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.