THE EIGHTH LIFE
By Nino Haratischvili
Tolstoy had intended to set “War and Peace” in his own era, but realized that in order to understand the aftermath of the Crimean War he had to go back to the Decembrist uprising of 1825. Then he realized that in order to understand those events, he had to go back to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, a generation earlier. Nino Haratischvili, born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1983, wanted to write about growing up in the 1990s, a post-Soviet decade of ethnic wars, a flatline economy and electricity blackouts, and she too came to the conclusion that she had to rewind history much further to make sense of her own.
Almost 1,000 pages, over 100 years. At first sight, Haratischvili’s novel “The Eighth Life” looks like a big old-fashioned airport blockbuster, complete with book-jacket superlatives: Sweeping! Epic! Saga! The novel tells the story of a Georgian family across the 20th century — “the red century,” as the narrator, Niza, describes it, “a century that cheated and deceived everyone, all those who hoped.”
“The Eighth Life,” Haratischvili’s third novel, won several literary awards in Germany, where the author has lived since 2003, and has been a best seller in translation in several countries. Haratischvili, who writes in German, has said her book is personal rather than autobiographical. Niza writes, like her author, from the vantage of an expatriate in Germany. “I had so many questions,” she admits, as she confronts the past in an epistolary account addressed to her niece, an effort that is part explanation, part expiation.
Georgia lies on the southern flank of the Caucasus Mountains, east of the Black Sea. It is the farthest edge of Europe, a land of myth and mythmaking whose inhabitants have managed to co-opt successive occupying empires — Byzantine, Ottoman, Persian and, most recently, Russian — with their “sacred virtue of hospitality,” copious quantities of wine and polyphonic song. I lived in Georgia for two years at the end of the 1990s and, like all visitors, fell in love with its charms. Unfamiliar readers, fear not; Haratischvili writes deceptively easy prose and inserts historical and cultural references, as clear as an almanac, along the way.