Daria’s daughter, Brilka, to whom the narrator is speaking when she writes this novel, as well as a host of friends, enemies and lovers.

In part because of the Soviet Union, though the Soviet Union is certainly not entirely to blame, most of the characters have colourful lives but, all too often, sad lives. Some are imprisoned or their lovers/partners are, several suffer violence and some die violently, including by execution, some commit suicide, some are persecuted and even tortured.

However, it is also in their romantic lives that the main characters struggle. I think that I can safely say that not one of the characters has a satisfying, long-term relationship. Unwanted pregnancies, marital infidelity, separation because of job requirements, disputes over the upbringing of the children, jealousy (justified and unjustified) and, all too often, strange and generally unacceptable behaviour by one or both partners prevent this. Yes, they are not helped by the malignant influence of the Soviet Union but they do manage to make a bad situation worse. It is probably safe to say that virtually every woman in this book makes a poor choice as regards boyfriend/spouse and when she does not necessarily make a poor choice, it still, nevertheless, turns out badly for various reasons. In many cases, the fact that the choice is poor is very obvious to us and, all too often, to her friends and/or family.

Here is just one example of a marital couple’s failure: the couple still didn’t know how to help each other with their respective wounds, their disappointments, and their loneliness. There are quite a few others in a similar situation.

In many cases, the children of the relationships are not helped by absent fathers. The absences are not always of their own making but sometimes are. The result tends to lead to wayward children, of which there are quite a few.

We follow the history of the Soviet Union and, to the lesser extent, the world, with Haratischwili giving us her often acerbic comments. From the Russian Revolution to the Beatles, from the death of Stalin to space exploration, from the Vietnam War to the fall of the Soviet Union, everything is covered though clearly some events more than others. Stalingrad, for example, is described as Death was dancing his wildest dance. Various appropriate rock music is used, from David Bowie (Space Oddity, of course) to the inevitable Pink Floyd (who seem to appear in every other book I read).

The first key event is, of course World War II. (World War I and the Revolution are also key but Haratischwili does not focus on them nearly as much as on World War II.) Some of the characters fight in the war and everyone is affected directly or indirectly. After the war, it seems to change. They wanted to forget; they wanted to live as if there were no tomorrow — and no yesterday. The euphoria was infectious, dangerous, charged. But Stalin is still there and life gets worse.

As mentioned, several of the characters leave Georgia, temporarily or permanently. Most go elsewhere in the Soviet Union. One of the characters fights at Stalingrad, another is in Leningrad during the siege. One goes to London, another to the United States, both illegally. One is in Prague at the time of the 1968 Velvet Revolution and the subsequent Soviet invasion. Most end up back in Georgia, except for the two who went abroad, unless they die elsewhere, which does happen. (If one man dies, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics, she cynically comments).

But, above all, it is the world, particularly the Soviet Union, that is the problem. Stasia knew that the skin of the world would tear. She knew that the earth would disgorge itself and the ruins would become visible, that a bottomless fissure would run through all the centuries, splitting the earth open to reveal a blood-soaked abyss.

The final part of the book concerns the break-up of the Soviet Union and the creation of the independent Republic of Georgia. It is narrated by Niza, who saw much of what happens in Georgia at first hand and narrates in detail the rise and fall of Gorbachev. None of it is pretty and things go very wrong very quickly, leading to massive violence and poverty for a substantial number of people in Georgia. The Jashis find they have to sell off their valuables to survive. Despite the freedom for Georgia, not all the Jashis are in favour of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Niza is writing this book for Brilka (she was christened Anastasia but changed her name). She is the twelve-year old niece of Niza, though Niza has not seen her since she was very young. Brilka continues the family tradition of being wayward, very independent and very determined and Niza reluctantly becomes involved in her life.

Niza concludes by saying I owe these lines to a century that cheated and deceived everyone, all those who hoped. I owe these lines to an enduring betrayal that settled over my family like a curse, which, to a certain extent, sums up the book.

I am assuming that Niza is based, at least in part on Haratischwili herself, given that both ended up in Germany. In this interview (in German), she maintains that the facts in the book are fictional, though clearly some personal issues come through. However, the conclusion is that it is essentially fictional. Whatever the case, it is clearly a superb work, covering the history of two countries (Georgia and the Soviet Union) and an extended family over a century but, above all, telling a complex but highly lively and imaginative story, with lots of insights into the Soviet Union and its ways, into Georgia and Georgians and, of course, into the messy area of human relationships. It has been long overdue in English (it has already been translated into several other languages). In the introduction to the interview mentioned above, the interviewer compares the book to Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude) and La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits). I am not sure about the former but it is definitely superior to the latter and its publication in English it is likely to enhance its reputation further.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt
First English translation in 2017 by Scribe UK
Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin