The Eighth Life is capacious, voluble, urgent, readable, translated heroically and sparklingly by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin. Is it great literary art? Haratischvili’s omnivorous energy often feels out of control, like someone leaving a 30-minute voicenote on WhatsApp after several drinks; it might have been better, you think, to have left several short ones over a period of time (as, say, Elena Ferrante did with her Neapolitan quartet).
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.
Although it moves from tragedy to chaos to upheaval, across a “red century” that “cheated and deceived everyone”, The Eighth Life is a true supra of a novel — a lavish banquet of family stories that can, for all their sorrows, be devoured with gluttonous delight. Despite their burdens of grief, fear and anger, Nino Haratischvili’s characters — six generations of one Georgian clan — come to exuberant life “within this realm of words”.
The dissonance between how Georgians perceive their reality and how it is seen from outside – whether in Russia or the west – reverberates through this astonishing novel, peppered with epigraphs ranging from Maxim Gorky to Mikhail Gorbachev. At more than 900 pages, the book spans the “red century”, reaching into the 21st, from the rare vantage point of a subjugated republic on the fringes of the Russian and Soviet empires, the “balcony of Europe”. When I was artistic director of the UK’s first festival of Georgian writers, I realised how Georgia’s complex history is often wrongly conflated with Russia’s – despite having its own language and alphabet. The Eighth Life (for Brilka), originally published in German in 2014, has the heft and sweep to overturn such misconceptions, while introducing the uninitiated to a beguiling culture. A subtle and compelling translation by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (on the heels of a Georgian version earlier this year) should make this as great a literary phenomenon in English as it has been in German – most recently winning the 2018 Bertolt Brecht prize.
No one emerges well — but the episodic recounting of the 20th century from a Georgian perspective that’s woven through this novel emphasises how they’ve been crushed by history with a capital H. That’s interesting, particularly when we touch on little-known events, and, for instance, a less charitable view of Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet it’s odd how infrequently Nino Haratischvili (a Georgian novelist, playwright and theatre director, who wrote The Eighth Life in German) achieves a sense of place in her epic tale; her interest remains with the interior angst of her characters, to the detriment of the bigger picture of her settings.