Tag Archives: Georgian literature

Women in Translation month 2021: a belated round-up

August has come and gone, and with it another Women in Translation month. Instigated by Meytal Radzinski in 2014 to encourage more people to read women’s writing in translation, Women in Translation month has grown in both reach and momentum each year (and now has a brand new website!) I always enjoy looking through the #WiTMonth hashtag on social media, but this year I participated much less actively (or perhaps I should say much less visibly) as I haven’t had time to record publicly the things I’ve been reading. So here I am well into September, writing (a little belatedly, a little shamefacedly) about what I read in August…

At the start of August I was reading The Frightened Ones by Syrian author Dima Wannous, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. This was sent to me by Harvill Secker over 18 months ago, and I had intended to read it in August *last year*. For an entirely inexplicable reason (possibly the guilt of leaving it languishing on my shelf for so long?) I wasn’t particularly expecting to enjoy this book, but I was very wrong indeed. The Frightened Ones is a carnal, horrifying account of hunting love and fleeing fear as conflict rages in Damascus: Suleima meets a mysterious writer in her therapist’s waiting room, and they fall into an intense yet brittle affair. The writer, Naseem, later sends Suleima a copy of his manuscript, narrated by a woman whose life is disturbingly similar to Suleima’s own. The narrative switches between Suleima and the narrator of Naseem’s book, until both stories collapse into one another and Suleima can barely tell the difference between the two. The Frightened Ones is experimental in form but grounded in a horrifying reality in which “one aching version of humankind” lives, dies and endures.

 

My next book was Suiza by Belgian debut writer Bénédicte Belpois, translated from French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions). The narrative perspective is that of Tomás, a terminally ill and rather unreconstructed (okay, misogynist) Galician man, who “rescues” illiterate waitress Suiza from her abusive employer by punching said employer and dragging Suiza off with him. After some pretty aggressive sex, Tomás takes Suiza home and “keeps” her. The two do fall in love, and Tomás does come to realise that their relationship shouldn’t be about ownership, but nonetheless it was a bit disappointing to read so much of Suiza’s story from his perspective. When Suiza herself does speak, there are hints of a backstory that I would have loved to see developed further, and in particular I would have liked to understand why Suiza was so happy to renounce her agency and rely entirely on Tomás and his (questionably motivated) benevolence. While there is plenty to enjoy in the story itself, which is very immersive and kept me wanting to read on to find out what would happen next, the ending slipped back into the power dynamic that I found frustrating; I think I’d have clicked better with Suiza if it had been Suiza herself narrating.

 

My main holiday read was The Pear Tree by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated by Elizabeth Heighway (Peirene Press). This is only the second novel I’ve read from Georgia (the first was The Eighth Life, which long-term readers might remember I loved deeply), and if these two are representative of contemporary Georgian literature then I don’t know why we’re not seeing more of it. Lela has been raised in a “school for idiots” on the outskirts of Tbilisi, and has survived systematic abuse by one of the teachers by channelling her energy into planning her revenge. Now old enough to leave the school but offered a job there as warden, Lela takes under her wing some of the more defenceless children so that they do not have to endure the same experiences she did. When an American couple want to adopt a Georgian orphan, she sees the opportunity to give abandoned boy Irakli a new life, and so two tense and intertwined narratives develop together as Lela and Irakli edge closer to their respective futures and freedoms.

And to bring August to a close (this is going to be a bit of a teaser as to what you can expect in my next couple of reviews) I had a Parisian double whammy with Lauren Elkin’s Notes on a Parisian Commute (released by Les Fugitives this week) and Ketty Rouf’s No Touching (translated by Tina Kover and coming soon from Europa Editions) – I’ll be back talk to you about those soon!

 

Review: Nino Haratischvili, THE EIGHTH LIFE

Translated from German (Georgia) by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Scribe Books, 2019)

The prize ceremony for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will take place online this Thursday, and before the winner is announced I wanted to talk to you about a stunning book on the shortlist, The Eighth Life (for Brilka). I read The Eighth Life in April this year, at the start of the first lockdown: diving into a 1000-page novel just when “free time” became an alien concept might seem a little foolhardy, but all I can say is that this book was good for my soul. I spent two weeks reading a little a day, and accompanying the characters through their dreams and their tragedies until they were part of my daily life: I would find myself turning scenes over in my mind while going about my day, and wondering what would happen to the characters next. So if the sheer size of The Eighth Life puts you off, let me assure you that even in the most extraordinary of circumstances, it’s compelling enough to keep you hooked. I recorded a video for The Eighth Life five months ago(!) – it’s a sign of this crazy year that I’m only now getting to share it with you, but I hope you’ll enjoy both the readings (click on the video at the end of this post) and the thoughts I’m noting down here.

The Eighth Life is an epic family and historical saga that sweeps through the twentieth-century Russian Empire in a series of chapters named for different characters (and different generations) of the same family. The present-day narrator, Niza, is keeper of the family secrets, which were passed on to her by her grandmother, Stasia. Stasia is the family matriarch, though she is much younger when we meet her at the start of the twentieth century. Her dreams of becoming a dancer are still intact, though will be slowly dismantled by both history and marriage. The daughter of a skilled chocolate-maker, Stasia also knows the family’s secret recipe for a hot chocolate so sublime it has an almost magical effect, but its benefits come at a price, as the chocolate is also cursed. Generation after generation, tragedy befalls those who drink it, to the point where the recipe is never written down and never disclosed (a cynical reader might find this rather melodramatic, and although I’d usually class myself as one such reader, I confess to having been completely swept away by the magnificence of the whole story).

Niza’s narrative is at times formal and at times conspiratorial, addressed to her niece Brilka and all the more inviting because of the direct second-person address. Niza knows a great deal about her family history thanks to Stasia passing on all her stories, but what she doesn’t know she openly supplements or invents. This offers far more freedom in the storytelling, and allows Niza to bring the characters to life as she chronicles the story of this broken dynasty. Stasia’s two children, Kitty and Kostya, grow up as communism takes hold in Georgia: Kostya joins the military, and becomes indoctrinated with values that he clings to throughout his life – to the detriment of his family and his own happiness. Though he spends the rest of his long life lamenting a lost moment (which you can hear more about in the video), he is singularly unable to see his own role in the downfall of his family.

Yet if I had strong emotions towards (or against) Kostya, they paled in comparison with my reaction to Kitty. Controlled in every way by either her brother or the state (at times the line between the two is rather blurred), eventually Kitty’s only option is to leave her home and start a new life. But despite her successes elsewhere, she will forever mourn the mother she left behind and another unbearable loss (no spoilers, but watch the video to get a sense of the depth of emotion – I had to re-take that excerpt three times and my voice still wobbles at the end). The entire family is trapped in silence, suffocating on words never uttered and tears never shed: each of them failed another in a way that set them on a different path, and all of the ways in which the characters disappoint one another have repercussions for their future relationships and life choices.

One of Haratischvili’s great achievements is the empathy she is able to ignite even for her most odious characters: for example, Kostya is infuriating in his insistence on what is “right”, his dogged, dogmatic and blinded devotion to his principles and his party, and his attempts to control all the women in his family – but by making Kostya such a key part of the story, Haratischvili deftly creates empathy for this broken man even as he destroys the lives of those he most wanted to save.

The immensity of history is evident throughout The Eighth Life – not only in the use of flashback and narration of past events, but also with Niza’s awareness of what came later in (or after) her ancestors’ lives. Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin translate with a sensitivity towards both historical detail and Haratischvili’s rich storytelling: this is a sumptuous novel, exquisitely rendered. On several occasions I found myself pausing to admire the translation, re-reading entire sections to enjoy them again or marvelling over the use of a particular word; the dialogues are outstanding, as is the use of syntax and the lexical range, striking a lithe balance between understatement and sentimentality without ever leaning too heavily in either direction.

This multi-generational story of revolution and downfall strikes a endnote of possibility and new chances: Niza offers Brilka her “eighth life” in a final chapter that is as original as it was unexpected. I cannot recommend this extraordinary book highly enough, and I hope you will read it and love it as I did.

Watch my video on The Eighth Life by clicking on the link below (don’t forget: if you’re reading this review in your email, you’ll need to click through to the website to view the video, or watch it directly on Vimeo!)