The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

A country and a century, told through what happened to a family, narrated by a member of that family’s next-to-youngest generation, dedicated to a member of the youngest generation who is trying to both escape and understand the legacy she is bearing. In The Eighth Life (For Brilka), Nino Haratischvili brings her native Georgia to life, though she wrote the novel in German, charting its course through a long twentieth century by portraying seven lives in a family that is both extraordinary and representative of the small country in the South Caucasus that, among other things, gave the world Josef Stalin. It’s a country I called home from mid-2008, just weeks before the latest Russian invasion, to the end of 2011.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

At the time Haratischvili’s narrator tells the stories that comprise The Eighth Life, she is 32, the year is 2006, and she is living in Berlin. Her mother calls from Georgia to say that her niece, twelve-year-old Brilka, has fled from a school trip to Amsterdam and been found by police just outside of Vienna. But by then the narrator is already getting ahead of herself, something she often does when telling Brilka the family’s stories, trying to make sense of them for herself — and trying to make sense of herself — by relating them to someone young and unseen. Haratischvili structures The Eighth Life as seven books plus a prologue, generally told in the third person but with enough first-person intrusions by the narrator that readers can easily keep in mind that all of the family stories are filtered through one person’s perspective, and all intended to explain the family to her young niece.

The narrator introduces herself:

My name is Niza. It contains a word: a word that, in our mother tongue, signifies “heaven.” Za. Perhaps my life up till now has been a search for this particular heaven, given to me as a promise that has accompanied me since birth. My sister’s name was Daria. Her name contains the word “chaos.” Aria. Churning up, stiffing up, the messing up and the not putting right. I am duty bound to her. I am duty bound to her chaos. I have always been duty bound to seek my heaven in her chaos. But perhaps it’s just about Brilka. Brilka, whose name has no meaning in the language of my childhood. Whose name bears no label and no stigma. Brilka who gave herself this name, and kept on insisting she be called this until others forgot what her real name was. (pp. 5–6)

By telling the stories, Niza hopes to give Brilka enough understanding of where and who she comes from that she can be free to become herself, to know the links to the past but not be weighed down by them. Niza wants that for herself, she has tried, but at least at the time of the story she has not succeeded. Many others in the Jashi family’s stories wanted to break free and tried in various ways — Niza’s great-great-grandfather journeyed to Budapest and learned secrets of the chocolatier’s trade; her great-grandmother married an army lieutenant; her grandfather joined the Party and the Red Army; her great-aunt defected to the West. Though none of them succeeded completely, none of the failed completely either. And so Niza hopes, and hopes particularly for Brilka, hopes enough to tell her more than 900 pages of family tales so that the knowledge may set her free.

In addition to the generations of characters that Haratischvili juggles readily without need for charts that the reader can refer to, there are two non-human characters present throughout the book. The first is the country of Georgia itself:

Georgia is a small country. It’s beautiful, too — I can’t argue with that; even you will agree with me, Brilka — with mountains and a rocky coastline along the Black Sea. The coastline has shrunk somewhat over the course of this past century, thanks to a multitude of civil wars, stupid political decisions, and hate-filled conflicts, but part of it is still there. (p. 7)

Niza then tells an extended version of an anecdote that everyone with a passing acquaintance with Georgia will have heard. Shortly after creating the earth, God was parceling out its various parts to all of the different peoples of the world. He had gathered them all and after assigning them their places (reserving the most beautiful part of the world for himself), sent them on their way. The Georgians, however, missed the event. They had been celebrating and feasting the night before, as was their wont, and had slept through the distribution. Asked by God what they intended to do without a land of their own, the Georgians said that they would take whatever God had left. And then, as Haratischvili puts it, “God, gracious as ever, impressed by [the Georgians’] nonchalance and utter lack of ambition, gave [them] his very own holiday paradise, which is to say: Georgia.“ (pp. 7–8) Haratischvili pivots from this story to a reflection on Georgians in general.

What I’m trying to say is this: bear in mind that, in our country, this nonchalance (that is, laziness) and lack of ambition (lack of arguments) are considered truly noble characteristics. Bear in mind also that a profound identification with God (the Orthodox God, of course, and no other) does not prevent the people of our country from believing in everything that has even the slightest hint of the mysterious, legendary, or fairytale about it — and this is by no means restricted to the Bible. Giants in the mountains, house spirits, the evil eye that can plunge a man into misfortune, black cats and the curse that goes with them, the power of coffee grounds, the truth that only the cards can reveal (you said that nowadays people even sprinkle new cars with holy water in the hope it will keep them accident-free). (p. 8)

Soon after, she relates a list of commandments from and about Georgia. It’s a list I find accurate from my time there, and it’s one that nearly anyone from a slightly problematic place will probably recognize at least parts of.

Don’t cause any trouble — that’s the first commandment in this country. …
Live as your parents lived; be seldom — better, never — alone. Being alone is dangerous and unprofitable. This country idolises community and mistrusts loners. Appear in cliques, with friends, in family or interest groups — you’re worth very little on your own.
Procreate. We’re a small country and we have to survive. (This one commandment ranks alongside the first commandment.)
Always be proud of your country, never forget your language, find foreign countries, whichever they may be, beautiful, exciting, and interesting, but never, never, never better than your home.
Always find quirks and characteristics among the people of other nations that in Georgia would be, to say the least, disgraceful, and get worked up about them: general stinginess … lack of hospitality … insufficient willingness to drink and eat … lack of musical talent — characteristics like these.
Let your behaviour bend towards openness, tolerance, understanding, and interest in other cultures, provided they respect and always affirm the specialness and uniqueness of your homeland.
Be religious, go to church, don’t question anything related to the Orthodox Church, don’t think for yourself …
Be bright and cheerful, because that’s this country’s mentality, and you don’t like gloomy people in our sunny Georgia. …
Never be unfaithful to your man, and if your man is unfaithful to you, forgive him, for he is a man. Live first and foremost for others. Because, in my case, others always know better than you what’s good for you.
Finally, I want to add that, despite my years of struggling both for and with this country, I have not managed to replace it, to drive it out of me like an evil spirit that beset me. No ritual purification, no repression mechanism has yet been of any assistance. Because everywhere I went, travelling further and further from my country, I was searching for the squandered, scattered, wasted, unused love I’d left behind. (pp. 9–10)

Niza’s struggles reflect her family’s struggles, and they continue throughout the book. Their relationship with Georgia is often similar to their relationship with the family; they love it and want to escape; nothing makes them quite as crazy, and nothing can replace it. I’m reminded of what a former roommate, himself child of political exiles, said: “I thought my family was crazy. It turns out they’re just Hungarian.”

The other non-human “character” is the chocolate whose recipe Niza’s great-great-grandfather either devised or received in Budapest.

But something in the mixture and the preparation made this chocolate special, unique, irresistible, startling. The very scent of it was so enticing and so intense that one couldn’t help hurrying towards its source.
The chocolate was thick, syrupy, and black as the night before a heavy storm. It was consumed in small portions, hot, but not too hot, in small cups, and — ideally — with silver spoons.
The taste was incomparable: savouring it was like a spiritual ecstasy, a supernatural experience. You melted into the sweet mass, you became one with this delicious discovery, you forgot the world around you, and felt a unique sense of bliss. As soon as you tasted this chocolate, everything was exactly as it should be (pp. 29–30).

But in keeping with Georgians’ interest in the mysterious and legendary, the ecstasy of the chocolate has a price. It is consumed in small portions because consuming large portions brings misfortune. Always. At various points in The Eighth Life characters believe that the tales of ill effects are just myths, or that the person whose sadness they are remedying with the wonderful chocolate deserves to drink until they are sated, healed, but there is always a price to be paid. Before the book’s story properly begins, the chocolate brings the family considerable wealth. By the book’s end, the recipe is still in the family, still secret, and a new generation faces its joys and temptations.

Haratischvili begins her main narrative with the chocolatier’s daughter, Anastasia, universally called Stasia during her long life. Each book that follows is named after a family member — seven women and one man, counting Brilka as the eighth — and proceeds through an epoch in Georgia’s twentieth-century history. That began with Georgia as part of the Russian Empire, carried on through the First World War, a brief time of independence, conquest by the Bolsheviks, the construction of the Soviet regime and terror under two Georgians — Josef Stalin and Lavrenti Beria, head of the local Communist Party and then head of the Soviet Union’s secret police. He appears in The Eighth Life, altering the fate of the Jashi family, but is never named until the very end of the book, only called the Little Big Man. The family passes through the crucible of the Second World War, Stalin’s death, and Khrushchev’s open naming of Stalin’s crimes. And while the rest of the Soviet Union might have breathed some relief at the lightening of the burden of lies, many in Georgia reacted differently:

When the speech found its way into the public domain, students began to demonstrate on the streets of Tbilisi. People were shocked; they felt aggrieved. The national identity was being called into question; their great countryman, who over the course of decades had pacified the boundless Russian Empire, was being declared a criminal. Even people whose parents and grandparents had fallen victim to this countryman of theirs could not endure the truth, though they must have been aware of it for years. It was absolutely outrageous, the things that Ukrainian lout was coming out with. People stormed onto the streets and boulevards, surrounded the university, blocked crossroads, rebelled against the truth. Because the victims had long since become perpetrators; the perpetrators, victims. (p. 383)

The other reaction was also present. Haratischvili describes how Kitty, the narrator’s great aunt in the safety of exile in London, reacts to news of Stalin’s death:

Kitty ran out onto the street and started singing at the top of her voice. She skipped along the pavement, danced, pirouetted, applauded, laughed joyously at passers-by.
She started to recite the names of all the victims she could think of. First, prominent victims from the fields of art and science, from the intelligentsia. Then she remembered the parents of classmates who were no longer allowed to mention them; the grandparents of fellow students; she remembered doctors who had suddenly stopped coming to work; she remembered the lecturers and teachers who had abruptly disappeared; she remembered friends of her mother and aunt, all of whom were missing a husband, son, wife, mother, father. The list of names was endless. The whole of Arlington Road was not enough; she had to walk down side streets as well in order to say out loud, at least once, all the names that occurred to her.
Not until she reached the station did she say: Ramos, Sopio, Andro. She paused for a long time, then she said to herself, in a mere whisper. Miriam. My son. (p. 359)

And even though Stalin had died, Stalinism lived on. There were consequences.

That same day, Kitty Jashi gave a radio interview, accompanied by her patroness, Amy, who now also acted as her interpreter. There, Kitty had the chance to perform one of her most recent songs — in her mother tongue — and talk about the hardships of life as a Soviet artist in exile. Shortly afterward, she received an offer to perform twice a week in a jazz club in Soho, which she accepted with delight.
After the interview had been broadcast, and recorded in the Lubyanka [KGB headquarters], Kostya Jashi [Kitty’s brother] was summoned by the Russian secret service. Following a lengthy interrogation, he was made to confirm in writing that he had no intention of contacting his sister, and to publicly distance himself from her — more: to denounce her as an informer against the Soviet state. (p. 359)

The family carries on during the long stagnation after Khrushchev’s fall, protected by the privileges that Kostya’s position with in the Party have brought them, but still subject to the routine humiliations that the Soviet state can dish out, and aware how their privileges could be taken away. Books six and seven show Niza’s own life, first with her sister Daria at the center, and then cleaning up the carnage of Daria’s death, trying to live her own life and disentangle herself from the family legacy. In those years, too, the Soviet Union died but Georgia’s leaders first proved unable to disentangle the country from its past. Dissidents turned nationalists led it into civil war and chaos, with banditry on the streets and no electricity in the capital’s houses.

The Eighth Life is long and engrossing, looking back and flipping through pages again, I am drawn into the many small dramas that fill its pages, the lives whose incidents aim up to the saga of the whole family, the whole century. I remember their hopes, their struggles, the moments of love and grace, the too-many moments of terror that visited a Georgian family in the twentieth century. The dreams of ballet in Paris, the secret love of a political commissar, the laughter in the garden of a house high above the city, the old people fading into the past. Haratischvili sums up at the very beginning.

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 that night without wings; to my grandfather, whose heart my sister tore out; to my great-grandmother who danced a pas de deux with me at the age of eighty-three; to my mother, who went off in search of God … I owe these lines to Miro, who infected me with love as if it were poison; I owe these lines to my father, whom I never really got to know; I owe these lines to a chocolate-maker and a White-Red lieutenant; to a prison cell; to an operating table in the middle of a classroom; to a book I would never have written, if … I owe these lines to an infinite number of fallen tears; I owe these lines to myself, a woman who left home to find herself and gradually lost herself instead; but above all, I owe these lines to you, Brilka.
I owe them to you because you deserve the eighth life. Because they say the number eight represents infinity, constant recurrence. I am giving my eight to you.
A century connects us. A red century. Forever and eight. Your turn, Brilka. (p. 6)

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  1. […] The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili. A gigantic novel, originally written in German, of Georgian (Tbilisi not Atlanta) families through the twentieth century. The cover promises six romances, one revolution and the story of the century. I have heard great things; it’s not out of the question that we have mutual acquaintances. But oof, 934 pages. I don’t think I’m going to be carrying this one on the daily commute. Unless it’s really good… [Update: It was really good!] […]

  2. […] The eighth day is not unlike The Eighth Life. […]

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