Revolution, War, and Exile: A Conversation with Nino Haratischvili




IN HER ACCLAIMED 2014 NOVEL The Eighth Life (for Brilka), Nino Haratischvili interweaves a saga about a Georgian family with the fate of their country during the “Red Century.” Totaling over 900 pages (in the competent translation by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin, published in April by Scribe US), the novel chronicles the Jashi family over six generations, from their beginnings as chocolatiers before the Russian Revolution, through their various experiences of war and exile, to the attempts by the narrator to record the messy family history in order to transcend it.

In The Eighth Life, Haratischvili investigates the relationship between personal trauma and the pains of a nation. While that might sound weighty, thus justifying the claims that the novel is the Georgian War and Peace, the narrative is easily digestible — like one of the Jashi family’s confections, The Eighth Life is a cup of hot chocolate: intoxicating, addictive, and highly pleasurable (in small doses).

I sat down with Haratischvili to discuss some of the inner workings of her novel.

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SHANE ANDERSON: The Eighth Life is a massive book that spans a century. How long did it take to write?

NINO HARATISCHVILI: Four years. But I didn’t plan to write a saga spanning 100 years. Originally, I wanted to write about a Georgian family and focus on the 1990s. I grew up during this time, and the post-Soviet reality was very challenging. There were civil wars and economic crises. It was also very violent. As I started doing research, I realized it would be impossible to understand the 1990s on their own. This period was an ending. I had a lot of questions, and the more research I did, the more I realized how one thing had led to another. I realized that I had to go back in time. That’s how I ended up at the October Revolution — but even that wasn’t far back enough.

In any case, maybe it was good to work like this. If I had known that I was going to work on the novel for four years and sacrifice my life to it for the last two years entirely, maybe I wouldn’t have dared to do it. Maybe it was better not to know.

Violence and the interconnectedness/repetition of events are two important themes in the book. In fact, the same violent and awful things happen to different members of the family in different periods.

This felt natural to me. Georgian history is like a circle. There was never an Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit — a reckoning with the past — like the Germans had after the war, so it makes sense that things kept repeating in Georgia. Of course, every era is different. You cannot compare 1937 with 1989. But the most existential problems kept repeating. A lot of the characters are not able to break through, just like people weren’t able to do under the Soviet regime.

If everything is stuck on repeat in The Eighth Life, then the last page of the book, which is blank, could be seen as a way out, a moment of hope. 

You’re never done with history, but Niza is telling Brilka all the stories in the book so that she can leave it all behind and so that Brilka can write her own history. It is hopeful, and I needed this hope for myself too.

So, you’re an optimist?

I’m more of a realist but I’m trying. [Laughs.]

You said you had numerous questions going into the writing that required a lot of research. The reader is aware of this from the dedication:

For my grandmother,
who gifted me 1,000 stories and a poem.

For my father,
who left me with a bag full of questions.

And for my mother,
who told me where to seek the answers.

I’m curious about part of this dedication — about your grandmother and the poem. Poetry seems to be as important as politics in the novel, in that every chapter has an epigraph that’s either taken from a (Russian) poem or from political slogans or thinkers.

This element came quite late, actually. While researching the book, I went to an exhibition about Soviet posters at the Sakharov Center, one of the few political and cultural centers in Russia that is critical of the Soviet past, if not the only one. I was amazed by how strange, cynical, and darkly humorous some of these posters were — such as, the one where children are thanking Stalin for their childhood during the war. These posters were expressing the cruelty of the period in positive terms. I wanted to set the scene of some of my chapters with these images, but I thought that if I did, it might create the wrong atmosphere. It would mean that nothing beautiful happened in these 70 years, that there was no poetry.

Yes, but most of the poets you quote — Akhmatova and Mandelstam, for instance — were censored and/or persecuted. They experienced a lot of cruelty too.

This is true, but I wanted to also show things that I admired.

Is this why Stalin is only ever called the Generalissimus in the novel? That is, you never name Stalin because you do not admire him?

Stalin is named at the end of the book, as is Lavrenti Beria [the chief of security under Stalin, who is called the “Little Big Man” in the rest of the story]. These two Georgian men had such a terrible and enormous impact on the whole century and on every character in the book.

It’s a little like in fairy tales, where you can’t pronounce the name of the evil characters because it’s a curse. But I knew I would reveal their names at the end of the book where I retold a Soviet joke from the 1930s. This had always been my goal. When you laugh about something, it loses its power.

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Shane Anderson is an author and translator living in Berlin. More work can be found here: http://shane-anderson.info/.

 

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