Monthly Archives: November 2020

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!)

Review: Andrea Jeftanovic, THEATRE OF WAR

Translated from Spanish (Chile) by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2020)

Theatre of War is Andrea Jeftanovic’s debut novel, and the final offering from a brilliant 2020 Charco catalogue. The narrator, Tamara, presents her past as if it were a play, inviting an audience to sit and observe “the spectacle of my childhood” in a script that is continually being written. Her family are all present on stage, acting the role ascribed to them, and Tamara is simply an actor playing her part, not directing or pulling the strings. This allows for an objectivity in parts of the narration that provides an excellent balance to Tamara’s more introspective monologues, a balance that mirrors the tension between historical atrocity and personal experience.

An unresolved trauma hangs heavy over the childhood household: Tamara’s father has fled his Balkan homeland, and is obsessed both with the memories of his losses there and with the news that tells him how his homeland continues to tear itself apart. “Dad is stuck in time, remembering the war” says Tamara’s child voice, observing how the present is not enough to pull her father out of the emotional stasis in which the war has left him. The legacy of the war is passed down to a generation who had no direct experience of it, transmitted through the father’s silences and obsessions: “I inhabit places I’ve never been. Dad, on the other hand, has never left that distant time.” Dragged into a past that her father can neither leave nor fully share, Tamara is left adrift, and turns to writing to find her own territory (“I founded my own country in a blue notebook where I’m not a minority”), and this gives her a place to call home (“My blue journal, the site where I’d founded my homeland, now pushes me into new territories”). As for Tamara’s mother, she is struggling with ghosts of her own, as it transpires that her other two children are from a different relationship (which will be the only one she remembers when a sudden collapse leads her to lose a big swathe of her memory). She papers over the cracks in her marriage, finding solace in the arms of a decorator, and ultimately leaves Tamara’s father one night that represents “another warped date that will alter the rest of the calendar.”

All of this brokenness is recounted in the present tense, lending an immediacy to the narration that works very well with the theatrical setting. Though Tamara as a character can only follow where her role takes her, Jeftanovic as author deftly directs her narrator via a detached yet expressive prose that recounts personal and historical tragedy without melodrama or sensationalism. Frances Riddle’s translation is, as always, impeccable: perfectly pitched and with an admirable knack for finding unexpected words and collocations that, once you’ve read them, seem like the only possible option: a “gnash of fire on the horizon”, “dented voices shuddering the walls”, “there are lagoons of silence”, “Dad cloaked by the newspaper, hiding his fist of a heart behind it”, “they strafe the centre of my heart”).

The wars in Theatre of War are all-pervading and suffocating, but feature primarily as a backdrop for the characters’ lives: the real battles are between the characters themselves, for their love and survival. In her adult life, Tamara struggles to build lasting relationships, to allow herself to love, and to come to terms with her childhood. Her multiple losses leave her standing “in the middle of the battlefield”, with the first glimmer of healing coming only when she reunites with her sister. I will, however, leave you to discover where that encounter (along with the many others that make up her adult life) takes her for, as the director of this play warns us as we hurtle towards the final scene, “everyone’s secrets will be revealed.” Theatre of War is a striking debut from Jeftanovic, a first-class translation from Riddle, and an excellent conclusion to Charco’s 2020 catalogue.

Review copy of Theatre of War provided by Charco Press

Join the virtual launch for Theatre of War on Tuesday 8 December

Review: Annie Ernaux, A MAN’S PLACE

Translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

The release of A Man’s Place makes Annie Ernaux the most published author at Fitzcarraldo Editions: this is the fifth of Ernaux’s books to be published in translation by Fitzcarraldo, with another two scheduled to come next year. A chronicler of personal and historical detail, Ernaux looks back on pivotal moments or relationships with a detached observation that belies deep emotion, and offers a portrait of a particular time, place and milieu that shaped her. In A Man’s Place, the subject is Ernaux’s father, a working class countryman who had been taken out of school at the age of twelve to work on a farm and pay his way. Defined when people spoke of him by the fact that he could neither read nor write, he had always wanted his daughter to rise above the “humiliating barriers” of a social situation in which he felt trapped, forever striving for a better life and never quite attaining it. Ernaux’s relationship with him was complex, and A Man’s Place represents her attempt to document his life as she knew it.

The narrative opens with Ernaux announcing her father’s death, information that she imparts with characteristic understatement: “My father died exactly two months later, to the day … It was a Sunday, in the early afternoon”. The earlier event to which Ernaux refers here was her success in the entrance exams to the teacher training college in Rouen: it was a milestone in her life, but she had been unaware that her father was proud of her achievement. She discovers the significance of her success for her father when she looks through his wallet after his death and finds a newspaper clipping of the exam results: the names are listed in order of merit, and Ernaux’s was second on the list. The father’s unarticulated pride is, however, always coupled with a more palpable resentment that his daughter has been able to move “up”, to leave her parents behind, to notice their lack of refinement and in that silent observation to make them realise that she no longer accepts their ways without question.

This is a story of missed moments and painful silences, written in what Ernaux herself identifies as a neutral style and presented as an endeavour that brings her no joy. Yet the words she chooses to write her father’s story are perfectly pitched to offer both an insight into the hardships of her father’s life and an understanding of her experience of him as a daughter. Emotions were not easily expressed in the household, and this inflects Ernaux’s detached writing style: not only does she describe it as akin to the way she wrote to her parents after she moved away, but also she observes her younger self from a vantage point years later, struggling to recognise in that stranger the person she still harbours inside her (this is even more evident in the wonderful A Girl’s Story, published earlier this year by Fitzcarraldo in Alison L. Strayer’s translation). Even the decomposition of her father’s corpse is presented in a measured way (“Within a few hours, my father’s face had changed beyond all recognition … The smell set in on the Monday”). Indeed, the imperative to remain objective is explicitly voiced when Ernaux notes that she had originally thought of writing a novel about her father, but realised that this was out of the question as “in order to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach.”

Yet Ernaux creates a work that is artistic in an unconventional way: to write a man crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing, she chooses her words with great care and embeds simple refrains from her childhood household in beautifully crafted sentences. She places these phrases in italics, and so they stand out to allow insight into the way her parents thought and spoke. Her parents are “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty”, “always afraid they would eat into their capital”, and are haunted by “this fear of being ashamed, out of place.” Ernaux’s father is afraid of what other people will say, of using the wrong words (which would have been “as bad as breaking wind”), of being looked down on; the italicised phrases and the fear they contain are, as Ernaux explicitly notes, inseparably linked to her childhood. Tanya Leslie weaves them admirably into delicate sentences of her own, her careful and lucid translation respecting Ernaux’s understated eloquence. The only thing I’m less convinced about in the translation is the title: the French La Place is less specific, and so the translated title becomes less representative of the book itself. I had similar reservations about the translated title of Happening (though my quibble there was more that the title diluted the original), and I do think that Ernaux’s titles (with the possible exception of The Years) are particularly difficult to translate literally. I’m sure this won’t be a deal-breaker, anyway – fans of Ernaux will find much to enjoy in A Man’s Place, and for those new to her work it will give an excellent introduction to her writing style and preoccupations.

It’s twenty years since I first read La Place, and it was fascinating to read it in translation with a couple of decades of reading and living under my belt. I felt much more empathy towards Ernaux’s father than I remember feeling back then, and the carefully contained and articulated emotion struck me much more than they had twenty years ago – my over-riding memory had been the depiction of a suffocating home environment and Ernaux’s detachment towards her family. These things, of course, are only part of the story, but that’s how my memory had condensed it (“Memory resists”, writes Ernaux; personal reminiscence is unreliable). Above all, A Man’s Place is an emotive goodbye to a man who remained distant from his daughter, a homage born of silences and the inability to find a way to reach one another. Ernaux’s father’s greatest fear was giving his daughter cause for shame; his greatest satisfaction “the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.” In this touching tribute she creates in her “educated bourgeois world” a legacy for a man she will never fully know, giving him his place by carving it out in a world from which he always felt excluded.

Review copy of A Man’s Place provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions