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!)