Another Andreï Makine book to love and praise to the skies. Brief loves that live forever (MacLehose Press, 2013) is an exhilarating read, the latest in a long line. For the uninitiated he’s a Russian émigré, born 1957, granted political asylum in 1987, who writes in the language of his adopted country. Don’t let that put you off. His take on the ex-Soviet union and Russia is a deeply nuanced one; his focus is on the individual’s experience, and he delivers exquisite glimpses from human encounters and experience that stick with you. He takes you to unexpected places, brief special moments in time. And this aint no magic realism.
Brief loves that live forever is not a big book – 175 pages, of which only 139 are actual text – but like his other slim publications, it speaks volumes. It is invariably my experience that my first impulse on finishing a Makine is to go back to the beginning and start again, not out of any bewilderment, but out of sheer wonder and melancholic joy – reading him (and his faithful translator, Geoffrey Strachan, of course) feels so good. And with Brief loves that impulse is particularly apt because the last chapter gives light to an enigma – a dark lady, even – at the heart of the first.
Our narrator is a child, an orphan, of the post-Stalin years, when the dictatorship has lost its brutality but none of its tedium and dullness. The book opens with him as a young man at one of the big showpieces, a May Day parade in Moscow, accompanying a physically broken man across town. His companion, a thrice imprisoned dissident, Dmitri Ress, who had been given the nickname ‘Poet’ in the camps “though I did not know if its implication was disparaging or approving“, identifies three categories of people at the parade – “placid sleepwalkers […], some cynics and a few marginal rebels” – imparts his conclusion:
But there are … There are also those who have the wisdom to pause in an alleyway like this and watch the snow falling. Notice a lamp being lit in a window. Inhale the scent of burning wood. This wisdom only a tiny minority among us know how to live by it. In my case, I’ve found it too late. I’m only just getting to know it. Often, out of habit, I go back to playing the old roles. I did it just now, when i was making fun of those poor wretches on their platform. they’re blind. They’ll die never having seen this beauty.
Here Makine is pretty much making explicit his modus operandi as a writer. The rest of the book is his narrator looking back on six episodes from his life, from orphanage and school and army to where he is now that have allowed him, or witnessed them in others, such transcendental glimpses, illuminated by the love between people of the book’s title.
Then, with all my being I felt I was wildly, desperately in love. Not only with Maya and her dark locks flying in the wind as she ran. But also with the plants that swayed as she passed, and with that grey, sad sky and the air that smelled of rain. I was even in love with that old piece of farm machinery with flat tyres, sensing that it was quite essential to the harmony that had just been created before my eyes …
He brings subtle linkages of people, locales, structures into play throughout. What I write of here hardly scratches the surface of the richness of experience to be found in this book’s pages
It may be a short book but there is so much going on – thought, feelings, acts – all played out against the background of the great flaweded and further failing experiment that was Communism, the ideals, sacrifices, and achievements of which Makine has regularly shown, in his novels, a certain – though never card-carrying – nostalgia. For him the simple walls-come-tumbling-down dissidence is too easy. “And then what?” he asks; you could accuse him of writing with the advantage of hindsight, but he’s been pretty consistent all along in his writings.
In the penultimate chapter Captives in Eden he, by now an ex-soldier convalescing from wounds got in a helicopter accident in Afghanistan, accompanies Kira, a childhood friend, now a dissident samizdat photo-journalist, on a trip to a ‘model orchard’, where the trees cover an area 10 by 14 miles and are planted so densely that bees cannot penetrate most of the plantation, so the blossom is never pollinated and so they bear no fruit. This a classic symbol for the futility of the whole collectivist enterprise. And yet the experience of being there, as they walk towards its centre, “that useless orchard’s beautiful madness“, the trees full of white blossom, is delirious, hallucinatory. There is an extraordinary passage of skinny dipping political dialogue when they discover a pond at the orchard’s centre and she – they are not lovers – chides him into the water. She thinks he is stupid
not to have totally rejected the world we were born into and grew up in, which is now dying of a pitiful and often ridiculous old age. I ought to spit out this past, deride the people who had the misfortune to live through it; that way I could satisfy Kira and her friends. How can I explain to her that the past of this country, which is on the brink of disappearing for ever, also contains our childhood? […] … Must that memory also be rejected? And this apple orchard too? And its intoxicating beauty? Must it be derided, seen as a failure on the part of a society that promised a dream-like future and has lamentably run aground? But derided in the name of what other future?
As indeed Dmitri Tress had predicted and feared way back watching that May Day parade at the beginning of the novel
Tomorrow this rotten regime falls apart. We find ourselves in the capitalist paradise and the people who step up onto this grandstand are millionaires, film stars, suntanned politicians.
And, looking back now on that orchard adventure, our narrator can only sadly say
the project cherished by Kira’s friends came to fruition. Communism collapsed in a great tragicomic hurly-burly of palace revolution, liberal promises, putsches, appalling economic pillage, edifying credos and contempt for the old and weak.
I could go on quoting from Brief loves that live forever for quite a while yet, but I will desist. Say the word, the word is love; “love is in essence subversive.” Andreï Makine is a great writer:
The fatal mistake we make is looking for a paradise that endures …
What remains is a fleeting paradise that lives on for all time, having no need of doctrines.
Purely coincidentally – it’s not as if I’m on a Cold War binge or something (even if A short history of tractors in Ukrainian is the next book group book too, and comic though it is, that doesn’t skirt the hardships under the Soviet regime) – but I recently watched the film of Milan Kundera’s The unbearable lightness of being and (as well as falling in love) it struck me that the world would be a much better place if the tired and stupid old men, the pre-psychedelic dead- and dunderheads of the Kremlin had opted to give the Hungarians their head in 1956, and more crucially, post-Bay of Pigs, chosen not to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968. What might have happened then, back in the USSR? Is there a more depressing and unimpressive (not so much scary or horrendous, though he was not without his moments) but just uninspired and depressing ex-head of state than Leonid Brezhnev? There’s an alternative history could have done us all a huge favour (and maybe saved us from Roman Abramovich).
Andreï Makine on Lillabullero
As is made clear in what I’ve written above, this is not the first time I have enthused about AndreÏ Makine and there are a couple of pages on this website dedicated to him and his work. There isn’t much of Makine on the web and these pages are two of the busiest – well, relatively speaking – here on Lillabullero:
- a chronological listing of his books (with variant titles) and some biographical notes, with links to a couple of interviews in English
- a compendium of my thoughts on the novels: Travels in the pages of Andrei Makine
And just in case you don’t believe me, here’s the back cover of Brief loves …