Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2019

The Eighth Life (for Brilka), by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

You might have noticed that it’s been a bit quiet this week?  I’ve been busy, reading a behemoth of a book called The Eighth Life.  At 935 pages, this family saga is the longest book I’ve read this year.  But it is not just the saga of a family; it is also a history of the tumultuous 20th century in the USSR…

This is the blurb:

That night Stasia took an oath, swearing to learn the recipe by heart and destroy the paper. And when she was lying in her bed again, recalling the taste with all her senses, she was sure that this secret recipe could heal wounds, avert catastrophes, and bring people happiness. But she was wrong.’

At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified—this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste . . .

Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband, Simon, to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. Stasia’s is only the first of a symphony of grand but all too often doomed romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.

Tumbling down the years, and across vast expanses of longing and loss, generation after generation of this compelling family hears echoes and sees reflections. Great characters and greater relationships come and go and come again; the world shakes, and shakes some more, and the reader rejoices to have found at last one of those glorious old books in which you can live and learn, be lost and found, and make indelible new friends.

The book begins with the narrator explaining that she’s recording the history of her family for her niece Brilka, and she starts her story with the generation born at the start of the 20th century, the ones who witnessed the October revolution and suffered or prospered by it. The chocolate-maker has four daughters, Stasia, Lida and Meri, and Christine by his second marriage.  Of these, only Stasia has children, and throughout the novel it is women who carry on the family name.

In Georgia in the Caucasus, in the southeast of what was the Russian Empire, the convulsions of the socialist revolution are a very long way away.  Nonetheless, Stasia’s husband Simon Jashi in the military eventually has to choose which side he will support.  He is mostly offstage in the novel, but Stasia’s choice to follow him to Moscow in hope of bringing him home means that she abandons her dreams of becoming a dancer.  Instead she has children: Kostya who is a fervent socialist and becomes very powerful in the malevolent Soviet manner, and Kitty, whose dissident boyfriend Andro puts the family at risk.  Before none too long, the family finds out what this means: Andro picks the wrong side when he joins an independence group attempting to capitalise on the chaos of WW2.  They are cynically enlisted by the Germans and Andro pays the price after the war, while Kitty is picked up and interrogated by the NKVD in the most brutal of ways. There is never any doubt that to challenge the Soviet status quo was to invite disaster with longstanding consequences.

In a novel as all-encompassing as this one, there are many themes.  One is that both men and women are brutalised by power, and another is that surveillance states have a very long reach.  Yet most portraits of the powerful are not black-and-white.  Kostya, who fought bravely to bring supplies to the besieged population of Leningrad during the war, never really recovers from his personal loss at that time, and his exploitative behaviour towards women is shown to be in part due to his fear of losing a loved one again.  Georgi, the Soviet Ambassador to Britain, (who is, of course, really a spy) plays an infamous part in the repatriation of Soviet POWs in Britain, but is given an opportunity for redemption.

While setting the story amid the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, The Eighth Life is also a window onto the history of the lesser-known regions of the USSR and its now independent republics.  Many of us tend to think of Georgia as a state in the US rather than a European country, and if we know anything about it at all, it’s that it was the birthplace of Stalin.  But Georgia also bred one of Stalin’s most infamous henchmen, Laurentiy Beria, referred to in the novel as the Little Big Man.  Wikipedia tells me that he was the longest-lived and most influential of Stalin’s secret police chiefs, not to mention an incorrigible womaniser, and in the novel his interest in Christine turns out to be devastating for her.

There are some very shocking scenes in the book, and the author does not shy away from representing the aftermath either.  Ida’s struggle to survive the siege of Leningrad is heroic, and so is her self-sacrifice; Kitty’s abject homesickness when she is forced into exile is poignant indeed.

Another thread that is patterned through the novel is the way that the children ‘orphaned’ by their parents falling foul of the authorities, are ‘adopted’ into other families.  Andro’s descendants Miqa and Miro weave their way in and out of the Jashi line, never quite sure of their position in life and, given Kostya’s volatile temper, well aware of how precarious it can be.  What is quite clear from the novel is that there were always very different opportunities for the children of the rich and powerful: they get into better schools; their results can be tweaked; they have better access to consumer goods and, in Kostya’s case, they can even access far superior medical care in the West when a nuclear accident puts his health at risk.

The size of this book may perhaps put people off, but I really enjoyed it. The translation is generally very well done, though I was occasionally aware of slight differences in style attributable to having two translators.  You can read an extract at the Scribe website. 

Fishpond offers this brief bio of the award-winning author:

Nino Haratischvili was born in Georgia in 1983, and is an award-winning novelist, playwright, and theatre director. 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. It is being translated into many languages, and has already been a major bestseller on publication in Holland, Poland, and Georgia.

Author: Nino Haratischvili
Title: The Eighth Life (for Brilka)
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2019, 935 pages
First published as Das achte Leben (für Brilke) in 2014
ISBN: 9781925713329
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: The Eighth Life: (For Brilka) The International Bestseller


Responses

  1. Yes, I had noticed posting was quiet – but wasn’t worried because you have been commenting/liking so I figured you were OK.

    This does sound interesting. I have a friend whose son and daughter in law live in Georgia and have, in fact, bought and done up a house there. It’s apparently beautiful, Stalin notwithstanding! (Whenever I tell people about this couple I have to say “Georgia, you know the one in the old Soviet Union”!

    Like

    • It was, I gather from the book, the playground of the USSR with lovely warm summers, and a beach culture at the eastern end of it—which is now a contested part of it. The breakup of the USSR meant lots of smaller states wanting independence from the bigger states and some of wanting to align with Europe i.e. with new NATO weapons pointed at Russia, while others wanting to align with Russia, i.e. making Georgia feel insecure. From what I can see at Wikipedia, it’s been a time of constant conflict and instability.
      Somewhere in the book, one of the characters says that Georgia is a place to get away from, not a place to go to, so I hope those friends of yours stay safe!

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  2. Having just finished a novel twice this length, I’m craving something short and perhaps a little sweeter; this does sound worth a look at some point, though. Can’t recall a Georgian author before, so it would be good to break that duck

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    • Ah. that was Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, wasn’t it?.. I sneaked a search at your blog to see what it was because I couldn’t remember a review of it. A long book is terribly hard to review, I find.
      I haven’t read an author from Georgia before, but I have read a previous one set there: it was Solo by Rana Dasgupta which visits Tbilisi, also a book about the breakup of the USSR but mainly set in Bulgaria.

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    • It was Anniversaries. It’ll take a while to process such a whopper before I attempt a post on it. I just looked up Nino H: she lives in Hamburg and writes in German. Is she a Georgian writer?

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      • Yes, born in Georgia and fluent in both languages.
        I hesitate to say this because I don’t know much about her, but I felt as if there were autobiographical elements in the story, especially in the characterisation of ‘Niza’ and her misfit status because of being gifted.

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  3. Wow, sounds amazing, if a bit of a mammoth undertaking! I may have to mentally bookmark this for a long holiday read at some point!

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    • Yes, it needs a comfortable sofa or bed, with cushions. You need to rest it on something because the weight of it is too much to hold for very long!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My energy stores are low now but it sounds very fascinating. When young I tackled long books without blinking but now they wear me out thinking ahout them. No idea why!🌻🌻🌻

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    • Having just been there, you will find the scenes in Leningrad under the siege horrifying, especially when you realise that almost every person you met there, had lost someone in it…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes that became as we listened to stories from our various guides. It was quite overwhelming at times.

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        • It seems impossible that such a beautiful vibrant city could have been targetted by Hitler to be razed to the ground…

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  5. I have a copy of this to read, and I hope to get to it before Christmas. Your review makes me want to read it NOW!

    Liked by 1 person


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