Translation Charlotte Collins
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-seven-year-old man, a fiercely talented musician in the process of squandering his talent on impulses, 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, hurl rejection in its teeth and set off in search of another beginning for herself, for her story.
Or you can go way, way back, to the root of everything, and begin there.
Or you start the story with all three beginnings at once.
At the moment when Aman Baron, whom most people knew as ‘the Baron’, or simply ‘Baron’, was confessing that he loved me—with heartbreaking intensity, unbearable lightness, screamingly loudly, speechlessly silent, with a love that was slightly unhealthy, enfeebled, devoid of illusions, determinedly tough—my twelve-year-old niece Brilka was leaving her hotel in Amsterdam on her way to the train station. She had with her nothing but a small sports 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 his 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 the tour he was leaving on 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, 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 chosen 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 the continent of indifference. I don’t know what she saw that made her smile as she left the city of tiny 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-seven years old.
I kissed myself out of my enchanted sleep.
And 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 canned beer and loneliness, while several hundred kilometres away her unsuspecting aunt feigned love with a twenty-seven-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 had once defined my life. I went into the kitchen, smoked a cigarette and stared out of the window. It had stopped raining, and somehow I knew that something 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. Illuminating my own tunnel. But the tunnel remained: the lights had only been able to comfort me briefly, temporarily.
Perhaps it should also 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 like a boy’s and John Lennon glasses, was wearing old jeans and a lumberjack shirt, had perfectly round cocoa-bean eyes 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 giving a guest performance in Amsterdam; she danced the male roles, because she was a little 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 women’s 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 always threatened to die if I didn’t return soon to the homeland I 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, goddammit, 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 of 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 of which I was only too well aware 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 Austrian 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 noted down your name.’
‘Can’t they just put her on a plane?’
‘Okay, I’m already 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 are reasons for all of it, but then I’d have to start the story somewhere else entirely.
My name is Niza. My name 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’s 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 the others forgot her real name.
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—everyone 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, but also 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, 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 is identified with infinity, constant recurrence. I am giving my eight to you.
A century connects us. A red century. For ever and eight. Your turn, Brilka. I’ve adopted your heart. I’ve cast mine away. Accept my eight.
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 8th November 1973, in an otherwise insignificant village clinic near Tbilisi, Georgia.
It’s 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 in the course of the past century, thanks to a multitude of civil wars, stupid political decisions, hate-filled conflicts, but a beautiful 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 guessed it—with 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: bear in mind that in our country this nonchalance (i.e. 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 this 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 (nowadays, you said, people even have new cars sprinkled 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).
A country that in the last century, after a hundred and thirty-five years of Tsarist and 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 then remained in this union for the next seventy years.
After which came 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 twentieth century, many wonderful people also come, people I personally have loved and still love very much. Some have fled, some left in search of something and lost their way, some are no longer alive, some have returned, some have already seen their best days or hope yet to see them, but most of them nobody knows.
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 eighteen 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 told me that 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 the 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, i.e. the reluctance to spend all your money for the benefit of the community; lack of hospitality, i.e. the reluctance to reorganise your entire life whenever anyone comes to visit; insufficient willingness to drink and eat, i.e. 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 (again, these past eighteen years), 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 do 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 as if beset by an evil spirit. No ritual purification, no repression mechanism has yet been of any assistance. Because everywhere I went, travelling ever further from my country, I was searching for the squandered, scattered, wasted, unused love I left behind.
Nino’s writing can have this fantastic torrential quality, a wildness—in the characters, in the things that happen to them, and in the rhythm of prose. The translation had to convey this particular energy. I found myself stepping back, allowing the energy to dictate what happened on the page, holding the reins a little more loosely than usual; then I spent a very long time editing and re-editing, playing with it, changing my mind, and going back to the original to make sure I’d caught the feel of a sentence.
I’m currently co-translating the whole book with Ruth Martin. I particularly wanted to work with Ruth on this as we’d met and worked together at the BCLT summer school in 2012, where we translated excerpts from Nino’s previous novel, My Gentle Twin. I think we share the same approach; our voices are quite similar, as are our choices. We also get on very well and find it easy to discuss things, which makes the collaborative process a real pleasure.
We’ve divided the different ‘books’, or chapters, up between us so that we’re translating approximately half each. When we finish we swap, do a close edit of each other’s sections, swap back, discuss, accept or reject, and then I give it a final sweep. We aim to spend a few weeks together next spring so we can do at least some of this at the same table.
Excerpted from Das achte Leben (Für Brilka) © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2014
Charlotte Collins is translating the novel with Ruth Martin, scheduled to be published as The Eighth Life by Scribe UK in 2017.