Books

Nino Haratischvili
The Eighth Life (For Brilka)

This great shaggy bear of a saga, which runs close to a thousand pages in English translation, is not only the story of a single Georgian family across six generations. It’s also a helter-skelter history of the Soviet Union in all its lurid majesty and terror.

It begins in 1900 in a small town outside Tbilisi with the birth of Stasia, the daughter of a wealthy chocolate-maker. She grows up in relative luxury and dreams of dancing at the Bolshoi. At 17, she’s courted in the old style – like something out of Pushkin – by a young lieutenant in the White Guard. They ride horses across the lonely steppe and discuss astronomy and the emancipation of women.

But war and revolution soon ring their awful changes. The White Russian becomes a Red and is packed off to a far corner of the new empire. By the time Stalin comes to power, Stasia and her two children – Kitty and Kostya, as if the Tolstoyan ambition of this book needed to be underlined – have fled to the home of her sister Christine. Eventually, Kostya marries and has children of his own. And then those children have children. And so it goes on.

The Eighth Life (For Brilka) resembles – glancingly, in outline – such generation-spanning epics as Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude because it contains more than a dash of the darkly fantastical. The chocolate-maker, as it turns out, is the keeper of a magic hot chocolate recipe. It’s a drink so deliciously intoxicating that otherwise iron-willed Red Army officers will happily lick it off the kitchen floor and beg for more.

Stasia’s father passes the secret on to her, and she hopes it will heal family wounds and avert further catastrophes. In fact, the opposite happens. The chocolate dooms all who drink it to misfortune. It’s as if, by some cosmic law of accounting, this taste of pure happiness must be balanced by a future calamity. And yet the recipe stays in the family, working its mischief across the generations.

Author Nino Haratischvili, also a prolific playwright, was born in 1983 in Tbilisi. Having moved to Germany at age 13, she writes in both Georgian and German, and is part of a new wave in German literature. If the previous generation, the post-1989 generation who began publishing in the early noughties, preferred to explore contemporary subjects and personal narratives, then writers today are turning back to history and its lingering traumas in a big way.

And they don’t come much bigger than this book. The descendants of the chocolate-maker seem to be everywhere that misery is most. Kitty, who escapes to London, just happens to be in Prague when the Soviet tanks come rolling in. Kostya finds himself on the nuclear submarine K-19, also known as the Widowmaker. And Christine has an affair with none other than Lavrentiy Beria. (Once the notorious secret-police chief has outlived his usefulness, she offers him a mug of hot chocolate; six months later he is arrested and shot. So the magic beverage does some good.) We also get views on the storming of the Winter Palace, the siege of Leningrad, the battle for Stalingrad, the evacuation of Moscow and much, much more.

It can all feel a bit breathless and coarse and overdone. This book sometimes reads more like an extended melodrama than a historical novel in the tradition of European social epics such as War and Peace. And, yes, the writing can also be crude, hyperbolic and affected. But The Eighth Life is the sort of book that sweeps you along, sustaining a tremendous feeling of urgency, as if the narrator – Niza, Stasia’s great-granddaughter, writing in 2007 – is desperate to get it all out, get it all on paper, before the family curse catches up with her.

In this immense novel, with its tragicomic fairytale quality, it’s the female characters who are most compelling. Christine has acid thrown in her face. Kitty is tortured by the secret police. Elene, Kostya’s daughter, is repeatedly betrayed by her father. And there are other women, too, who briefly orbit this unfortunate family. Almost without exception their lives are cut short in some brutal way or other. What they have in common, however, and what so many of the male characters lack, is a hard-wearing vitality of spirit. Haratischvili extols the defiant individuality and resilience of her women both in war and in the peace that too often feels like a war.

So, is this novel simply a parade of catastrophes? Well, it is and it isn’t. Yes, this family is more or less in constant freefall amid the political ruptures and crises. In the penultimate chapter, however, Haratischvili shifts into a more optimistic register as Niza crisscrosses Europe, reconstructing and occasionally fabricating the family’s history, trying to reclaim some sort of legacy from the rubble of the past. The eighth and final chapter is nothing more than a blank page, an invitation to Niza’s young niece – Brilka, from the book’s title – to write her own fate.

Still, the family’s troubles may not be over. The fact that the book concludes in the year before the Russo-Georgian war, when separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared independence and Tbilisi was bombed by Russian jets, does give one pause.

The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is discursive and rapid while also suggesting the melancholy grandeur of what Haratischvili calls the Red Century. And she does heavy drama – war, state-sanctioned violence, family conflict, thwarted love – uncommonly well. The novel was a bestseller in Germany and this translation by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin has all the music and momentum of a piano clattering down an endless stair.

But it remains to be seen whether Anglophone readers will warm to this marathon page-turner. Is there an appetite today, at a time of Brexit and Trumpian isolationism, for a story about the making of modern Europe? Even if it’s dressed up as a wildly involving and improbable soap opera?

Andrew Fuhrmann

Scribe, 944pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as "Nino Haratischvili, The Eighth Life (For Brilka)".

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Reviewer: Andrew Fuhrmann