Sunday, August 02, 2020

Georgia: The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili

This huge family saga of over 900 pages appeared in our library when I was wondering what to read for Georgia. I was afraid that it would take me weeks and weeks to get through, however, fortuitously a bad cold kept me from work for several days, so I was able to read it in a concentrated three days.
At the start of the twentieth century a chocolate maker in a town in Georgia prospers due to a delicious recipe, which he uses in tiny amounts in his cakes and confectionary. However he warns his daughter Stasia, to whom he entrust the recipe, that the recipe is cursed, and tragedy will follow for anyone who drinks the chocolate it in its pure form.

Is it really cursed? It is never quite clear, but certainly a very tumultuous century follows for the descendants of Stasia and her husband, Simon Jashi, a lieutenant in the revolutionary army posted to St Petersburg.

Back in Georgia, Stasia raises a son and daughter.  Her son Kostya becomes a fervent Communist and navy officer. Her daughter Kitty, meanwhile, falls in love with a man branded a traitor, and flees to the west where she becomes a famous singer. Kostya's daughter Elene has a number of turbulent relationships with men deemed unsuitable by her father. The book is narrated by her younger daughter, Niza, telling the family stories to her niece Brilka in the hopes that Brilka can create a new, less tragic, start to her own story.

Interwoven with the plot is a summary of the course of Eastern European history of the twentieth century - the Russian Revolution, the Georgian Communist party, the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, the protests in Wenceslas Square in Prague, and the break up of the Soviet Empire. It depicts the Georgian Communist party as exceeding the Russian Communists in brutality and corruption. Real historic figures such as Stalin (himself a Georgian) intersect with the fictional characters of the novel.

The book does need a good amount of free time to give it the attention it deserves. I suspect I would not have been so gripped by it if I had had to read it in the smaller sections that I usually have time for, spread out over a couple of months. But although the events depicted are brutal at times, I found myself both educated and entertained, and ultimately hopeful that the new start the narrator is hoping for, for the rebellious niece Brilka, would in fact eventuate.

Nino Haratischvili was born in Georgia in 1983, and now lives in Berlin, where she writes in both Georgian and German. The Eighth Life was a best-seller in Germany and won a number of literary prizes. It was translated into English by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin with the assistance of an English PEN award, and was published by Scribe Publications in 2019.