My great-great-grandfather produced divine gateaux and cakes of every description. Truffles, bitter chocolate, milk chocolate with apricot jelly, with walnuts, or raisins, and more exotic items like chocolate tarts with black pepper, cherry liqueur centres coated with mint chocolate, chocolate biscuits filled with fig cream, or chocolate nougat with watermelon jelly. The Chocolaterie managed to unite the French art of patisserie and traditional Austrian baking with Eastern European opulence.
At six o’clock every morning he went to the shop and added his own ingredients to the huge mixtures of chocolate prepared by his employees for each product in his range, giving them their special flavour. Nobody could work out the formula, and it was this that made his chocolate so irresistible.
So far, he had added only a very small amount of the special mixture to all his chocolate products – a finishing touch to the flavour, as it were – but it was in the hot chocolate that its magic was at its most potent.
Encouraged by the tremendous success of his magic formula, which made him flirt with ambitious plans for expansion, he planned to unveil the crème de la crème of his creation – the hot chocolate – only at the very pinnacle of his fame and success, in Tbilisi, Moscow, or St Petersburg. It would make everybody swoon. In spite, or perhaps because of his success, the chocolate-maker, who was hoping for an heir, had sworn to keep his recipe in the family, and to keep it secret for the time being.
According to Stasia, this decision saved our family, if not our whole country, from total ruin.
Alongside his work, my great-great-grandfather was a freeman of the town, and took part in its social and cultural life, moving in elevated circles in local politics, founding the town’s only gentlemen’s club (in the European style), and becoming the patron of several literature, theatre, and philosophy circles. He sat on the committee of the ‘Society for Tradition and Honour’ and was also, incidentally, one of the richest inhabitants of the little town, which he wanted to transform into the ‘Nice of the Caucasus’, since Tbilisi already enjoyed a reputation as the Caucasian Paris.
His wife cared little for these outward appearances, preferring to occupy her time with Bible study and the strict upbringing of their two daughters. She had to be persuaded to take part in any kind of social event, and was not particularly keen on travelling, either, which didn’t please the chocolate-maker at all. Her exaggerated piety also vexed him. He sensed that, because of it, he had lost all connection with his children, who were also, under the strict eye of their mother and a religious governess, growing into pious, timid, un-European girls.
The battle on the female front in his own house seemed to be one he was losing, with grave consequences.
He had to have a son! The female majority in his house had simply become too threatening. He needed an heir, a man to fight by his side in the battle against the opposite sex. It was a long time since the couple had shared a marital bed, and he knew it would require a lot of time and all his powers of persuasion. The two births had been very difficult for Ketevan, and she wasn’t in the best of health. It wouldn’t be easy to convince her to go through another pregnancy.
Several times he explained to his wife that it was purely a matter of inheritance because, after all, the chocolate factory needed a male heir – but she remained unimpressed, and consoled him with the thought that his two daughters would marry, and a shrewd son-in-law was a good alternative solution to the problem.
He therefore had to employ other means to convince his wife to bear him a successor. And so he decided to make his finest creation for her – the hot chocolate – because the more concentrated the ingredients, the greater the effect of the recipe.
He arranged for a little string quartet to play, just for her, in the chocolate factory, which was already closed to visitors; and, by candlelight, enveloped in the intoxicating aroma of his own concoction, he set in front of her the most beautiful porcelain cup he had been able to find in his shop. As she spooned up the chocolate, he spoke honeyed words to her, convincing her of how essential it was for him to have a male heir.
Like so many people after her, Ketevan was overcome by an unbridled craving for more, and, in the days that followed, she begged her husband to make the hot chocolate for her again. And so my great-great-grandfather was finally able to give her an ultimatum: if she would undergo another pregnancy, he would prepare the hot chocolate for her every day for the following nine months. Her resistance was broken, and her longing for the most delicious taste in the world gave her no choice but reluctantly to give in and agree to his offer.
And so it was that, nine months later, she found herself in labour in her bedroom once again, attended by a country doctor and two midwives. It was several hours before they got a healthy, well-formed girl out of her (the mother just gave a disappointed sigh). She thought she had come through it all successfully, until the worried doctor called out that the labour was still progressing. A second one was on the way. After more pushing and screaming, another girl finally saw the light of day.
But the second child refused to cry. Something wasn’t right with her lungs, the doctor declared; the child was turning blue, she wasn’t getting any air, and he slapped her hard on the back. A few minutes after the birth, the second baby had to be pronounced dead (they had been identical twins).
But the first, who was baptised Anastasia, seemed healthy and cheerful and screamed lustily for her mother’s milk.
By Nino Haratischvili
Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Nino Haratischvili is a novelist, playwright and theatre director. Her debut novel Juja and her most recent novel Die Katze und der General were both nominated for the German Book Prize. The Eighth Life was hailed as ‘the book of the year’ in Germany and won numerous literary prizes.
Charlotte Collins was an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the UK before becoming a literary translator. She was awarded the 2017 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for her translation of A Whole Life by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler.
Ruth Martin is a translator of fiction and non-fiction from German. She has been involved with the Emerging Translators Network, a forum for early-career translators, and is currently co-chair of the Translators Association (part of the Society of Authors) together with Charlotte Collins.