‘That night Stasia took an oath, swearing to learn the recipe by heart and destroy the paper. And when she was lying in her bed again, recalling the taste with all her senses, she was sure that this secret recipe could heal wounds, avert catastrophes, and bring people happiness. But she was wrong.’
At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste …
Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband, Simon, to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. Stasia’s is only the first in a symphony of grand but all too often doomed romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.
Tumbling down the years, and across vast expanses of longing and loss, generation after generation of this compelling family hears echoes and sees reflections. Great characters and greater relationships come and go and come again; the world shakes, and shakes some more, and the reader rejoices to have found at last one of those glorious old books in which you can live and learn, be lost and found, and make indelible new friends.
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About the Author
Nino Haratischvili 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. In 2010, her debut novel Juja was nominated for the German Book Prize, as was her most recent Die Katze und der General in 2018. In its German edition, The Eighth Life was a bestseller, and won the Anna Seghers Prize, the Lessing Prize Stipend, and the Bertolt Brecht Prize 2018. It is being translated into many languages, and has already been a major bestseller on publication in Holland, Poland, and Georgia.
Charlotte Collins studied English Literature at Cambridge University, and worked as an actor and radio journalist in Germany and the UK before becoming a literary translator. She received the Goethe-Institut’s Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize in 2017 for Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. Her other translations include Seethaler’s The Tobacconist and The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells.
Ruth Martin has a PhD in German literature and philosophy from the University of London. Her recent translations include Volker Weidermann’s Dreamers, Michael Köhlmeier’s novels Two Gentlemen on the Beach and Yiza, short fiction by Joseph Roth, and essays by Hannah Arendt. She has taught translation to undergraduates at Birkbeck and the University of Kent, and is currently co-chair of the Society of Authors Translators Association.
Read an Excerpt
The Score of Forgetting
This story actually has many beginnings. It’s hard for me to choose one, because all of them constitute the beginning.
You could start this story in an old, high-ceilinged flat in Berlin, quite undramatically, with two naked bodies in bed. With a twenty-eight-year-old man, a fiercely talented musician in the process of squandering his gift on impulse, alcohol, and an insatiable longing for intimacy. But you could also start this story with a twelve-year-old girl who decides to say NO! to the world in which she lives and set off in search of another beginning for herself, for her story.
Or you start the story with all the beginnings at once.
At the moment when Aman Baron, whom most people knew as ‘the Baron’, was confessing that he loved me — with heartbreaking intensity and unbearable lightness, but a love that was unhealthy, enfeebled, disillusioned — my twelve-year-old niece Brilka was leaving her hotel in Amsterdam on her way to the train station. She had with her a small bag, hardly any money, and a tuna sandwich. She was heading for Vienna, and bought herself a cheap weekend ticket, valid only on local trains. A handwritten note left at reception said she did not intend to return to her homeland with the dance troupe and that there was no point in looking for her.
At this precise moment, I was lighting a cigarette and succumbing to a coughing fit, partly because I was overwhelmed by what I was hearing, and partly because the smoke went down the wrong way. Aman (whom I personally never called ‘the Baron’) immediately came over, slapped me on the back so hard I couldn’t breathe, and stared at me in bewilderment. He was only four years younger than me, but I felt decades older; besides, at this point I was well on my way to becoming a tragic figure — without anyone really noticing, because by now I was a master of deception.
I read the disappointment in his face. My reaction to his confession was not what he’d anticipated. Especially after he’d invited me to accompany him on tour in two weeks’ time.
Outside, a light rain began to fall. It was June, a warm evening with weightless clouds that decorated the sky like little balls of cotton wool.
When I had recovered from my coughing fit, and Brilka had boarded the first train of her odyssey, I flung open the balcony door and collapsed on the sofa. I felt as if I were suffocating.
I was living in a foreign country; I had cut myself off from most of the people I’d once loved, those who used to mean something to me, and had accepted a visiting professorship that, though it guaranteed me a livelihood, had absolutely nothing to do with who I really was.
The evening Aman told me he wanted to grow normal with me, Brilka, my dead sister’s daughter and my only niece, set off for Vienna, a place she had conceived of as her home, her personal utopia, all because of the solidarity she felt with a dead woman. In her imagination, this dead woman — my great-aunt, Brilka’s great-great-aunt — had become her heroine. Her plan was to go to Vienna and obtain the rights to her great-great-aunt’s songs.
And, in tracing the path of this ghost, she hoped to find redemption, and the definitive answer to the yawning emptiness inside her.
But I suspected none of this then.
After sitting on the sofa and putting my face in my hands, after rubbing my eyes and avoiding Aman’s gaze for as long as possible, I knew I would have to weep again, but not now, not at this moment, while Brilka was watching old, new Europe slipping past her outside the train window and smiling for the first time since her arrival on this continent of indifference. I don’t know what she saw that made her smile as she left the city of miniature bridges, but that doesn’t matter any more. The main thing is, she was smiling.
At that moment, I was thinking that I would have to weep. In order not to, I turned, went into the bedroom, and lay down. I didn’t have to wait long for Aman. Grief like his is very quickly healed if you offer to heal it with your body, especially when the patient is twenty-eight years old.
I kissed myself out of my enchanted sleep.
As Aman laid his head on my belly, my twelve-year-old niece was leaving the Netherlands, crossing the German border in her compartment that stank of beer and loneliness, while several hundred kilometres away her unsuspecting aunt feigned love with a twenty-eight-year-old shadow. All the way across Germany she travelled, in the hope it would get her somewhere.
After Aman fell asleep, I got up, went to the bathroom, sat on the edge of the bath, and started to cry. I wept a century’s worth of tears over the feigning of love, the longing to believe in words that once defined my life. I went into the kitchen, smoked a cigarette, stared out of the window. It had stopped raining, and somehow I knew that it was happening, something had been set in motion, something beyond this apartment with the high ceilings and the orphaned books; with the many lamps I had collected so eagerly, a substitute for the sky, an illusion of true light.
Perhaps it should be mentioned that Brilka was a very tall girl, almost two heads taller than me (which, at my height, isn’t that difficult); that she had buzz-cut hair and John Lennon glasses, was wearing old jeans and a lumberjack shirt, had perfectly round cocoa-bean eyes that were constantly searching for stars, and an immensely high forehead that concealed a great deal of sorrow. She had just run away from her dance troupe, which was performing in Amsterdam; she danced the male roles, because she was too extravagant, too tall, too melancholy for the gentle, folkloristic women’s dances of our homeland. After much pleading, she was finally allowed to perform dressed as a man and dance the wild dances; her long plait had fallen victim to this concession the previous year.
She was allowed to do leaps and to fence, and was always better at these than at the female dancers’ wavelike, dreamy movements. She danced and danced with a passion, and after being given a solo for the Dutch audience — because she was so good, so much better than the young men who had sneered at her in the beginning — she left the troupe in search of answers that dancing, too, was unable to give her.
The following evening, I received a call from my mother, who was always threatening to die if I didn’t return soon to the homeland I had fled all those years ago. Her voice trembled as she informed me that ‘the child’ had disappeared. It took me a while to work out which child she was talking about, and what it all had to do with me.
‘So tell me again: where exactly was she?’
‘In Amsterdam, for goodness’ sake, what’s the matter with you? Aren’t you listening to me? She ran away yesterday and left a message. I got a call from the group leader. They’ve looked everywhere for her, and —’
‘Wait, wait, wait. How can an eleven-year-old girl disappear from a hotel, especially if she —’
‘She’s twelve. She turned twelve in November. You forgot, of course. But that was only to be expected.’
I took a deep drag on my cigarette and prepared myself for the impending disaster. Because if my mother’s voice was anything to go by, it would be no easy matter just to wash my hands of this and disappear: my favourite pastime in recent years. I armed myself for the obligatory reproaches, all of them intended to make clear to me what a bad daughter and failed human being I was. Things I was only too well aware of without my mother’s intervention.
‘Okay, she turned twelve, and I forgot, but that won’t get us anywhere right now. Have they informed the police?’
‘Yes, what do you think? They’re looking for her.’
‘Then they’ll find her. She’s a spoilt little girl with a tourist visa, I presume, and she —’
‘Do you have even a spark of humanity left in you?’
‘Sorry. I’m just trying to think aloud.’
‘So much the worse, if those are your thoughts.’
‘They’re going to call me. In an hour at most, they said, and I’m praying that they find her, and find her fast. And then I want you to go to wherever she is — she won’t have got all that far — and I want you to fetch her.’
‘She’s your sister’s daughter. And you will fetch her. Promise me!’
‘Oh God. All right, fine.’
‘And don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.’
‘Aren’t I even allowed to say “Oh God” now?’
‘You’re going to fetch her and bring her back with you. And then you’ll put her on the plane.’
They found her that same night, in a small town just outside Vienna, waiting for a connecting train. She was picked up by the Austrian police and taken to the police station. My mother woke me and told me I had to go to Mödling.
‘Mödling, the town’s called. Write it down.’
‘You don’t even know what day it is today.’
‘I’m writing it down! Where the hell is that?’
‘What on earth was she doing there?’
‘She wanted to go to Vienna.’
‘Yes, Vienna. You must have heard of it.’
‘All right! I’ve got it.’
‘And take your passport with you. They know the child’s aunt is picking her up. They made a note of your name.’
‘Can’t they just put her on a plane?’
‘Okay, I’m getting dressed. It’s all right.’
‘And call me as soon as you’ve got her.’
She slammed down the phone.
That’s how this story begins.
Why Vienna? Why this, after the night of fleeing from my tears? There were reasons for it all, but for that I’d have to start the story somewhere else entirely.
My name is Niza. It contains a word: a word that, in our mother tongue, signifies ‘heaven’. Za. Perhaps my life up till now has been a search for this particular heaven, given to me as a promise that has accompanied me since birth. My sister’s name was Daria. Her name contains the word ‘chaos’. Aria. Churning up, stirring up; the messing up and the not putting right. I am duty bound to her. I am duty bound to her chaos. I have always been duty bound to seek my heaven in her chaos. But perhaps it’s just about Brilka. Brilka, whose name has no meaning in the language of my childhood. Whose name bears no label and no stigma. Brilka, who gave herself this name, and kept on insisting she be called this until others forgot what her real name was.
And, even if I’ve never told you, I would so like to help you, Brilka, so very much; to write your story differently, to write it anew. So as not just to say this, but to prove it as well, I’m writing all of this down. That’s the only reason.
I owe these lines to a century that cheated and deceived everyone, all those who hoped. I owe these lines to an enduring betrayal that settled over my family like a curse. I owe these lines to my sister, whom I could never forgive for flying away that night without wings; to my grandfather, whose heart my sister tore out; to my great-grandmother, who danced a pas de deux with me at the age of eighty-three; to my mother, who went off in search of God … I owe these lines to Miro, who infected me with love as if it were poison; I owe these lines to my father, whom I never really got to know; I owe these lines to a chocolate-maker and a White-Red Lieutenant; to a prison cell; to an operating table in the middle of a classroom; to a book I would never have written, if … I owe these lines to an infinite number of fallen tears; I owe these lines to myself, a woman who left home to find herself and gradually lost herself instead; but, above all, I owe these lines to you, Brilka.
I owe them to you because you deserve the eighth life. Because they say the number eight represents infinity, constant recurrence. I am giving my eight to you.
A century connects us. A red century. Forever and eight. Your turn, Brilka. I’ve adopted your heart. I’ve cast mine away.
You are the miracle child. You are. Break through heaven and chaos, break through us all, break through these lines, break through the ghost world and the real world, break through the inversion of love, of faith, shorten the centimetres that always separated us from happiness, break through the destiny that never was.
Break through me and you.
Live through all wars. Cross all borders. To you I dedicate all gods and all rosaries, all burnings, all decapitated hopes, all stories. Break through them. Because you have the means to do it, Brilka. The eight — remember it. All of us will always be interwoven in this number and will always be able to listen to each other, down through the centuries.
You will be able to do it.
Be everything we were and were not. Be a lieutenant, a tightrope walker, a sailor, an actress, a film-maker, a pianist, a lover, a mother, a nurse, a writer; be red and white, or blue; be chaos and heaven; and be them and me, and don’t be any of it. Above all, dance countless pas de deux.
Break through this story and leave it behind you.
I was born on 8 November 1974, in an otherwise insignificant village clinic near Tbilisi, Georgia.
Georgia is a small country. It’s beautiful, too — I can’t argue with that; even you will agree with me, Brilka — with mountains and a rocky coastline along the Black Sea. The coastline has shrunk somewhat over the course of the past century, thanks to a multitude of civil wars, stupid political decisions, and hate-filled conflicts, but a part of it is still there.
You know the legend only too well, Brilka, but I’d like to mention it here anyway, to make clear to you what it is I’m trying to say — the legend that tells how our country came into being. Like this:
One beautiful, sunny day, God took the globe he had created, divided it up into countries (this must have been long before they built the tower at Babel), and held a fair, where all the people tried to outdo one another, shouting at the tops of their voices, vying for God’s favour in the hope of snaffling the best patch of earth (I suspect the Italians were the most effective in the art of making an impression, whereas the Chukchi hadn’t quite got the hang of it). It was a long day, and at the end of it the world had been divided up into many countries and God was tired. However, God — wise as ever — had, of course, kept back a sort of holiday residence for himself: the most beautiful place on earth, rich in rivers, waterfalls, succulent fruits, and — he must have known — the best wine in the world. When all the people had set off, excited, for their new homelands, God was just about to take a rest beneath a shady tree when he spotted a man (doubtless with a moustache and a comfortable paunch, at least that’s how I’ve always imagined him), snoring. He hadn’t been present at the distribution, and God was surprised. He woke him up and asked what he was doing here and why he wasn’t interested in having a homeland of his own. The man smiled amiably (perhaps he had already permitted himself a glass or two of red wine) and said (here there are different versions of the legend, but let’s agree on this one) that he was quite content as he was, the sun was shining, it was a gorgeous day, and he would settle for whatever God had left over for him. And God, gracious as ever, impressed by the man’s nonchalance and utter lack of ambition, gave him his very own holiday paradise, which is to say: Georgia, the country you, Brilka, and I, and most of the people I will tell of in our story, are from.
What I’m trying to say is this: bear in mind that, in our country, this nonchalance (that is, laziness) and lack of ambition (lack of arguments) are considered truly noble characteristics. Bear in mind also that a profound identification with God (the Orthodox God, of course, and no other) does not prevent the people of our country from believing in everything that has even the slightest hint of the mysterious, legendary, or fairytale about it — and this is by no means restricted to the Bible. Giants in the mountains, house spirits, the evil eye that can plunge a man into misfortune, black cats and the curse that goes with them, the power of coffee grounds, the truth that only the cards reveal (you said that nowadays people even sprinkle new cars with holy water in the hope it will keep them accident-free).
The country, once golden Colchis, that had to surrender the secret of love to the Greeks in the shape of the Golden Fleece because the king’s wayward daughter, Medea, so lovestruck she had lost her mind, commanded it.
The country that encourages in its inhabitants endearing traits like the sacred virtue of hospitality, and less endearing traits, like laziness, opportunism, and conformism (this is certainly not the perception of the majority — you and I agree on this, too).
The country in whose language there is no gender (which certainly does not equate to equal rights).
The country that, in the last century, after a hundred and thirty-five years of tsarist Russian patronage, managed to establish a democracy for precisely four years before it was toppled again by the mostly Russian but also Georgian Bolsheviks, and proclaimed the Socialist Republic of Georgia and thus a constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
The country that then remained in this union for the next seventy years. There followed numerous upheavals, bloodily suppressed demonstrations, several civil wars, and, finally, the long-awaited democracy — though that designation has remained a question of perspective and interpretation.
I think that our country can really be very funny (by which I mean not only tragic). That in our country forgetfulness, too, is very possible, in combination with repression. Repression of our own wounds, our own mistakes, but also of unjustly inflicted pain, oppression, losses. In spite of these, we raise our glasses and laugh. I think that’s impressive, I really do, in view of the not very pleasant things the past century brought with it, the consequences of which people still suffer today (though I can already hear you contradict me!).
It’s a country from which, in addition to the great executioners of the twentieth century, many wonderful people also come, people I personally have loved and still love very much. A country that is still mourning its Golden Age, from the tenth to the thirteenth century, and hopes one day to recover its former glory (yes, in our country progress is always simultaneously retrogression).
Traditions seem a pale reflection of what they once were. The pursuit of freedom is like a senseless quest for uncertain shores because, these past twenty years especially, we haven’t even been able to agree on what exactly it is we mean by freedom. And so, today, the country where I came into the world thirty-two years ago is like a king who still sits in a glittering crown and magnificent robe, issuing commands, presiding over his realm, not realising that his entire court has long since fled and he is alone.
Don’t cause any trouble — that’s the first commandment in this country. You said this to me once, on our journey, and I made a note of it (I made a note of everything you said to me on our journey, Brilka).
To which I’ll add:
Live as your parents lived; be seldom — better, never — alone. Being alone is dangerous and unprofitable. This country idolises community and mistrusts loners. Appear in cliques, with friends, in family or interest groups — you’re worth very little on your own.
Procreate. We’re a small country and we have to survive. (This commandment ranks alongside the first commandment.)
Always be proud of your country, never forget your language, find foreign countries, whichever they may be, beautiful, exciting, and interesting, but never, never, never better than your home.
Always find quirks and characteristics among the people of other nations that in Georgia would be, to say the least, disgraceful, and get worked up about them: general stinginess (that is, the reluctance to spend all your money for the benefit of the community); lack of hospitality (that is, the reluctance to reorganise your entire life whenever anyone comes to visit); insufficient willingness to drink and eat (that is, the inability to drink to the point of unconsciousness); lack of musical talent — characteristics like these.
Let your behaviour tend towards openness, tolerance, understanding, and interest in other cultures, provided they respect and always affirm the specialness and uniqueness of your homeland.
Be religious, go to church, don’t question anything related to the Orthodox Church, don’t think for yourself, cross yourself every time you see a church (very en vogue, you said!) — so about ten thousand times a day if you’re in the capital. Don’t criticise anything sacred, which is pretty much everything that has anything to do with our country.
Be bright and cheerful, because that’s this country’s mentality, and we don’t like gloomy people in our sunny Georgia. You’ll be all too familiar with that, too.
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.
Finally, I want to add that, despite my years of struggling both for and with this country, I have not managed to replace it, to drive it out of me like an evil spirit that beset me. No ritual purification, no repression mechanism has yet been of any assistance. Because everywhere I went, travelling further and further from my country, I was searching for the squandered, scattered, wasted, unused love I’d left behind.
Yes — it’s a country that doesn’t want to show any ambition, that would ideally like to have everything handed to it on a plate because its people are so lovely, so nice, so happy and cheerful, and capable (on a good day) of putting a smile on the face of the world.
In this country, then, I came into the world, on 8 November 1974. A world that was too busy with other things to pay much attention to my arrival. The Watergate scandal, the anti-Vietnam-War campaigns, the military coup in Greece, the oil crisis, and Elvis were keeping the western world on its toes, while the eastern world was mired in dull stagnation under Brezhnev and the Soviet nomenklatura. A stagnation that consisted of people preserving power by all possible means, thereby rejecting any kind of reform, while increasingly closing their eyes to the black market and the burgeoning corruption.
Either way, people in both parts of the world were listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ for the first time. In the West, openly; secretly in the East.
And Vysotsky was to sing about those times:
The eternal circus
where promises burst
like soap bubbles:
rejoice, if you can.
Nothing but words.
I don’t like any of this,
it makes me sick.
Apart from my birth, and my sister’s fall, nothing special happened that day. Except, perhaps, for the fact that, on this day, my mother finally lost her patience in the eternal battle with her father and her eternal hope for the understanding of her female relatives, and started screaming.
‘Are you a whore?’ my grandfather is said to have yelled at her; and my mother, weeping, is said to have screamed back, ‘I might as well be, the way you treat me!’
Two hours later, she went into labour.
Parties to the conflict: my domineering grandfather, my infantile grandmother, and my mother, increasingly losing control of her own life.
The other unusual event that day, right before the contractions began, was my three-and-a-half-year-old sister’s concussion.
A few days earlier, she had visited the nearby stud farm with our grandfather and fallen in love with the Arab horses and Dagestani ponies there; so on the day I was born, my grandfather had sat her on a pony and was just holding her lightly by the waist when the pony suddenly broke free and threw the little girl off. It happened so fast that my grandfather failed to catch her.
She fell, and crashed like a heavy pumpkin to the ground, which was lined with straw, but hard enough for my soft and rosy sister.
As my grandfather was throwing himself on his granddaughter in desperation, blaming the horse breeders and threatening to close ‘the whole organisation’ down, my mother — upset by the fight and by the hurtful words that would echo for a long time in the ‘Green House’, my childhood home — was starting to groan. My grandmother, who during this kind of noisy argument — and there were many — between her husband and her daughter would make a show of acting as a kind of umpire, but only inflamed both parties’ anger by refusing to take sides, immediately ran into the kitchen where my mother was sitting and reached, without a word, for the massive telephone that hung on the kitchen wall.
The labour lasted precisely eight hours.
At the same moment that my mother, accompanied by her corpulent mother, was heading for the hospital in the village, my sister Daria, usually called Daro, Dari, or Dariko, was also being rushed to hospital.
My grandfather leapt into his daughter’s white Lada — because his beloved Chaika (the ‘Seagull’, officially a GAZ-13 reserved for the Soviet elite) was too slow for the country roads — and raced to the best Tbilisi hospital, where it was certified that Daria had a slight concussion. And, a few kilometres away and a few hours later, that I had come into the world.
My noisy crying compelled my exhausted mother to raise her head, look at me, and realise that I didn’t resemble anyone, before falling back again on what appeared to be a rather makeshift birthing stool.
My grandmother was the first person to hold me while fully conscious. I was, she declared, ‘a baby with a preternaturally developed need for harmony’: after all, I had come into the world in the middle of an argument.
As far as the need for harmony was concerned, she couldn’t have been more wrong.
My grandfather, who had transported my sister home again from the hospital — she had been prescribed bed rest — received by telephone the news that I, ‘scrawny and dark-haired’, had now arrived and was blessed with ‘robust health’. He sat down on the terrace, wrapped himself in his old sailor’s jacket, which my sister and I were to squabble over so often, and shook his head.
While his mother baked a welcoming cake, fetched her favourite sour cherry liqueur from the cellar, and planned a birthday party, my grandfather sat there, not moving, stunned by his daughter’s fresh disgrace, unable to do anything but shake his head repeatedly. My birth forced him once again to bestow his own family name — Jashi — upon a granddaughter, because I was conceived out of wedlock. And this time not just with a deserter and traitor, like my sister’s progenitor, but with a man who was, quite simply, a criminal, in prison at the time of my birth.
‘This child is a product of Elene’s shamelessness and depravity, sealing my conclusive defeat in the battle for her honour, so I have absolutely no reason to be happy, or to celebrate anything at all. Even if it’s not her fault, the girl is the embodiment of all the ills her mother has brought down upon us.’ This was his first sentence, uttered with governmental finality after repeated demands from his mother — my great-grandmother — to please show some reaction to the arrival of his second grandchild.
Well, in this he wasn’t too far wrong, and, given the circumstances into which I was born, I can’t hold his words against him.
During the five days I spent in hospital with my mother, where my grandmother visited her daughter every day bringing chicken soup and pickled vegetables, my grandfather stayed at home and kept watch at Daria’s bedside. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to get up, so he kept her entertained with all sorts of stories, games, cartoons (he put a television set in her room specially); and Daria knew nothing of my existence, while my mother knew nothing of her first-born’s concussion.
Daria was the idolised, adored child in our powerful grandfather’s kingdom, destined to be worshipped and looked upon with wonder. Until she … But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before then, many years were to pass in which she performed brilliantly in the role of universally admired jewel.
Yet despite these circumstances — the extreme contrast in the division of roles that our grandfather, the head of the family, assigned to us from the very beginning — I had secured one advantage forever the day I was brought home from the village hospital: I had the crazy, unconditional love of my great-grandmother Stasia all to myself. She belonged to me and me alone. Great-Grandmother gave me the love she’d denied everyone else for decades; had given only frugally, in small doses, covertly, almost hesitantly, and, above all, not to her own son. But she gave it to me now: belligerently, loudly, almost obsessively, childishly, extravagantly. As if for all these years she had just been waiting for my arrival; as if she had been saving herself for me.
The day they brought me home, scrawny, shrivelled, and not the slightest bit sweet, was the day Anastasia, to give her full name, left her soundproof castle and emerged into the daylight to greet my ugly, humble self. No longer was she half-hearted and unworldly, as had been her way for so many years; something changed abruptly the minute she took me in her arms and closed her eyes.
And when she awoke from this somnambulistic state and finally inspected her great-granddaughter, she said: ‘This is a different child. A special one. She needs a lot of protection and a lot of freedom.’
And everyone slapped their palms to their foreheads and groaned. The mad old lady had come back to life, and they weren’t really sure whether this was a good thing or a disaster.
Initially, I, too, was permitted to idolise my older sister.
In my former life, I was often asked whether I suffered because of her beauty, her popularity, the general admiration she received. But it wasn’t like that. Despite all the difficulties that accompanied Daria and me in our childhood and adolescence; although we tormented, almost tortured, one another, and found it very hard to forgive each other’s failings, all this was only because of our incandescent love for one another.
When I was little, I always fell silent as soon as Daria approached, as soon as she contemplated touching my head or tickling my nose. I couldn’t have done anything but idolise Daria, just like everyone else around us. Perhaps at this point I ought to try to explain her cruel, evident allure by saying that Daria had golden hair. And I mean really golden. Or perhaps that Daria had different-coloured eyes, incredibly different and incredibly fascinating, one a crystalline blue, the other hazelnut brown. That she had a captivating smile and an unusually deep, throaty voice for such a golden child, like that of a pudgy, sulky little boy. But that would make it all too easy; it wouldn’t be enough.
Although my grandfather loved Daria so very much and saw my birth as a kind of effrontery because it threatened Daria’s dominion, and although I, too, sensed this, right from the beginning, it made no difference: I sought and needed Daria’s company.
I was an ugly child (and as such you quickly learn to fight to acquire beauty).
Stasia, as Anastasia was always called, had been a striking woman; not as unusually and dizzyingly beautiful as her younger sister Christine, but by the time I was born my great-grandmother’s beauty had transformed into something surreal, dreamy. She had started to rediscover ballet, and, in doing so, to become young again.
We made a really great couple.
Stasia … I owe her so much, even if there were certainly moments in my childhood when I would have liked to reverse her awakening. When her love felt like a curse, and I often wished not to receive this love as strange compensation for the many other deprivations of my childhood. But, all in all, she taught me to live, to dance on a tightrope when everything around me was going up in flames, on a tightrope stretched taut, higher than any tower, poised and fearless — because, when you fall, all you do is stretch out your arms and you’re flying. Thanks to her, I learned to curse (a very underappreciated skill: the ability to curse well in times when the world around you is falling apart). Thanks to her, I learned to look for ways of escaping when there is no escape, to climb the walls when bridges are collapsing, and to laugh like a soldier. Always, and especially when there’s nothing to laugh about.
Thanks to her, I was able to slough off many curses like inconvenient clothes, and thanks to her I was able to see through hypocritical haloes. I owe all this, and much more, to Stasia, with whom everything really began …
One thing Stasia gave me, the thing that perhaps made the most lasting impression on me, is the story of the carpet.
One rainy morning — I was in the second or third year at school — when I’d stayed at home at the Green House because I’d caught a cold, I came across Stasia in the attic, the conversion of which had never been finished. There was an open balcony — wide as a terrace, but without a railing — where we children were always forbidden to set foot, but which was nonetheless our favourite place to spend time, as we often did in secret. Now Stasia was standing on this balcony beating out a moth-eaten carpet, beautifully patterned in various shades of pomegranate red. I’d never seen the carpet before.
‘Stay there. Don’t come any closer!’ she commanded when she saw me.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’ve decided to have this carpet restored.’
‘What does restored mean?’ I asked. I stopped in front of her, fascinated.
‘I’m going to make the old carpet new again and hang it on the wall. The carpet belonged to our grandmother, and Christine inherited it. She never liked it, so she gave it to me, but I never appreciated it either, not until I was old. It’s a very ancient, very valuable tapestry.’
‘You can’t do that, can you, make something old new?’
‘Of course you can. The old thing will become new, so it’ll be different, never quite what it used to be, but that’s not the point of the exercise. It’s better and more interesting when something transforms itself. We’ll make it new, hang it up, and see what happens.’
‘But what for?’ I wanted to know.
‘A carpet is a story. And hidden within it are countless other stories. Come here; be careful, take my hand, yes, that’s it. Now look: do you see the pattern?’
I stared at the colourful ornamentation on the red background.
‘Those are all individual threads. And each individual thread is an individual story. Do you understand what I’m saying?’
I nodded, spellbound, although I wasn’t sure I did understand.
‘You’re a thread, I’m a thread; together we make a little ornamentation, and together with lots of other threads we make a pattern. The threads are all different, differently thick or thin, dyed different colours. The patterns are hard to make out if you look at just one individual thread, but if you look at them together you start to see all sorts of amazing things. Look here, for example. Isn’t that gorgeous? This ornamentation — absolutely marvellous! Then there’s the density and number of knots, the different colour structures — all that creates the texture. I think it’s a very good metaphor. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Carpets are woven from stories. So we have to preserve and take care of them. Even if this one has spent years packed away somewhere for moths to feast on, it must now come to life again and tell us its stories. I’m sure we’re woven in there, too, even if we never suspected it.’
And Stasia beat away at the heavy carpet with all her might.
It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
I don’t know whether I should thank Stasia at this point because, with this knowledge, she more or less condemned me to become addicted to stories and spend years looking obsessively for the stories behind the stories, like the different patterns in a precious carpet.
So I’ll begin here, comforting myself a little, like a fearful child hugging her favourite toy as tightly as she can. Because I am afraid. I don’t know whether I can do myself justice with what I want to try to tell you — whether I can do you justice, Brilka.
And I’m afraid of these stories. These stories that constantly run in parallel, chaotically; that appear in the foreground, conceal themselves, interrupt one another. Because they connect and break through each other, they betray and mislead, they lay tracks, cover them up, and most of all they contain within them hundreds of thousands of other stories.
I don’t know whether I myself have understood everything and recognised the connections, but I have to hope, and — if I must, if the ropes fail and all the bridges collapse — stretch out my arms once again; I have to hope that, if the worst comes to the worst, I will, somehow, fly.
I’ll start with Stasia in order to make my way to you, Brilka.
She came into the world — so I was told — in the coldest winter at the dawn of the twentieth century. She had a headful of hair; you could have plaited it, they said. And with her first cry she was, in fact, already dancing. They said she laughed as she cried, as if she were crying more to reassure the adults, her parents, the midwives, the country doctor, not because she had to.
And they said that with her first steps she was already describing a pas de deux. And that she loved chocolate, always. And that before she was able to say ‘Father’ she was babbling Madame Butterfly. And that she discovered the gramophone at an early age and played the latest records before she could write and read properly, singing and dancing along. And that Eleonora Duse was her favourite. And that she was more nimble and eloquent than either of her sisters. And the cleverest and the most cheerful.
But people say all kinds of things when they tell stories like these.
She loved books and the fine arts, they said, but above all it was in dancing that she spent her days. And they said it was in dancing that she turned the head of the White Guard lieutenant, at the mayor’s New Year ball, her first ball; impudent, gamine she seemed then, they said, you might have thought almost provocative. And the plaits: she had braided her long plaits around her head, they shone round her narrow head like a halo, around her porcelain brow. She shone, they said, so brightly that he fell in love with her light. Undying love, of course; forever, of course.
And they say that, of all the women, she was the best at riding astride, and that this impressed the lieutenant. Considerably. And that she was interested in the bluestockings and wanted to train as a dancer, in Paris, at the Ballets Russes. She was seventeen then; he asked for her hand, then the Revolution came and threatened to tear them apart. Shortly before he left for Russia, she grew afraid and forgot the Ballets Russes and the bluestockings, and married him. In the little church, in the presence of two of her sisters and the priest Seraphim. They spent the wedding night in a guesthouse on the edge of the steppe, near the cave monastery: just the two of them, the night, the cave, the stones. That’s how it was, they said.
Of course, she should have fallen pregnant immediately, that’s what usually happens in stories like these, but not in this one.
Before this, they said, she had repeatedly asked her father, the chocolate-maker, to give her permission to go to Paris and study the fine art of dance. He had always replied that it was improper to ride astride, and most certainly improper to perform vulgar bodily contortions in a foreign city.
So she travelled to Petrograd, to her husband, and not to Paris.
And it was only much later, they said, after many peregrinations and much suffering, that she returned to the warmth of her homeland.
To the land where, decades later, I, too, would be born; and you, Brilka. And this is where, for now, legend ends and facts begin. Their child, the eldest child she bore, grew to manhood and fathered a daughter. The daughter grew to womanhood and bore Daria and me. And Daria had you, Brilka. The women, the lieutenants, the daughters and sons are dead, and the legend, you, and I are alive. So we must try to make something of this.