After a week’s interlude in the mountains, full of love and poetry, it’s time to get back to our International Booker Prize travels, and today sees by far the most ambitious stage of the journey yet. Last time out, as you may, or may not, recall (memory is a very tricky thing…), we spent some time on a strange island where many objects were in short supply – which brings us nicely to our latest destination, where people also once struggled to find things to buy (albeit for very different reasons). This one’s another cracking tale, and it’s all for a very special girl. Are you sitting comfortably? This is going to be a long story…
The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili
– Scribe Publications, translated by Charlotte Collins & Ruth Martin
What’s it all about?
The prologue to today’s story has Niza, a Georgian expat living in Berlin, receiving a call from home, a plea for help all the way from Tbilisi. Her twelve-year-old niece, Brilka, who was performing with a dance troupe in Amsterdam, has gone missing, and once she’s been tracked down by the police, her aunt is charged with picking her up and bringing her home. While unwilling to get dragged back into family matters, Niza reluctantly sets off for Vienna, the young runaway’s goal.
While we’ll eventually return to Brilka’s story, it takes a while for us to get there as The Eighth Life takes a rather scenic route. First, we’re heading back to the nineteenth century, and a small town outside Tbilisi, where Niza’s great-great-grandfather, a renowned confectioner, has managed to create a wonderful recipe for hot chocolate. What follows is a long, winding family saga, with Niza gradually chronicling the story of a family, and a country, struggling to come to terms with a century of turmoil. But, you may ask, what does that all have to do with Brilka? Patience, dear reader – to understand our future, it’s important to first have a firm grasp on our past…
The Eighth Life is a monumental undertaking, a writer paying homage to her homeland by spinning a tale spanning generations. Of course, it’s a structure that’s been used many times before (e.g. in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks), but it’s still fascinating, a story of life behind the Iron Curtain, but away from the usual hotspots. The setting is a place I’ve ‘visited’ before (c.f. Comma Press’ entertaining anthology The Book of Tbilisi), and Haratischvili’s novel explores the background to those modern pieces.
The book, running to over 900 pages, is written as one lengthy monologue in which Niza attempts to make sense of her family history. In the first pages, she recalls a conversation she had many years earlier with Stasia, her great-grandmother, about a beautiful carpet in her childhood home:
“You’re a thread, I’m a thread; together we make a little ornamentation, and together with lots of other threads we make a pattern. The threads are all different, differently thick or thin, dyed different colours. The patterns are hard to make out if you look at just one individual thread, but if you look at them together you start to see all sorts of amazing things.
p.16 (Scribe Publications, 2019)
It’s a metaphor we’ll frequently return to, with each character introduced in the novel just one more thread in the tapestry of Niza’s family history.
Naturally, The Eighth Life has a lot to say about the wider world. The twentieth century was a rather turbulent one for Georgia, and these events are all chronicled here. The writer takes us through the Russian revolution, World War II, the Cold War and the conflicts arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Niza’s family members struggling to survive each of them. Many readers will have encountered similar stories before, yet seen from Tbilisi they take on a slightly different air.
Yet for Haratischvili, family history is just as important as what’s going on outside. There are obvious Tolstoyan influences, with the contrast of macro and micro, world-changing events juxtaposed against scenes of births, deaths and marriages, bringing novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina to mind. As is the case with these Russian epics, the length of the book, along with the time span it covers, allows the characters to grow, to age. We see them gradually develop, see their characters form and sense the fatal mistakes they will inevitably make.
The main focus of the plot is on the Jashi family, as they come to be known after Stasia’s marriage to the dashing soldier Simon Jashi. There’s her younger sister Christine, Stasia’s son Konstantin (later a fiercely patriotic soldier and government official) and her rebellious daughter Kitty. Then we move on to Konstantin’s daughter Elene before the story introduces us to Elene’s daughters, Daria and Niza – and of course, Brilka. Quite apart from blood ties, the main characters are connected by chocolate, which acts as a major leitmotif for the novel. The recipe discovered by Niza’s great-great-grandfather is handed down through the generations, but what seems to be a blessing, a taste that brings instant happiness, is also thought to be a curse. Each time the special hot chocolate drink is made, disaster is sure to be just around the corner, with fate playing cruel games with the family.
As The Eighth Life progresses, we begin to see that the Jashis’ fate is tied to that of another family, the Eristavis. Starting with Stasia’s friendship with the Bohemian poet Sopio, a twisted relationship forms between the two families, with the Eristavis repeatedly turning up in the Jashis’ lives, no matter how hard the wrathful Kostya might try to stamp the connections out. Here we see the same mistakes occurring time after time, whether they be unwanted pregnancies, unhappy marriages or bouts of crippling depression. There’s even a sense of history repeating in the way the family builds up beautiful houses, only to see them gradually decay.
While life is hard for most of the featured characters, it’s no surprise that it’s the women who suffer most. Nearly all of the eight books making up the novel are named for the women, and it’s the female characters that Haratischvili tends to focus on. There are a host of powerful characters here, and they are much more eager to escape from their lives, to cross boundaries both literal and metaphorical, than the comparatively conventional men. Beauty runs in the family, but this is merely another curse afflicting the Jashis as their looks inevitably attract male attention:
And the man with the pince-nez began eyeing her sister like an animal he was determined to bring down, his gaze growing ever more brazen and aggressive as he stared at her shapely lips, her small breasts, and her slim wrists, and embarked on a tipsy ten-minute toast to Georgian beauty without taking his eyes off Christine for a second. And her husband sat there nodding contentedly, smiling peaceably, and his chin quivered just a little. (p.116)
The men break the rules, but it’s the women who suffer the consequences, and these are quite often horrific. A warning to the unwary reader – there are several disturbing scenes featuring sexual assault in The Eighth Life, so be forewarned.
In the end, though, despite the many years and the extensive list of protagonists, we mustn’t forget that this is Niza’s story, and it’s all for one person, Brilka. It’s the aunt’s responsibility to sift through a century of stories and decide what needs to be told:
We decide what we want to remember and what we don’t. Time has nothing to do with it. Time doesn’t care. But the injustice of our story, Brilka, is that neither you nor I have been granted the possibility of recalling everything, including all those who have been forgotten – the injustice is that I too must choose, for you; I must decide what’s worth telling and what isn’t, which seems to me at times an impossible task. (p.378)
As you’ll see if you read the novel, the eighth of the books, named for Brilka, is left intentionally blank. Haratischvili seems to be making a particular point here: the story is never over as long as there’s someone to continue the tale…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
It’s possible, and I suspect that this will be hovering somewhere near the cut-off point for my top six. Don’t get me wrong – this is a wonderful story, one making for an enjoyable reading experience, and I know that other readers and reviewers would have this much higher on their personal lists. However, while I’d certainly urge people to give The Eighth Life a try, I think it’s a better story than it is a book, so I’ll try to explain some of my misgivings.
I sped through the book, and in part that was because I didn’t really feel the writing was anything special. In particular, Niza’s storytelling voice didn’t really do it for me, and at times it just felt like a never-ending account of events, with little standing out. One consequence of this was that I found it hard to really empathise with the characters, even those we spent whole lives with. There were a few occasions where Haratischvili did manage to suck me in more, but on the whole I wasn’t quite as invested as I might have been.
Another slight issue I had was with the story of the chocolate and with another of the minor plot details, the ghosts Stasia sees. The idea of the ‘curse’ of the chocolate came across as rather gimmicky, and I was never really sold on the idea of the ghosts coming to the old woman (and heralding certain events). I’m sure other readers will have a very different take on that, though 😉
Will it make the shortlist?
Again, I suspect that it will come close – it depends how many fans of big, baggy novels there are on the jury. The questions here are: how well will it stand up to a second read? And, of course, do they really want to make themselves read it a third time?
It’s time to finish our hot chocolate and rinse our mugs as we must continue on our journey, which next time will take us to France. Here, too, people are looking for a solution to unhappiness, but this time it will take a slightly more artificial, and less sweet, form. Is all this pill popping really the key to a happier life? We’re about to find out…