The Eighth Life (for Brilka) is a phenomenal novel – right up there with the best of the best. If it’s not my all-time favourite novel (and it might be) then it must be in the top three or four.
Set over more than a hundred years in Georgia, we follow six generations of the Jashi family. There is the patriarch, a chocolate maker who creates a mystical recipe for hot chocolate that tastes divine but curses those who drink it. Generation after generation, the Jashis partake of the chocolate.
The hundred years span the Great October Socialist Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Great Patriotic War, the Czech uprisings, Perestroika, Georgian Independence and all the political turmoil in between. Readers with some knowledge of Soviet history will be ticking off the major events one by one. Each turbulent event forms its own story, but the Jashi line continues through the process, impacted by the waves from previous events. And casting a long shadow through the century is the Little Big Man, the Georgian head of the NKVD who is only named in the very last pages of the novel.
The fate of the Jashis seems to be a mirror for the fate of Georgia. Full of promise; starting advantages and natural resources. Then falling into disastrous relationships. Flourishing when playing by others’ rules but falling apart when given the freedom to set its own direction. This is set alongside the fate of the Eristavi family, their lives intertwined with the Jashis, who do not have the Jashi’s connections and do not fit comfortably in the system.
The novel focuses on the lives of seven women in the Jashi line, but each of these seven sections includes backstory; side stories; and continues the story of previous baton-holders. There is enough reference back to remind the reader of previous episodes although, inevitably in a book of nearly 1000 pages and with such an immense sweep of time, some of the references back feel like the ghosts of an ancient time.
The ease with which the story skips back and forth; the asides from the narrator (Niza – herself not born during most of the story she narrates) to the young Brilka in the present day; the leitmotif of the chocolate – it utterly breathtaking. The willingness of the novel to embrace tragedy – stories don’t always have happy endings and villains don’t always get their just deserts – is unusual but refreshingly so. And just as the tragedy brings real and convincing emotion, so too does the love and the laughter that run through the novel.
This is a long novel, but it never feels slow. The stories are told with pace and verve; they are significantly different to one another; the characters are well enough delineated that it never feels repetitive. The length is just because there is a lot of story to tell, and it is told so wonderfully that the effort is in putting the novel down, not picking it up.
Many novels have grand ambitions. They seldom bring it off. But The Eighth Life manages it without breaking sweat. Nothing feels forced, nothing feels flashy. It is just – like the chocolate – sheer perfection.
Farewell, Mama Odessa is a musing on migration, displacement and the strange world of Soviet bureaucracy.
The blurb speaks of telling the stories of adjustment to a new life in the free world. The focus, though, is very much more on the circumstances that led to two Jewish men independently to seek to emigrate to the West: Boris, a young journalist who is unable to report as he would wish on the failings of the state; and Yurik, an average guy who has been caught with stolen leather to support his private sideline of making shoes. Fully half the book is taken with the back stories and an exploration of bureaucracy; the anti-semitic discrimination; and everyday life in Odessa. The narrative pretty much ends then with the journey out. The remaining pages comprise letters from Uncle Ilya, an emigre who tells Boris of his first experiences in the west; and more Kafkaesque vignettes of life back in the USSR of the various fellow emigres that Boris and Yurik meet.
The book is pitched as a novel, but there are elements of it that feel like short stories, comic sketches, and political essay.
This might sound heavy going, but the tone is light wry humour. And the political tone is more neutral than one might expect. The Soviet Union is portrayed as bureaucratic and inefficient; there is a sense that people are not in full control of their destiny and that their lives could be upturned on a whim, but that most people were comradely and decent. Bureaucrats could be bribed and rules could be played. Meanwhile, life in the west was neither as bountiful nor as venal as the emigres had expected.
While the narrative follows Boris and Yurik, the most interesting elements are Uncle Ilya’s letters. These offer a depth of reflection that one suspects is Emil Draitser’s own perspective (he says in his foreword that both Boris and Ilya represent his own experience at different stages of his emigration journey). This is a perspective of part bemusement and part rapid learning. There are some teachable moments, but mostly an understanding that east and west are not poles apart; that the human instinct for self-preservation is universal and that emigres can get homesick, even when they have supposedly fled from oppression and ended up in the free world.
Farewell, Mama Odessa is an odd book, but one that is both enlightening and rewarding.
Defectors. 1961 - a community of Western double agents, exposed and living in exile in Moscow. Notorious back home, avoided in Moscow. As one of them says, Moscow is the kind of place where you keep top yourself. So they meet up every night in hotel bars, discussing old times and trying to trap one another into making damaging statements. The spectre of Stalin hangs over everything; nobody quite sure whether Khrushchev’s new freedoms are real or not.
The exception is Frank Weeks. A former CIA agent, he has found a new role as a senior KGB officer, moving with apparent ease and confidence in Soviet Society. He speaks with confidence about the rules that the KGB must follow - hidden rules, unfair rules, but rules that he knows and navigates.
Frank has written a book about his life before and after his defection some 12 years earlier. Both the KGB and CIA seem willing to let the book loose into the wild, but Frank has asked his brother Simon, a publisher in the States, to come to Moscow to edit the text. This provides Simon and Frank with an opportunity to renew family ties while Frank’s KGB batman Boris providers a curious mixture of concierge and surveillance services. And needless to say, there is a Cold War plot of intrigue and betrayal that is well done.
The real strength of Defectors, though, is the portrayal both of the limbo faced by the western defectors, and by the privileged life of the KGB within the “bubble” they have created for themselves. They have access to luxurious restaurants, theatres, dachas, travel, the finest rooms in the finest hotels, cars, trains, hairdressers... They live with an acceptance that they are watched; they know and befriend the watchers. They accept that they may have to report on friends and colleagues and sometimes this will not end well, but they convince themselves that this is a necessary thing that would have happened anyway. And they also have to accept a rigid pecking order and clearly scaled privileges that come with increased status.
The secondary strength is the gradual ratcheting up of the suspense. What starts out as a very gentle - and literal - walk in the park becomes more and more tense until we reach a truly heart stopping and frenetic end. All the time, trying to guess who is on which side. That’s the thing with double agents - you can never tell which side they are on, and perhaps they themselves never really know. At least one of the characters - Gareth Jones, a gay British dandy - just seems to enjoy betrayal for its own sake.
Defectors is a bit of an anachronism, being a Cold War thriller nearly thirty years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. But in focusing on the Western defectors, it does something new; it breathes life into an already over-populated and rapidly dating genre in a way that would make Le Carre envious.
It’s a little known fact that during the Communist era, a small cohort of western migrants lived in the USSR. Not all were former spies; some were trade unionists and socialist activists who believed in the project and felt alienated in their homelands. And, of course, their families…
What the Light Reveals tells the story of one such family. It is the 1950s. Conrad Murphy is an Australian socialist whose name features in a Soviet document that was passed to ASIO by a Soviet double agent. He is then summoned to give evidence to the Inquiry into Soviet Espionage, at which point his life in Australia starts to unravel. He becomes practically unemployable and depends on family for handouts. His wife Ruby wants to support the family but with two young children it is not easy. The USSR offers hope for a better future.
Then the narrative switches to the early 1970s. Conrad, Ruby and the two boys are living in an apartment in Moscow. It is better than many in Moscow, but it’s not great. Conrad has a car, offered as both a freedom and a means of keeping track of him. Culturally, Conrad and Ruby are misfits – they are not trusted as Russians, and not granted the freedoms of foreigners. They are free to leave whenever they want, indeed they believe that if things go wrong they would be deported rather than prosecuted, but they have become disconnected from any life outside Russia. Conrad puts a brave face on things, but Ruby hankers after Melbourne. The boys, meanwhile, are almost completely Russian in their mannerisms, even if their names and heritage keep them apart from their classmates. This is brought into particular relief when Alex meets Sinead, an Irish student at the State University who is allowed the real freedoms of the foreigner.
The story, slowly unfolding, is tragic. The Murphys are caught in a limbo along with a handful of other western ex-pats – unsure whether to live a lie and pretend that everything is for the best, or whether to cut and run. And then family secrets and Conrad’s poor health combine to bring matters to a head.
The writing is fantastic. The evocation of the Soviet Union as a place to live, a place where people worked, studied, lived and loved is spot on. This is not a land of snow and spies, it is not a place where people are afraid to grumble. Rather, it is a place of bureaucracies and petty resentments; informants serving more as irritants than sources of terror. Although, when needed, the terror is capable of rising from the mundanity of everyday life.
What the Light Reveals is a story of wasted life, trust and mistrust, belonging and not-belonging. There are clever parallels between the Murphys’ relationship with Russia and the relationships within their own family and their tiny circle of friends and comrades. There is the tawdriness of the loyalty to ideals, embodied in a worthless badge presented to Conrad as a hero worker for his services to translating engineering manuals. The Moscow adventure has brought Conrad and Ruby absolutely nothing, and at huge human cost.
The ending, the return to Melbourne, brings sunshine and relief – the smell of barbecues and the sound of the waves lapping the bay-beach at St Kilda. The past 15 years represent an aberration, a period of statis where the world developed but the Murphys merely aged.
This is a terrific novel; the perfect length and with a perfect pace. The characters are real and flawed; the world is three dimensional; the contrasts are evoked with brilliance. It’s not so much the story – it has only one major shock – it is the way it is told that makes this such an outstanding work of fiction.
The Zoo is a farcical romp through the last days of Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union.
Yuri is a twelve year old boy who claims to have suffered some form of brain damage as a child, leaving him a functional idiot. He can see everything that goes on around him, he can learn facts, but he hasn’t the guile to understand people. Yuri takes everyone at face value, all the time. By a quirk of fate, he ends up meeting Stalin who likes having a confidant he can trust completely. So he immediately appoints Yuri to be his food taster, thereby necessitating Yuri’s witnessing of the last days of the Great Leader’s life.
And this is not a glamorous end to a glorious life. Basically, Stalin is holed up in his dacha with this inner circle (Beria, Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov), all of whom want to usurp the crown. These five do not like each other, they do not trust each other, but they end up spending all their time together watching films and playing drinking games. The plotting, aside from the crazy drunken antics, the stunt doubles follows Harrison E. Salisbury’s 1983 account of Stalin’s last days faithfully. It is a surprise – indeed a frustration – then that Christopher Wilson insists on using near approximations of the protagonists real names. Stalin (man of steel) becomes Iron-Man; Beria becomes Bruhah; Molotov especially irritatingly becomes Motolov, etc. It feels like it is cheapening what could otherwise have felt like a satire to take seriously.
Because, underneath all the drunken japes, this is a pretty good study of the paranoia of a brutal regime waiting for its leader to die. As a kitchen cabinet, the regime has the power of life and death over anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path, but yet remains powerless to bring about any meaningful social or economic change. Stalin himself is portrayed as a tired, sick and unsatisfied man, troubled about the legacy he would leave. He was lonely and desperate for unguarded, non-judgemental company, yet he had created a world in which only an idiot boy could fulfil that function. If anything, Yuri’s role was that of the mediaeval court fool, speaking truth to a king by dressing it up as wit.
In a neat story arc, we see Yuri come from ordinary society to mix with the elite; and then we see him return to ordinary society. It feels like completing a circle, albeit a rather sad circle because, as Khrushchev says to Yuri: “Poor child… You see it all. Yet you understand nothing”. But in a way Yuri inhabits a fool’s paradise. Right up to the end, as his world disintegrates around him, Yuri still remains optimistic.
This really is a great read. Short, lively, humorous but thoughtful. Yuri’s narrative voice is fabulous and his perpetual innocence is captivating. Stalin’s inner circle is well drawn and Beria, in particular, is a standout character – vain, foppish, ambitious and sadistic. He is a well-rounded psychopath. Given the way history played out, it might have been interesting to dwell just a little more on the character of Khrushchev whom history has treated with affection – it would have been nice to explore his role in the purges, his role in the Ukraine and his personal relationship with Stalin a little more closely. But this is a minor complaint in a tight and entertaining novel.