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SOBRE A DEFICIÊNCIA VISUAL


The Eighth Life

Nino Haratischvili

excerpt

Blind Girl Playing the Piano - foto de Lewis Hine
Blind Girl Playing the Piano - photo by Lewis Hine

 

Beat the fascists to death!
POSTER SLOGAN

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 Street.

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 beautifully.’

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 music.

‘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 …’

‘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.

‘May I?’

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.’

‘Mid-forties?’

‘I don’t know myself any more. I’ve stopped counting.’

‘I’m fourteen.’

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 her dream.

‘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.

‘But …’

‘My mother worked for the Road. We got by.’

‘You have to come with me.’

‘Where?’

‘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.’

‘Stand up.’

‘I don’t have a coat. I can’t go outside.’

‘I’ll give you mine. You have to come with me, now.’

‘But …’

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 out.

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 not years.’

‘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 location.

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 adopt her.

‘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?’

‘If …’

‘I’ll find him.’

‘That I wish him happiness.’

‘That’s all?’

‘That I haven’t forgotten him.’

‘And?’

‘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.

The End

 

The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili review – a landmark epic  | Fiction in translation | The Guardian

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.
 
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theeighthlife Instagram posts - Gramho.com
excerpt of
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.

   


 

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27.Mai.2021
Maria José Alegre