Early in Nino Haratischvili’s compelling, multigenerational, century-long novel, The Eighth Life, Niza, the narrator, tells us about the unique characteristics of Georgia, the country in which much of the novel is set.
To be a proper Georgian, certain traditions should be adhered to: “Don’t cause any trouble . . . Live as your parents lived . . . Be bright and cheerful . . . Never be unfaithful to your man, and if your man is unfaithful to you, forgive him, for he is a man. Live first and foremost for others. Because, in any case, others always know better than you what’s good for you.” There is no further mention of these traits, but the rest of the novel subtly refutes the idea that anyone – most of all the many women who are central to the novel – should ever behave in such a manner.
After the prologue, the novel opens with a scene, reminiscent of Fontane’s Efi Briest, in which a uniformed officer arrives at the home of a girl intent on having her as his wife. It is early in the 20th century. The tzar is still in power in Russia but, as we know, change is imminent and it will impact in unavoidably direct ways on Stasia, the girl who Simon Jashi, the officer, will marry. And on him.
At first, he expresses disdain for the socialists who are beginning to be a force within Russia. He finds them “too primitive, too unrefined, too loud”. But he will have to adapt as revolution and turmoil take hold and he and Stasia will have only occasional time together. Stasia, like most of the women in the book, has her own ideas about what constitutes a fulfilled life and is constantly frustrated by her inability to achieve any version of her ideal self. Her only glimpse of happiness comes from her friendship with two other women, but here too the hardships of the time press mercilessly on their lives and no sense of contentment can be sustained.
Paranoia and power
The persistence of misery is attributed to the changes wrought by communism in a novel which is as unrelentingly critical of every aspect of the revolution and its outcome as a Richard Pipes history of the era. Indeed the author would seem to be nostalgic for the time of the czars and much of the early part of the novel is seen from the vantage point of those who had much to lose. The subsequent events in Russia and the co-opting of Georgia into the USSR may make such a viewpoint understandable.
Such is the hatred of Niza for Stalin and Beria that she can’t bring herself to use their names until she tells a joke about them right at the end of the book. Beria – referred to throughout as “Little Big Man” – has a particularly devastating effect on the life of Stasia’s sister and that of her husband, a loyal party man. There is no escaping the derangement wrought by paranoia and power and much of what befalls characters is almost too cruel to contemplate.
At the core of the novel is a character called Kostya, Stasia’s son and a man in a position of great influence, who has the egomania and viciousness of “the Generalissimus”, the term Niza always uses for Stalin. For those who must live with him – and several generations exist in close proximity throughout the book – he is a tyrant who allows personal frustrations to distort his relationships with every member of his family.
By contrast, his sister Kitty is a considerate, troubled character who, in extraordinary circumstances, has to leave Georgia and begin a career in London as a singer. For Kitty, the past is inescapable; a wave on the shore that is always breaking. The only love she finds is as wounded as she is. By now all of the characters’ lives are less entwined with the movements of history and new scions of the family are busy being unhappy in their own way, until, post-1989, when Georgia attempts to become independent and history calls on them again. By now, we’ve travelled a long way from the tzars and the traditions of Georgia.
The Eighth Life is addressed to a wilful, young girl called Brilka, the narrator’s niece. Much of what she is told would be impossible for the narrator to know. But that doesn’t matter greatly. This is a long, rewarding novel, written in clear, unadorned prose which is distinctly pre-modernist, with a linear, unhurried narrative style, ably translated through a collaborative process. It all makes for an engrossing book. Haratischvili has created a fascinating cast (and it’s easy to imagine it as a television series) whose lives illuminate some of the greatest events of the 20th century.