“The Cat, the General and the Crow” by Nino Haratischwili: atone for our crimes

The Cat, the General and the Crow

by Nino Haratischwili

Translated from German by Rose Labourie

Belfond, € 24, 594 p.

It takes immense talent to deploy with so much romance and panache the thwarted destinies of women and men, from the 1990s to the present day, from Chechnya and Georgia to Moscow. Nino Haratischwili opened his novel in 1994 with the impetuous Nura, a young girl from a small valley in the Caucasus, who found in Natalia Ivanovna the breath of freedom and the eyes to see beyond her mountains. Wife of a Chechen, this Russian crossed isolated villages with him and opened to children a treasure chest full of books and films from all over the world, from Hollywood to Bollywood, including the works of Chaplin and Visconti. Widowed, she was on the verge of giving up everything when her path crossed that of Nura. «The sowing had found a more than fertile soil» in the fiery teenager and had increased her keen desire moreover, even after Natalia’s departure when the rumor of a war had grown.

Grim cult of a “hero” of the war in Afghanistan

In 1995, Malich gave up resisting his mother who wants to find in him the warrior hero that was his late father. Raised in the mythology of fatherly exploits in Afghanistan and the maternal cult for his military medals and badges, he had rejected outright this sinister obsession when «the whole of the Soviet Union had collapsed like a senile and dying elephant ”. In his father’s old duffel bag that Malich, devastated by heartache, fills to in turn go to war, he slips books, “The only reliable traveling companions on the perilous path that awaits him “, Even if he knows that«they weaken you, stick a weakling label on you ”.

Twenty years later, in Berlin, the Cat, the Crow and the General come on the scene. Sesili, an actress from Georgia always nicknamed Cat by her family, is offered by a mysterious emissary to play in a short video the role of a missing person of whom she is the astonishing double, in return for generous subsidies. Faced with her refusal, Alexander Orlov, a rich Russian oligarch at the origin of this request known under the name of the General, charges Onno Bender, a journalist with the nickname of Corneille, to convince her. Bender tried unsuccessfully to investigate Orlov’s financial empire and his troubled military past, not unrelated to this strange approach.

The making of monsters in war

Everything is in place for a powerful imaginary story, somewhere between thriller and ancient tragedy, which holds on to its last line. Arriving in Germany in 2003, Nino Haratischwili and Sesili’s family portray the Georgian migrant community in Berlin, their humor and their desperate vitality. Throughout her novel, she proves to be adept at portraying characters with a sharpened psychology. It embraces with the same gusto the individual trajectories and political histories of countries ravaged by Soviet imperialism and mafia ultraliberalism. At the center of her saga, the writer places the devastation caused by wars that endure in families long after conflicts have ended and the desire for atonement when nothing else remains but the guilt of the crimes committed.

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