The Eighth Life (for Brilka) – Nino Haratischwili

It took me five weeks to read this long Georgian family saga, although in my (and the book’s) defence, I should say that I was reading it alongside other books. In the German edition it is 1275 pages long, but it was neither the length nor the style that put me off. The fact that the book has been shortlisted for various book prizes at roughly the same time as that other huge tome Ducks, Newburyport might make you fear that this is a worthy but difficult work, that you have to steel yourself to read.

The truth is, it is anything but that.

It is accessible, fun, entertaining, both harsh and sentimental, even soap-opera-like in parts. For those unfamiliar with the history of the 20th century in Russia and the Soviet Union, it is quite educational as well. I was reasonably familiar with Soviet history, but was captivated by the (often lyrical) descriptions of Georgian cities and landscapes, of their parties and food. It really struck me what a tortured relationship Georgia has with its bigger neighbour (and ruler) – very much like a marriage to an abusive partner whom you love and hate, envy and fear in equal measure. Sadly, it is impossible for a country to ever escape from such a bully – you are indeed trapped by your geography, and geography determines so much of your history.

Perhaps the main reason why I did not become fully immersed in the book and read it to the exclusion of everything else is because I always struggle with family sagas. There are so many characters to acquaint yourself with. I find myself growing to care about one or the other (I particulary liked Stasia and Christine, and Kostja’s story more than his character), so I struggle to move on to another character when the author decides to bring them into the limelight. I can cope with that happening over a long series of books, like in the Poldark saga or the Cazalet chronicles, but it feels too abrupt a change over the course of one volume, however lengthy.

The other thing that somewhat marred my enjoyment of the book were the passages that sounded as if they’d been cut and pasted from history books. I know it’s difficult to show the passage of time smoothly when you are skipping ahead a few years. Occasionally, Haratischwili gets this telescoping of time right. I particularly enjoyed her description of a Soviet childhood – a long list of memories, many of which I share as well: the limited range of toiletries, the Tiger balm, tinned fish and condensed milk being the only things in the shops, severely abridged films such as Angelique or the Count of Monte Cristo (and Bollywood), the difficulties and therefore pride in accessing Western music and so much else. Although Haratischwili is considerably younger than me (and the sisters Daria and Niza who grow up during that time), she evokes all the sights, smells, hardships and small joys of our locked-in world. I also enjoyed her occasional political rants – for this is Niza telling the story of several generations for the benefit of her niece Brilka – and what she is trying to tell is the story of the ‘little people’, the forgotten voices, rather than the story of wars and kings and leaders.

However, it’s those moments when the narrative pace slows right down that I enjoyed most. I found certain individual scenes or chapters most memorable: Stasia finding refuge in the mansion of an older cousin in Petersburg as she tries to find her husband during the civil war which followed after the 1917 revolution. Christine showing her face at a masked ball and unleashing fatal lust in a historical figure that I’m pretty sure is supposed to be secret police chief and notorious sexual predator Beria. Kostja’s single moment of bliss with the much older and wiser Ida just as war breaks out again. Ida meeting another Ida, a blind orphan and pianist, during the siege of Leningrad.

I’m really glad I read this rich tapestry of woven lives and feelings. I cannot say that it’s quite as amazing as I was led to believe, but there are certain scenes or passages that I will return to (and that I’ve marked with post-its). I can also see what the German critics meant about the idiosyncratic way in which Haratischwili uses the German language – it’s more flowery than most contemporary German novels, and certain storytelling elements (such as the curse of the secret hot chocolate recipe or the ghosts who appear in the garden) are more common in Turkish, East European or Middle Eastern literature. The piling on of bad luck and suffering on generation after generation of the same family is perhaps also less frequently seen in German literature. Yet I can see some resemblance to the Buddenbrooks, although in The Eighth Life external events play the major role on the characters’ lives, rather than their personal psychology or middle-class values.

I read the book in the original German, but it has been translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin and published in a beautiful edition by Scribe. You can read Lizzy Siddal’s enthusiastic review of it here.

 

The Fiction of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Tamaz Chiladze’s The Brueghel Moon are both about the breakdown of marriage and the disastrous effects this has on the psyche of the person who is left behind. Both of them also show, with devastating clarity, how the abandoned partner then proceeds to wreak havoc on the people around them as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and identity. They are anything but dry reads with a thesis, however.

BrueghelMoonChiladze is a Georgian poet, novelist and playwright and comes from a notable literary family: his mother was a poet, his younger brother was also a poet and journalist, credited with playing an important role in the resurrection of Georgian literature in the post-Stalinist era. Have you ever read a Georgian author before? No, neither have I – so it’s kudos to Dalkey Archive for opening up this chapter and this world for us. And it’s clearly a very different world indeed.

However, I can now add Georgia to my Global Reading Challenge – as an unexpected (and controversial) entrant for Europe. Yes, there has been some debate whether Georgia, which is located on the Caucasian peninsula, is in Europe or in Asia, but the population certainly considers itself more European than anything else.

‘Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it,’ Chiladze says in an interview – and he certainly succeeds in that. It’s the story of a psychotherapist, Levan, who is suffering a mid-life crisis and starts blurring the borders between his personal and his professional life. His wife leaves him just as the novel opens. Levan is baffled but emotionally frozen, yet soon embarks upon illicit relationships with not just one but two of his patients – the enigmatic Nunu (an astrophysicist who appears to know some state secrets and who perhaps was involved in her husband’s death) and the fragile, depressed Ana-Maria, wife of the French ambassador, who attempted to commit suicide. The points of view shift between these three main protagonists, sometimes within the same chapter, from 1st to 3rd person, so it’s not always easy to tell who says what. The voices themselves are not distinct enough. These are all intellectually gifted people perpetually on the edge of a breakdown.

I found the perpetual shifts confusing: just as I was warming to one particular voice, I had to acquaint myself with a new one. I also found the monologues of Levan at times a little too self-referential, too didactic. For example:

My composure is an act, a ploy. My professional mask. The questions asked by my patients might sound abnormal, but are deeply human and only someone hiding behind the mask of composure can ward them off… I have erected a lofty wall around myself, which means not only that it’s impenetrable for others, but that my essence can’t get out either, being confined within, unable to splash in the stormy waves of what’s called Life…

A contrast to the ‘splashing’ in emotional and stormy waves in Ferrante’s book, obviously. There was something a little arid about The Brueghel Moon, which didn’t quite allow me to fully engage .I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the lack of contextual knowledge on my part. Nevertheless, this was an interesting depiction of a country and period in recent history about which I know very little.

daysabandonFerrante’s book has the upper hand when it comes to reader engagement: by focusing on just one narrator, one side of the story, we have a coherent, undiluted dramatic monologue. And what a monologue it is! It sweeps the reader (and all else before it) away in a relentless turmoil and maelstrom of emotions. This is bold, brassy, uncensored description of wallowing in self-pity, anger, desire for revenge, confusion and loss of self-esteem. And it’s all described in Technicolor, not in a genteel, quiet way. This way of handling emotions is not that unfamiliar to me coming from a Latin culture: we are noisy and expressive and shameless. Think of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother – or indeed pretty much any Almodovar film. Think of the impassioned gesticulation of Camilleri’s characters in his Montalbano novels.

Yet the narrative is tightly controlled. It all starts in a matter-of-fact way. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Olga is thirty-eight, tidy, neat, precise, the kind of woman who always puts in commas and avoids the melodramatics of her family back in Naples. She is married to Mario, lives in Turin and has two young children, a girl and a boy. So Olga’s descent into a messy hell of bereavement is all the more shocking.

The author knows exactly what she is doing, however, how much to reveal and how she wants us to view her main character, even though the language and thoughts seem to flow so naturally and uncensored. Olga behaves erratically, sometimes descending into farcical situations (the shards in the pasta sauce) or tragicomedy (being locked inside the house, unable to open the door, with a dying dog, a child with a high temperature, and no telephone connection).

Her  internal monologue appears to be captured in a literal transcription, with no filter, admitting even her most bizarre, unsayable thoughts: what if she just left her children in the park? what if she were to use her neighbour as a sexual prop? I could not help but feel sorry for her, deeply empathetic to her plight, yet also faintly repulsed and wanting to shake her out of her stupor. Olga has given up her own ambitions and career for marriage and motherhood, and now is furious at the double betrayal: by societal expectations, but also by biology. Her chilling condemnation of maternal instinct is miles away from the cosy pictures we get to see elsewhere.

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.

Ultimately, both of the main protagonists of these novels are self-centred, self-absorbed, but not really self-aware. That’s why I suspect they are quite credible descriptions of the despair of abandonment, even if they manifest themselves in different ways. I would certainly pick the Ferrante book over the other, partly because I can relate better to a female character, but also because on this occasion I prefer my emotions out in the open.