Blind Girl Playing the Piano - photo by Lewis Hine
Beat the fascists to death!
Less than forty kilometres away, a gaunt, dark-haired woman crept out onto
the street. Her hands were purple and her eyes sunk deep in their sockets; her
hair was thin, her boots full of holes, her back bent. She dragged herself out
of the dark entrance of one of the houses and onto a cobbled street, staggered
in the direction of Nevsky Prospekt, stopped, took several deep breaths. She was
heading for the post office on Karavannaya Street, where a registration office
had recently been set up to compile an evacuation list.
The past month had robbed her of her remaining strength. She barely managed to
leave the apartment, negotiate the stairs, or survive the interminable queues
for food rations. However, the news that the siege had been broken had conjured
a smile to her lips, and she had decided to go to the registration office again.
Surely just one look at her would be enough to put her at the top of the list.
She had been coughing blood for some time now, but she didn’t want to think
about that. She had to make it there; she had to get to the post office.
Perhaps she really had lost her mind, like the street-sweeper last month, who
had stood naked in the street shouting obscenities. She didn’t know what day it
was, or what else was going on in the world. In some of her daydreams she
hallucinated that the rest of the world had long since ceased to exist, that
Leningrad was the last island of survivors. Today, though, Ida was struggling to
banish all her destructive thoughts and concentrate on getting to Karavannaya
The sky was not as dusty, powdery, and overcast as it usually was at this time
of year. A few rays of sun were even shimmering through, and beneath the hard
ice the Neva had begun to flow again. A couple of ragged children ran past. A
woman walking in front of her was pushing a pram, as if it were a perfectly
ordinary day in a perfectly ordinary town, but when she drew closer, Ida saw
that the pram was full of stones. She heard a car in the distance: a good sign —
there must be petrol again.
The little junk shop on her street had reopened its doors; another good sign,
she thought. Even if there was nothing to buy there.
You really could have supposed that this was a perfectly ordinary day in a
perfectly ordinary town. Perhaps she ought to persuade herself that this was
actually the case. Perhaps that was her best chance of holding on to what
remained of her wits; but the ghostly silence that hung over the city made her
doubt this possibility. She stopped, breathed deeply, swallowed; her mouth was
dry, her eyes burned, she was barely accustomed to daylight any more. In her
apartment she kept the curtains closed, initially on account of the air raids,
then out of habit; now she could no longer imagine it any other way.
The last three times she hadn’t even gone down to the bunker when the air raid
siren went off; she’d been unable to summon either the necessary strength or the
necessary hope. Back in the first year of the blockade there had been old people
who had stayed in their apartments despite the alarm. Ida used to get upset
about these people; back then, she had still possessed the optimism and the
memories necessary to want to survive. Now she herself was one of these people.
Now she too was one of these mummies whom both life and the war passed by.
On Nevsky Prospekt she stopped. She had caught sight of her reflection in the
window of an old shop, long since closed. She had known this street so well,
before, in her old life; now she couldn’t even begin to remember what shop had
been here. Perhaps the upmarket fabric shop, or the bookshop … What was the
point, anyway, in reconstructing something that would never be that way again?
The question was banished by a vague memory: the memory of his face. Or what her
memory had turned it into. Did he still look so touchingly young, in his
dark-blue uniform with the white-gold braid on collar and sleeve? Did he still
have that thick, wavy hair? Could he still laugh with such abandon? Utterly
childlike, utterly free, utterly unforced, forgetting his habitual seriousness?
Was he still so eager to please, to be acknowledged and accepted by those in
power? What was he afraid of? Had she become the same indelible memory for him
that he was for her?
On her darkest days, Ida pictured Kostya’s death. Believed he was already dead.
Wallowed in this fateful, ghastly certainty. She pictured terrible scenarios:
Kostya, hit by a grenade, falling into the sea; Kostya drowning, or shot,
wounded, bleeding to death on some distant shore.
On better days she put him at the side of a young girl with big doe eyes and
pigtails that hung halfway down her thighs. Pictured him teaching the girl, with
the same devotion, all that she had once taught him.
She turned into a side road. The street sign had disappeared long ago. She knew
the street, but couldn’t remember its name. Suddenly she had to stop again,
because she had heard something; a noise, a sound, something very familiar. It
was music — a piano, definitely. A well-known melody that, like the street, Ida
was unable to place. But she followed it: without thinking what she was doing,
she hurried after the notes. The melody grew clearer and louder with every step.
Where did she know this melody from? What was it? Ah, yes: in another life — or
was it a dream — she had played the piano. She could feel the keys under her
bare, transparent fingers, which had long since lost their rings: the ivory, the
cool, beautiful material of her childhood grand piano.
Once there had been all this, and much more. Now there was shattered debris,
shards of glass, hunger, and the siren that announced the air raids.
It was Grieg. Yes, Ida remembered now. Grieg. The Romantic. The romance of ruin,
she thought. She kept following the music and came to an inner courtyard where
an old house with broken windows had managed to withstand the bombs. A
first-floor window was open; the piano music was coming from this apartment.
Ida entered the dark stairwell and climbed the few steps to a wooden door that
stood ajar. All this time her brain was trying without success to reconstruct
the title of the piece. She knocked, but heard no footsteps; the piece continued
uninterrupted. She peeped through the gap and stepped over the threshold.
She found herself in a spacious hall, empty and damp, with grey, wet patches on
the walls. She followed the Grieg and came to a room with a fox-coloured parquet
floor and a bare mattress in one corner. At the window stood the piano:
undamaged, beautiful, well tuned. A young girl was sitting at it, lost in the
melody, playing the ‘Ballade for Piano in G Minor’ — yes, that was the name of
the piece, she remembered now.
The girl didn’t turn, didn’t look round. From behind, Ida guessed that she
couldn’t be older than fifteen.
‘Excuse me — I heard you playing and I followed the music. You play
Cautiously, Ida approached the pianist. The girl continued to play. She nodded
her head almost imperceptibly.
‘An audience of one, at least. Come in, do come in. I’m afraid I don’t have a
chair; you’ll have to stand. We burned all the furniture when it was so cold.’
The girl didn’t turn round; her fingers continued to dance across the keys
without a single mistake. Ida sensed goose pimples creeping up her arms; it was
disconcerting, as if her skin had forgotten how to feel. Carefully, Ida
positioned herself at the piano, glanced at the girl’s face for the first time —
and shrank back, holding her breath so as not to betray her shock. The girl’s
eyes were missing. There were two dark hollows where her eyes should have been.
But she was smiling.
She was wearing a grey worker’s dress full of holes, and warm felt boots on her
feet. Her thick, light-brown plait hung down her back.
‘I’m practising for my third young musicians’ competition. I was supposed to
travel to London, before …’ said the girl, her body swaying slightly to the
‘You’re going to be a pianist?’ asked Ida, still not quite over the shock.
‘I was supposed to become one, yes.’
The girl stopped abruptly. Her fingers rested on the keys, suddenly quite stiff
and without purpose.
‘You still will, I’m sure. If you’re practising in these conditions.’
‘I wasn’t able to practise for a long time. My mother wouldn’t let me, after …’
‘It was because I was practising that I didn’t make it to the bunker in time. I
was hit by a piece of shrapnel — here, you see …’ The girl turned her blind face
towards Ida, as if she wouldn’t notice otherwise that her eyes were missing.
‘Now Mama is dead, and I can play again.’ The girl spoke with as little emphasis
as if she were talking about the death of a pet.
‘And your father?’
‘He was killed. At Minsk. My brother’s at the front, too, but he’s alive. I know
he is. Sergei’s still alive and he’ll come back, I’m sure of it.’
‘Definitely. Definitely.’ Ida noticed that her voice sounded tender, almost
loving. ‘I like music. I used to think that I’d become a pianist, too.’
‘What stopped you? The war?’
‘Not quite. But something similar,’ said Ida, and laughed. Suddenly the girl got
up from the stool and stood in front of her. She was tall and bony, but not
undernourished. That was a good sign — a very good sign, in fact. The girl
raised her hand.
Ida consented, and the girl touched her face. She ran her fingers gently over
Ida’s features. She touched her mouth, her nose, her eyes, her lips. Ida
shuddered. How long ago was it that someone had last touched her. How worn-out
and terrible, how cold, how rigid, how ancient she must feel. But the girl
didn’t seem to mind.
‘I have to do this so I can imagine a face, and I can often guess a person’s age
as well. Shall I tell you how old you are?’
‘Go on, then.’
‘I don’t know myself any more. I’ve stopped counting.’
The girl said it with pride, as if being fourteen were a great achievement. And
perhaps it was. Perhaps, in this city, it was a great achievement to have
reached your fourteenth year.
‘Do you live here alone?’
‘My cousin is here sometimes. But she has to look after my grandfather; he’s not
well. And she works at the school. But I manage. I’m allowed to play again.
Fortunately we didn’t chop up the piano for firewood. Mother was planning to,
but I wouldn’t let her.’
‘Please, could you go on playing? I haven’t heard music for so long.’
‘You could play with me. Something for four hands.’
‘No, no, I couldn’t; my hands are like claws. It would be horrible. I’d like it
to be beautiful.’
‘As you wish. My teacher once told me that I had a flair for the French
composers. Shall I play something by Debussy? I’m so fond of him. Something from
the Preludes, perhaps?’
‘Whatever you like.’
The girl concentrated, rubbed her hands together, blew into her fists, and began
to play. Ida leaned against the wall and listened, enchanted. She followed the
girl’s playing, and with every note the war was driven from her arms, her body,
her head; she was transported her to another world. A world of brightly lit
cafés and shining boulevards where well-fed people strolled up and down. A place
with purple Chinese lanterns, neat entrances to buildings with furnished
apartments; a place where you could order apple cake with your tea, a place that
smelled of French perfume. Where people wore warm coats and leather gloves.
Where you could go to the cinema or listen to concerts. A place where the girl
playing the piano had a mother, and sparkling green eyes.
‘Sacred Dance. That’s what he called that piece.’
The girl’s voice broke into Ida’s thoughts, brought them abruptly tumbling down.
Ida looked out of the window at the empty courtyard. She remembered that she had
to go to the post office and shook her head, as if trying to rouse herself from
‘Why are you still here? Why weren’t you evacuated long ago?’
‘I wasn’t an invalid back then,’ the girl said. Her directness was both
disarming and somehow brutal.
‘My mother worked for the Road. We got by.’
‘You have to come with me.’
‘To Karavannaya, to the post office. They’re compiling new evacuation lists. The
siege has been broken, haven’t you heard?’
‘I haven’t been out for days, and my cousin hasn’t been able to come.’
‘When was the last time you ate?’
‘My neighbour, Comrade Tashkova, gives me some of her food, because I play for
her son. He’s mentally handicapped, and it soothes him.’
‘I don’t have a coat. I can’t go outside.’
‘I’ll give you mine. You have to come with me, now.’
Ida was already pulling the girl to her feet and putting a coat around her
shoulders. She wrapped her in the scarf that she had knitted herself, and they
went outside. The girl sniffed the air like a dog. Ida took her hand; she pulled
it back and answered proudly, ‘I can manage on my own. I’ve been blind for two
hundred and thirty-four days now. I’m learning.’
The queue was visible from a long way off. They had to wait in line, and by the
time they finally entered the building the light had gone.
Behind a little table — more like a school desk — sat an older woman and a young
Red Army soldier. Ida gave her name.
‘I’ll have to look.’
The woman started leafing through an enormous file. People are happy to burn
pianos, but files are sacrosanct, thought Ida.
‘I was assured in October that I’d be put on the priority list,’ she pointed
After a few minutes the woman did indeed find her name on the list. Ida had to
present her passport and her tattered, crumpled health certificate, which had
been issued to her by a malnourished doctor after a cursory examination: it did
not look good. The woman rummaged again in her mountain of files.
‘February the twelfth. Mikhailovsky Garden. It’ll be a transporter. You may take
no more than one suitcase, and don’t forget your passport. And this document I’m
issuing you with — don’t let it out of your sight.’
When the woman said this, Ida thought she would be sick. The girl just stood
beside her, motionless, as if she hadn’t heard.
‘This girl has to come with me,’ began Ida timidly. ‘She lost her eyesight in an
air raid and her mother’s dead. She has no other relatives, which means she’s a
first-degree invalid.’ Ida tried to speak as neutrally as possible so the girl
didn’t get the impression she pitied her.
The woman slowly raised her head and stared long and hard at the girl. ‘I really
am very sorry, but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do. She has to get on the
list first, like everyone else. They’ve all been waiting for months already, if
‘It’s all right,’ said the girl. Her face betrayed no disappointment.
‘No, it’s not all right!’ Ida shouted suddenly. She was surprised by how loud
her voice was. ‘Nothing is all right. Look at her! This damned war has taken
everything she has, and yet she’s still sitting there, forgotten even by God, in
a cold, empty apartment, playing the piano. She could be an extraordinary
pianist. She has to stay alive, she has to get something to eat, she has to
play! She’s only fourteen!’
The older woman looked at Ida with indifference, as if she was used to
outbursts, breakdowns like these. No one in the queue dared say anything;
everyone was entirely focused on their own survival. The girl was clearly
embarrassed by it all; her head was bowed in shame.
‘Come on, please, let’s go …’
‘No!’ Ida shouted again. ‘You have to get out of here!’
‘Then give her your place, for heaven’s sake, and put yourself on the list
again!’ a one-legged man behind her shouted, visibly annoyed at the delay. For a
moment the room went quiet. Ida said nothing. She looked at the girl.
‘No, for God’s sake — don’t do that!’ the girl blurted out, turning her eyeless
face to Ida.
But Ida was already bending over the desk, and saying to the woman, ‘Please make
out the document in her name. And put me on the next list.’
The girl seized Ida’s hand and tried to drag her away.
‘No, absolutely not, you mustn’t do it. Your hands are alarmingly cold, I can
feel it. You’re not well. You have to leave. My cousin —’
‘Stop it and do as you’re told!’ The customary hardness returned to Ida’s voice.
‘Name!’ said the woman at the table.
‘What’s your name?’ Ida realised she hadn’t asked the girl before now.
‘Ida,’ she said.
‘Your name — I mean yours,’ Ida insisted.
‘Yes: my name is Ida. Ida Efremova.’
‘Well, that’s convenient. So I only have to change the surname and date of
birth,’ said the woman behind the desk.
Ida’s knees buckled.
They spent the days before her departure together, in Ida’s darkened apartment
on Vasilievsky, and in Ida Efremova’s empty apartment; I don’t know its exact
Ida heard music again for the first time since the start of the blockade. The
younger Ida was always ready to play something for the elder, who would first
warm her hands for her by placing them in her armpits: the two of them would
stand like that for a while, until the younger disengaged herself and ran, with
a laugh, to the piano. Then she would play, lost in the music, while Ida stood
beside her with her eyes closed and followed the melody back to her past.
Ida E. spoke incessantly about the future. About sharing an apartment, somewhere
where it was warm; about piano lessons, because Ida E. was sure that, once the
war and the cold were over, the elder Ida would want to play again. She talked
about the hens they could have that would lay eggs every morning, about the
competitions she would take part in, and envisaged herself travelling the world
with Ida as her companion.
One afternoon, as they were standing in the courtyard warming themselves around
a fire the neighbours had lit, Ida E. touched Ida’s shoulder and suggested she
‘I mean, you don’t have any children of your own, and I’m sure you want some. It
would be ideal. Besides, I’m almost grown-up already; you don’t have to change
my nappies or spend sleepless nights with me. You’d have a ready-made child who
can play you beautiful music. What more could you want?’
Ida had to smile at Ida E.’s direct, precocious way of explaining her vision of
their future together. She gave her a tender kiss on the cheek.
Before the girl took Ida’s place on the back of the truck, and seized the
tentative, trembling hand of life, she asked Ida if there were anyone on the
outside she could send a message to: a family member, a friend.
‘Before you join me,’ Ida E. added.
‘I don’t know … Perhaps you might be able to find an officer in the marines —
Jashi is his name, Konstantin, also known as Kostya. If he’s still alive. He
trained here in Leningrad at the Frunze Higher Naval School, and as far as I
know he’s serving in the Baltic Fleet.’
‘And what should I tell him?’
‘I’ll find him.’
‘That I wish him happiness.’
‘That I haven’t forgotten him.’
‘That I … You think of the rest. You have a vivid imagination — embellish it for
me. Tell him something nice. Tell him whatever nice things come into your head.’
‘Right. I will.’ Ida E. nodded firmly.
They put their arms around each other and stood there, motionless, as people
pushed impatiently past them and threw their suitcases into the truck.
‘We’ll see each other again, in May at the latest, in some Kazakh village. And
by then I’ll have tracked down a piano, and found my brother and your sailor.
And until then you must take care of yourself. All right?’ The girl pressed the
tip of her nose against Ida’s and breathed in Ida’s scent. She felt her face
with her fingertips and Ida sensed that at that moment the girl saw her — really
looked at her — that she knew her, for all that she was, all that she had
dreamed and missed out on, all that she had loved and lost, sought and found,
aspired to and failed to achieve, wished for herself and never had, all that she
still hoped for, and feared.
Suddenly she felt something warm, damp, running down her cheek. Ida E. was
crying. Ida wouldn’t have thought it possible, but those dark hollows had come
to life, and tears were running from them.
NINO HARATISCHVILI was born in Georgia in 1983, and is an award-winning
novelist, playwright, and theatre director. 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
was the Winner of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2020 and
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020.
The Eighth Life tells the story of a Georgian family from 1900 to the early part
of the 21st century.From Tbilisi and Moscow to London and Berlin, their lives
are vividly enmeshed with world events, from the rise and fall of the Soviet
empire to the siege of Leningrad and the Prague spring.
THE EIGHTH LIFE
By Nino Haratischvili
Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.
Originally published as "Das achte Leben (Für Brilka)" in German by Frankfurter
Verlagsanstalt GmbH in 2014.
First published in English by Scribe in 2019.
Maria José Alegre