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Meet Nino Haratischwili

NINO HARATISCHWILI was born in Georgia in 1983, and is an award-winning novelist, playwright, and theatre director. At home in two different worlds, each with their own language, she has been writing in both German and Georgian since the age of twelve. Her latest novel, The Eighth Life has already been a major bestseller on publication in Holland, Poland, and Georgia. It follows A Georgian family across a century of European history, presenting an epic tale of love, family and history. gr chatted to Nino about the process of research and the influence of history in her book, and what aspects of Georgian culture she recommends. 

You have described the 20th century as a century ‘that cheated on everyone.’ How so? 

The whole 20th century was a century of huge expectations and promises. After the European failure and WWI and the economic crisis in Europe and the USA people had a longing for some great changes. Maybe the world was kind of ready for some utopias and ideologies and then Communism and Fascism entered the world. And both of them wanted to recreate the world, the human being — they promised people to create the world anew but have created violence, terror, dictatorship and hundreds of monsters instead. Both ideologies left nothing but catastrophes. Both systems started betraying, suppressing, controlling and finally killing very quickly after gaining power, they misused peoples hope. They were both a trap and the trap always snaps. It all lead to WWII, one of the biggest catastrophes in the human history. And even afterwards in the Eastern part of Europe people stayed stuck in this trap. So I think it was a deceiving and cheating century to most people. The problem is that it did not change for millions of people even when freedom came. The promises were not kept.

The Eighth Life distils six generations of history into almost a thousand pages. What was the process of research like?

I didn’t have a plan when I started. First of all I was reading everything I could get. I tried to get as much literature as I could, but at some point I realised that it was not enough. So I applied for a scholarship run by the Bosch foundation. It is called “Grenzgänger,” meaning someone who crosses the borders, and it is for artists and journalist who are researching abroad. I was lucky enough to get it and then I started traveling. Most of my time was spent in Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg, where most of the material I was looking for was. I went to some archives (but a lot of interesting archives are still not accessible) and spent a lot of time in libraries. It was really helpful to read the press from the decades I was writing about. I could get a picture of how the propaganda machine worked.

I also visited museums and political centres like the Sakharov Centre, one of the few institutions in Moscow that is critically analysing the Soviet past.

Then I went to Tbilissi in Georgia and interviewed family members and friends. For example it was very interesting asking people what things they remember from the Soviet era. I mean only “things” like food, clothes, places, movies, toys etc. Different generations had completely different memories.

 Were there any particular stories of people you discovered in your research that inspired you?

There were a lot of people I met who shared their experiences and stories with me. I am really thankful for that, but I cannot say I’ve taken a particular story from somebody and put it in the novel. Writing for me means always transforming. So in a subconscious way all the parts and stories had a huge impact on The Eighth Life but they are all kind of distilled

There were also a lot of personal memories and experiences that I worked with. For example, from the really rough period in Georgian history: the 1990s. I was young, but I remember quite well this terrible period of civil wars, of economic crises, of violence and so on.

Were you inspired at all by your own ancestral history?

Not really, no. But here it is the same: all the stories, I heard while growing up, all the experiences I had – they all somehow flew into the novel. As I child I had heard a lot about the Great Purge and the violent period in the 1930s from my grandma. A lot of parents of her friends were imprisoned or sent to Gulags. I also knew a lot about the rebellious period of the Soviet era, the 1960s and 1970s, when my parents had tried to get a pair of jeans and listened to Western music.

The Eighth Life has been compared to Doctor Zhivago, One Hundred Years of Solitude and the works of Leo Tolstoy – were any of these major influences? What were?

I did not think about other writers or novels while working on it. You cannot plan to write like somebody else, even if you admire him/her. You have to find your own voice, your own style, and your own words. But of course we all are under the influence of some other authors. You cannot write without being a reader first of all. All the comparisons are really “huge” and of course I am happy to hear that, but I cannot objectively judge my style or way of writing. But as a reader I love big and passionate stories and challenging and daring books. But I read a lot of really different stories and authors. I don’t have a pattern.

Including a hot chocolate recipe with mysterious powers, and ghostly visitors, The Eighth Life has some elements of magic realism. Why did you choose to include magic realism in a story otherwise very grounded in history and reality?

It was not planed this way. But I wanted to have an uncontrolled element in this book, something strange and magical, because everything else is so much under control or the illusion of it in the Soviet era. And I wanted the book to start with something sensual, mysterious, something that the characters will be able to keep and give it from one generation to another. But during the writing process it became more and more like a golden thread.

What are some of the biggest challenges about writing historical fiction over a long time-line?

Somehow it is even easier to have such a huge panorama. You are just following the real history and it is dictating a lot of things. Some events can only take place of the historic context, they can only happen at the concrete moment in time. And it was a big gift to have so much “time” in the novel: I could develop some characters, like Stasia, from their birth till the age of 99, so you have a lot of colours to write.

The biggest challenge was to find the right balance between real history and fiction and describe all the challenges and problems, all the catastrophes of the time through the characters and their private lives.

Why do you think Georgian stories are so important to tell?

I don’t think of The Eighth Life as only a Georgian novel. Otherwise people would not read it in Germany, Netherlands, Poland and so on. I think that good literature doesn’t have to fit into borders of nationality. But of course this book is about a Georgian family, about my home country and people in Western Europe don’t know a lot about this country. But most of all it is about human beings, about life under cruel circumstances, about love and loss. About struggling and about trying to stay a human in a brutal world. So I guess all these issues are important to most of us.

Are there any authors or books you would suggest to someone interested in Georgian literature or history?

Georgia was guest of honour in 2018 at Frankfurt Book Fair. It lead to a lot of translations of Georgian contemporary literature into German and other languages. It also created a kind of focus on Georgia itself. There are so many tourists and Tbilissi has become something like a hotspot for some of them. It has been a huge success and I’m really happy about it. The Georgian culture is a great bridge for people interested in this part of the world.

Georgian movies and music are becoming more and more popular, and for food and wine lovers this country has always been an insider’s tip.

Lasha Bugadze, Zaza Burchuladze, Nana Ekvtimishvili, Tamta Melashvili, Archil Kikodze are some – among others – worth being discovered by Western readers.

The book has been a bestseller in Hungary, Poland and Georgia. What do you hope to see now that the novel has been translated into English?

I’m really excited that The Eighth Life will finally find its way to English speaking readers. And of course, I hope it will find its way into their hearts.

What’s your favourite type of chocolate?

I have to confess I do more love cakes more than chocolate. But there is an Austrian sweet called: Mohr im Hemd (not a quite political correct name, it means: Moor in a shirt) that I’m really crazy about. It is a chocolate cake swimming in hot chocolate. It’s really delicious, it tastes like a sin J