Friday, April 10, 2020

The Eighth Life (For Brilka)

Well, that was a bit disappointing. Not terrible or anything--I did finish it--but from everything I'd heard I had higher hopes.

Nino Haratischvili's The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is a multi-generational epic looking at the history of the twentieth century from a Georgian (the country, not the state) perspective. The first of the sections of the book focuses on Anastasia Jashi, born in 1900 in a provincial town in what was then the Russian empire. Anastasia dies in 1999 in independent Georgia, having lived through the entire Soviet era. The eight lives--the eight sections of the book--are her, her half sister, her son, her daughter, her granddaughter, each of her two great-granddaughters, and lastly her great-great-granddaughter, Brilka. The book is written in the form of a family history for Brilka by Niza, one of those great-granddaughters.

OK, so I think of myself as a sucker for big fat novels with historical sweep and lots of characters. Georgia should be exotic and interesting. The novel was winning prizes for German books, its original language, and it had been longlisted for the Booker International Prize. Because of all that, when I put my name on my library's hold list, I figured I wouldn't see this for months; but when the library told me I could get it now, in the middle of lockdown, I thought great.

And it does have historical sweep. Georgia looms large in the history of Soviet Russia because Stalin was Georgian, as was Lavrentiy Beria. Stalin is only distant and ominous in the novel, but Beria, the head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, is a definite dark presence in it until his death.

Bad things happen to the characters--well, it is the Soviet Union, much of it the years of Stalin. Acid-throwing, forced abortion, rape. Characters die in the Gulag, die in battle, die in the siege of Leningrad, or, captured in battle, are forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, only to die once they get 'home.' Those who survive, well, survivor's guilt is a recurring theme.

One can hardly complain given the period. And much of the emotional impact of the novel occurs precisely in those moments. Haratischvili writes as well as she ever does about those moments of terror. I did often feel that the lives of the characters are manipulated too much to get them to where they needed to be for a big historical scene. Now this is a thing in historical novels--Prince Andrei meets Napoleon after all--but there can be too much of it, and here the believability of the characters suffers. They felt a bit too often like useful tools. The male characters especially were unconvincing.

'As well as she ever does,' I wrote, and meant it. The bigger problem is the prose. Now I read it in translation, but I have to assume the translators (Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin) are at least competent, and not wantonly introducing flabbiness. I wrote down several examples before giving up, but one will suffice. At the start of Operation Barbarossa, our narrator writes, "...the Generalissimus' [Stalin's] huge empire was being attacked from all points of the compass..." Now this metaphor is old and clichéd, but worse it's also completely wrong. The Germans came from the west and attacked, at most, from three points of the compass. And, as Haratischvili knows perfectly well, because she gives us the facts some pages later, it's important Japan doesn't join in the attack: the Soviet Union is able to transfer crucial reinforcements from the Far East (one of those unattacked compass points) at a critical moment, which may very well have been the one thing that saved Stalin's 'huge empire.' Relying on a clichéd metaphor, bad enough in its own right, is also a factual error. Orwell would no doubt approve the anti-Communism, but he'd cringe at the prose.

I don't want to go on, and as I say I did finish it. The novel is at its best, I thought, in the later sections: it's closer to Haratischvili's own life, and the stagnant final years of the Soviet Union and the troubled early years of Georgia's re-founded independence are things I know less about, and it was interesting to see them from the inside. But there are plenty of positive reviews of the novel to be found, and I felt some need to push back.

But it does cover Georgia as part of my tour of Europe for Gilion's European Reading Challenge!


  1. the biker i've been posting about had some nice things to say about Georgians even tho they still have a statue of Stalin up in their principal city the name of which i'd have to look up... again... (the brain is the first thing to go haha)

    1. Tblisi! Today I'm totally up on everything Georgian. But don't ask me in two weeks.

      I've heard good things about the country now. It did have go through some hell to get there, though.