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Juja by Nino Haratischwili
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Juja is a cosmopolitan novel about literature and identity and desire which feels like it belongs more to a shared Western literary tradition than to any particular national literature. It requires some patience at the beginning, as the narrative jumps between a handful of characters across a 50-year period and it’s not initially clear what connects them except perhaps for a certain spiritual condition: they all seem to have been very traumatized by something in their past and they struggle with a sense of anxiety and emptiness, a disconnect with the world.

Which all sounds very grim, but I found there is something oddly compelling about the author’s writing and imagery which made me want to keep reading and learn more about the characters. Perhaps because they’re all also very hungry for life, for passion and it’s that yearning that apparently also has a profound effect on the characters as well.

Gradually four main strands emerge: a girl in Paris in the 1950s, who committed suicide at 17, leaving behind a notebook with reflections entitled "The Ice Age"; the eventual publisher of the manuscript, whom we meet at the beginning of his own career as a writer, as a young man in the unrest of Paris in 1968; a woman in the 1980s who becomes one of a series of suicides inspired by reading The Ice Age; three individuals in the present day, who embark on a search to find out more about the book and its mysterious author in an attempt to understand how it could have such power over the young women who killed themselves.

In the second half of the book these strands come together in a mostly satisfying conclusion. The final message about how art can serve as sort of an amplifier of the reader/viewer's thoughts and feelings felt a little bit artificial, but in the end it was, for me, the characters and their unresolved pain and struggles -- no easy closure, just a pause, a regrouping, for more strength to continue anew -- who left the most vivid impression after the last page was turned.

(Read in German; the novel has not been translated into English at this time, but I hope it will be, as Haratischwili's writing seems likely to appeal to audiences outside of Germany.)
  spiphany | Sep 4, 2016 |
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