No one was more attuned to the paradoxes of love than Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “Togetherness between two people is an impossibility,” he wrote in Letters to a Young Poet. “But, once the realisation is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them.”
This paradox – of the twinned closeness and alienation in lovers – is at the heart of Nino Haratischvili’s My Soul Twin, her second novel to be translated into English after the huge success of her award-winning The Eighth Life, a 900-page saga that chronicled Georgia’s plight under Soviet occupation and subsequent struggle for independence. Haratischvili writes in German but was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. Longlisted for the International Booker prize, and nicknamed the “Georgian War and Peace”, The Eighth Life was praised for its elegance as much as its heft; Haratischvili brilliantly combined social commentary with finely drawn characterisation to tell a story of Georgia’s Soviet past that had been largely unexamined. Georgians – many still divided over their Soviet legacy – loved it, too.
My Soul Twin, translated by Charlotte Collins, who also co-translated The Eighth Life, takes place largely in modern-day Hamburg and Berlin and follows a Wuthering Heights-style plotline. Stella and Ivo are brought together as children when their parents embark on an affair, and then they too develop a relationship of their own. How to name that relationship remains an unresolved puzzle: are they siblings, lovers, friends, companions, soulmates? All and none of the above, Stella, the book’s narrator, seems to suggest. When Stella talks about who Ivo is to her, the phrase “kind of” is routinely called upon.
Fast forward several years and Stella is happily married to Mark – well, happily in that sort of unhappy suburban way – and they have a boy called Theo. When Ivo, now a journalist, returns after an unexplained absence, everything starts to unravel. Ivo and Stella sleep together before he persuades her to come with him to Georgia, where he is working on a story that mysteriously connects to a traumatic incident in their past. The nature of that incident is only revealed much later, but its aftershocks are visible and violent. Stella and Ivo appear to be both remedy and poison to each other, locked in a perpetual dance between “gentle closeness” and “terrible alienation”.
After the first two thirds that alternate between past and present, the novel finds more of a rhythm when Stella finally agrees to go to Georgia with Ivo. Haratischvili writes beautifully about Tbilisi as a place “lost between something past and something still to come”, its architectural heterogeneity reflecting the many sides of Ivo and Stella’s relationship. The city becomes a romanticised version of what the two could never achieve, a place where two wholes coexist in one: “It seemed to hold the two worlds of Orient and Occident steady, binding them together. It swallowed both, yet was poisoned by neither.”
In Georgia, the novel’s big ideas – the curse of the past, the inheritance of trauma, the compulsion to repeat – converge, and the buried secret of Ivo and Stella’s past is finally revealed. Haratischvili brings us to this point superbly in an edge-of-the-seat finale. Accompanying this, however, are dense psychological diagnoses that err towards overexplanation, the execution diluting the strength of the concepts.
My Soul Twin, released in German more than a decade ago, suffers when held up against The Eighth Life; it is overnarrated and at times lapses into cliche. “Everything had skidded out of control since Ivo reappeared,” says Stella after nearly driving into a lorry around the same time as Ivo’s return. A moment like this is too transparent in its intentions, and what’s more it is unnecessary, given that Haratischvili – who has also worked as a playwright and theatre director – is so strong on the actual drama.
The novel’s final pages recall the book’s opening passage but with subtle differences, as if to say that moving beyond past trauma is possible; new words can be written over life’s seemingly predetermined script. It’s a neat, nuanced conceit and brings to mind the similarly circular ending of The Eighth Life. Haratischvili’s three other novels have yet to be translated into English. I hope they are, and that more of them take place among the “acacias and dust” of Tbilisi. It’s where her writing feels most attuned to complexity and contradiction; it’s here, on familiar ground, that she finds something new.