“The Lack of Light”: A war that eats away at friendships

“The Lack of Light”
A war that eats away at friendships

By Katja Sembritzki

Four friends grow up in post-Soviet Georgia, experience the coup, war and the heroin glut. When they meet again in 2019, one of them is dead, the others are separated by a betrayal. With “The Lack of Light” Nino Haratischwili has written a novel that you cannot put down.

On a hot summer evening in 1987, four girls meet for a test of courage. They break into the Tbilisi Botanical Garden and use a flashlight to find their way to a waterfall. There they climb the rocks and plunge into the pool of water. For Keto, the first-person narrator in Nino Haratischwili’s new novel “The Lack of Light”, this moment is magical, “because together we formed an indestructible force, a community that would not shy away from any challenge”.


Nino Haratischwili became known in 2014 with her almost 1300-page novel “The Eighth Life”, in which she tells the story of a Georgian family throughout the 20th century.

(Photo: picture alliance / TT NEWS AGENCY)

But the unlimited happiness does not last long, the girls grow up in Georgia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The friends are: Dina, the most adventurous and life-hungry of the quartet, who will commit suicide as a young woman on a gym rope. Sensible Ira, who watches over Nene even when she’s already a top prosecutor. Nene, on the other hand, dreams of freedom and love and is forced into marriage by her uncle, one of Tbilisi’s most powerful criminals. Finally, there is the sensitive Keto, who begins to scratch her thighs at the atrocities all around her.

The four have to grow up very quickly in a country ruled by a coup, civil war, corruption and an economy of scarcity. The electricity goes out all the time, and it’s bitterly cold in winter. Often it is about pure survival. They experience first-hand how violence spreads in the streets, how their brothers and friends drift into organized crime and follow a dangerous code of honor. Some die, are murdered or use heroin, which is flooded into the country in large quantities. None of the characters comes out of this time without wounds – whether physical or psychological. Haratischwili, who was born in Tbilisi in 1983 and has lived permanently in Germany since 2003, literally sends her protagonists through hell.

memories in pictures

In order to tell of this catastrophic time, the author chooses a dramaturgical trick: she lets us meet again in Brussels in 2019. By then Dina is already dead, the three remaining friends haven’t seen each other for years and it soon becomes clear that something must have happened that divided the women. The reason for the meeting is a retrospective with photographs by Dina, who always had her Leica with her as a girl and later became a well-known war photographer. The images, in which they can sometimes be seen themselves, catapult the women back to their childhood and youth. Through Keto’s painful yet tender memories, her past of desperation and betrayal is pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Probably the most iconic of Dina’s pictures is entitled “Zoo”. Keto can be seen after throwing up next to an enclosure and being watched in amazement by a monkey. “It marks the worst day of my life and hers, the intersection between everything that was and everything that will come after, the point where we don’t yet know that at the end of the day we’ve become different people,” so keto. Shortly before, the two girls accidentally witnessed a murder and have to make a decision that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Another photograph shows a backyard, “the universe of our childhood days”. People from different ethnic groups and social classes live together there. For example Keto’s academic grandmothers, who like to quarrel about the advantages of the German and French languages. Or Tarik, the latecomer of a Kurdish family, who gives a name to every street dog, and the convinced Stalinist Uncle Giwi, who fills the whole yard with classical music and makes the children laugh with his old-fashioned way of speaking.

A ferris wheel and a shot

In this motley neighborhood, Haratischwili reflects how the horror slowly affects everyday life and interpersonal relationships. This is exactly where one of the author’s great strengths comes into play: she describes all her characters incredibly lovingly and vividly and creates a tight network of family, friendly and neighborly relationships and dependencies.

And again and again it is impressive images and scenes that Haratischwili finds in order to link complex historical events with the individual level. For example, when the four friends were sitting in the Ferris wheel of the Tbilisi amusement park drinking cognac when they heard the first shot on April 9, 1989. On that day, a peaceful mass demonstration was violently crushed by the Soviet army. 21 people died, hundreds were injured or poisoned by gases.

Speaking of images: one or the other may have to overlook some of the linguistic images, Haratischwili’s style is exuberant in many places. But the passion with which the author writes about the fortunes and misfortunes of these four friends in dark times is simply captivating. “The Lack of Light” is one of those books that you just can’t put down. In the end, you don’t want to miss any of the more than 800 pages on which there is also a little hope, despite all the inner turmoil and trauma – which are once again frighteningly topical against the background of the Ukraine war.