“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. I owe these lines to my sister, whom I could never forgive for flying away . . .” writes Niza in the prologue to this epic and addictive Georgian family saga spanning the 20th century.
“Carpets are woven from stories”
Germany, 2006. A twenty-eight-year-old visiting professor from Georgia – a small country sandwiched between Russia and Turkey on the Black Sea – has lived in Berlin for several years to escape the weight of a painful family past. When her twelve-year-old niece runs away from her dance troupe “in search of answers” during a trip to the West, she sets off to find the girl who turns up near Vienna. In search of her identity, Niza undertakes to write, for herself and her niece, the story of their family over six generations. “I owe these lines to you Brilka because you deserve the eighth life. Because they say the number eight represents infinity, constant recurrence. I am giving my eight to you.”
Each family member is like an individual bright-or-dark-coloured thread combining to create an overall pattern – a mosaic of stories. The narrative is structured in seven parts, or “books”, following the fate of Stasia, Christine, Kostya, Kitty, Elene, Daria and Niza; and set against the bloody backdrop of the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, two world wars and the break-up of the Soviet Union as it “devoured itself from within.”
Through these seven characters we discover very different lives in a very different world to ours as it is blown apart by the same gargantuan global events. Seeing them from a Georgian perspective makes a refreshing change from the usual Anglo-centric view. The human resonance of love and treachery, longing and loss, dreams and disillusionment reverberating down the generations is universal. Each woman is a tragic heroine in her way, and the interweaving story patterns echo aspects of local folktales and fairy tales. As the fleshed-out characters change because of life experiences and societal upheaval, deeper insight into “the other” is afforded to the reader.
The City of Light
Georgia, 1917. Stasia is the daughter of a prosperous genius chocolatier and his Georgian first wife, Ketevan, who dies of pneumonia after giving birth to twins, one of whom also dies. A brief period of anarchic “girl rule” comes to an end when he marries a member of the Moscow aristocracy, the arrogant and imperious widow of a Ukrainian merchant. Their beautiful daughter, Christine, is pampered and spoilt while her three half-sisters are shunted aside. But Stasia refuses to be ignored. She is assertive and dreams of becoming a dancer in Paris. Then at just seventeen, she falls in love with Simon Jashi, a twenty-nine-year old first lieutenant of the White Guard. They ride across the steppe together. He likes to hold forth and philosophise and is amused by her headstrong nature. The October revolution forces the pair to rush into marriage, and he is dispatched to Petrograd. His young wife intends to follow.
Chocolate indulgence: a secret recipe for ecstasy
The chocolatier’s business producing cakes and truffles is a huge success thanks to the way he “blends Austrian baking with the French art of patisseries and eastern European opulence”. The pinnacle of his creation is a magical chocolate drink which he developed during his time in Budapest. It is based on a special recipe which he guarded “like a secret of war.” The elixir is so ambrosial that people swoon and can’t get enough of it, so the drink can only be enjoyed in small amounts otherwise calamity follows. Stasia’s dowry is her father’s secret recipe for the chocolate drink which she has to memorize. She cannot quite believe that it is so deadly.
Months later, Stasia manages to get to Petrograd which is in the grip of revolution. She is taken in by her glamorous relative, Thekla, who is barricaded inside her once-opulent house devoid of furniture other than a piano and beds as it was looted. There are superb descriptions of the peasant army outside and the young Georgian woman dancing through the bare rooms under the tutelage of a stately, stern dance instructor. After a particularly harsh winter, Stasia makes the famous family elixir to cheer up her cousin. Inevitably, tragedy follows, and she flees.
After a brief sojourn in Odessa with her husband, Stasia returns home and gives birth to Konstantin, or Kostya. The chocolatier’s business is now state-owned by the Bolsheviks and he has stopped using the magic ingredient, so his sweets and cakes no longer taste as they used to. Custom falls away; everything changes and becomes drab. Stasia’s husband returns home a profoundly traumatised and crippled man. His convalescence in a little wooden house in the country means she ends up doing heavy farm work which she hates. Her dreams of being a dancer long gone, she is now disillusioned about love and marriage. The arrival of a baby daughter, Kitty, is the one ray of light in a depressingly bleak existence.
The Little Big Man
Book Two follows the fate of the chocolatier’s beautiful daughter, Christine. She marries extremely well at just seventeen, and genuinely loves Ramas, her thirty six-year-old businessman husband who lavishes gifts on her. They enjoy the high life in their sumptuous villa in Tbilisi, the Paris of the Caucasus. Ramas is a utopian radical and revolutionary. His friend who is made the head of the Cheka, and comes to their New Year ball of 1927 to celebrate, is cannibalistic and ruthless. He is a serpent in their paradise soon-to-be lost. The Little Big Man is consumed with lust at the sight of Christine, and he takes advantage of her in his box at the Opera.
“At the line ‘Ah! Bello a me ritorna’, a woman’s hand appeared in a black velvet glove, clinging to the red velvet balustrade. At ‘Del fido amor primiero’ there was the sound of something heavy falling to the floor. At ‘E contro il mondo intiero’, some may have heard a suppressed scream . . .”
The “friend of the family” is addicted to her . . . and she becomes addicted to cherry liqueur as she complies to his demands, and visits his villa in a black Bugatti . . . for the good of her husband’s career . . . and for fear of what might happen were she to refuse. Having been promoted to the role of secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia, her lover oversees mass peasant deportations and executions decreed by Stalin’s Kremlin. The way in which Ramas is destroyed and his wife’s beauty is devastated is both scandalous and appallingly grim.
Among the women’s stories forming six of the seven books that are the backbone of The Eighth Life, is that of one man. Kostya is closer to his gorgeous aunt than his mother, and desperate for his father’s approval. He trains at the military Academy in what was Petrograd now called Leningrad and gets a reputation for being a “real man”.
A virginal Kostya becomes embroiled in a passionate love affair with a bewitching older woman. In terms of its desperate emotional intensity and inherent tragedy, it has echoes of the affair in Doctor Zhivago (based on Boris Pasternak’s affair with Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya). “They lent each other happiness. They lent each other the present, and gave each other memories for the future.”
Kostya is sent to Sevastopol when he becomes a junior lieutenant in the Soviet Navy, and eventually ends up defending Leningrad during the war between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany a.k.a. the Great Patriotic War.
“Civil war has its laws, as is well known, and they have never been the laws of humanity,” Leon Trotsky
Back home in Georgia, his pregnant sister is horrifically tortured and a sinister injection is administered on the orders of a red-lipsticked Red Army blonde whose sadistic cruelty is a mind-numbing nine degrees below zero. The event and its aftermath are made even more chilling in light of what happens when Kostya and the blonde torturer meet once the war is over.
“The world was dancing in circles. The skeletons beneath the earth beat in time. Roses no longer bloomed in any colour but black. All paths felt like rope bridges, swaying, ready to collapse at any moment. Even the snow acquired a bluish tinge. The sky was peppered with holes; you could see bullet holes on the horizon, too, and although the sun shone wearily, down it could no longer impart any warmth . . . Chocolate was now just a memory of another age, and without chocolate people forgot sweetness, and without sweetness they forgot childhood, and without childhood they forgot the beginning, and without the beginning they could not see the end.”
“A man, a people – without an ideal – is born blind,” Maxim Gorky
Good books about, or from, the Caucasus are rare – Data Tutashkhia by Chabua Amirejibi; Ali and Nino by Kurban Said; The Sabres of Paradise by Lesley Blanch; The Caucasus by Thomas de Waal . . .
If you only read one book this year make sure it is The Eighth Life: all 934 pages of it. The landscape, language and culture of a country on the southern fringe of Russia comes to life in this significant work of contemporary Georgian literature.
Intricately crafted and addictive, The Eighth Life is an extraordinary, dramatic and compelling read that opens windows on to a conflicted universe. In uncertain times, fiction makes better sense of the world than Media pundits and politicians. The Eighth Life is a terrible reminder of repetitive patterns in history. It is sure to be an instant classic. The ambitious, vivid and unflinching translation from the original German by Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins is in itself a work of art, and deserves to win every translation prize going.
The prose is strong and poetic with powerful visual imagery and nuances. (“She garlanded her son with her dreams like a necklace handed down from generation to generation.”) The characters are endearing; their stories mesmerizing. The novel conveys a powerful message about the human spirit and endurance.
From London to Berlin, from Vienna to Tbilisi, from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, the romantic and tragic fate of the members of this Georgian family is closely tied to the dark history of the twentieth century. Compared by many to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, if The Eighth Life is not yet being adapted for the screen in the wake of the success of Kurt Seyit and Sura for Netflix, surely it is next in line . . .
The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili, translated from the German by Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins | 934 pages 30 GBP 14 November 2019 Scribe Publications UK | ISBN 9781911617464
The Georgian novelist, playwright, and theatre director, Nino Haratischvili, lives and works in Hamburg, Germany. She was born in Georgia in 1983. At home in two different worlds, each with their own language, she has been writing in both German and Georgian since the age of twelve. In 2010, her debut novel Juja was nominated for the German Book Prize, as was her most recent Die Katze und der General in 2018. In its German edition, The Eighth Life was a bestseller, and won the Anna Seghers Prize, the Lessing Prize Stipend, and the Bertolt Brecht Prize 2018.
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