Chronologically – in the order in which I read them –
what I felt and wrote at the time I was reading them:
Confessions of a lapsed standard bearer
Andreï Makine is a remarkable writer. ‘Confessions of a lapsed standard bearer’ (1992, translated 2000) is only 136 pages long but it’s a huge book. Could only be about Russia but it’s both relatively free of stereotypes and on the other hand breathes loving life into same from the standpoint of the international exile. This title a fond reminiscence of being young in the late 1950s when it was still possible for young Russians to believe in the ultimate and progressive victory of communism and the spectacular emotional explosion of the myth to our two heroes. The social milieu is beautifully realised; you hear the dominoes being slapped down, and the slow and moving unfolding of the generational archaeology is masterful.
A life’s music
Normally I wouldn’t touch a book set in the Russia of Stalin’s purges and their immediate aftermath – long ago, far away – but Andreï Makine came with a recommendation from a trusted source (hello Linda!). My normal response to foreign names in a cultural context – who does he play for? – seemed somehow inadequate. ‘A life’s music’ (2001, translated ’02) is a short novel of extraordinary beauty, one man’s story seen by another, related in the specific setting of a train stuck at a remote station in bad weather, and amounting, as they reach Moscow, to ‘War and peace’ in 106 pages, all the sights, sounds, smells. Deeply moving, a fantastic feat of writing. So good I read it twice, just like that. It will stay a long time. I feel a possible binge coming on.
Requiem for the East
And you couldn’t make it up: “Elvis was living in Hollywood in a Frank Lloyd Wright house rented from the Shah of Iran … the day the Beatles called.” That visit was a disaster, by the way, the Beatles overawed. As am I continuously by he writing of Andreï Makine. There’s an intensity of ‘Requiem for the east‘ (UK trans, 2001) breaks your heart. There’s the usual stuff, the frozen moments of the horrors of war and hardship and the magic of sudden respite and joy, an added dimension here of the futilty of the international agent game played in small sordid wars by people who no longer believe and regret that. There’s the rottenness and disappointment of old and new Russia but it’s full of poetry and there’s three tremendous love stories in here too. He’s epic. As was Patrick Viera at his best
The earth and sky of Jacques Dorme
It could be said of Andreï Makine that he tends to write the same couple of books again and again, but when it’s as good as his latest, ‘The earth and sky of Jacques Dorme’ (UK trans 2005, France 2003) who cares? More a long poem, a series of epiphanies of love, peace and beauty, backwards and forwards in time. Russia, the Great Patriotic War, the fascination of things French for a young boy. Then there’s Dorme himself, a Polish volunteer airman. It’s brilliant stuff. And in this one he returns to post-USSR Russia and is not impressed; nor is modern France what he went looking for. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
A hero’s daughter
Finished another Andreï Makine, his first, ‘A hero’s daughter‘ (France 1990, UK 2004). More good stuff though not yet fully into his stride. What it did bring home is what an awful compromising, brutalised, illusion-strewn time the Russians have had both before and after perestroika. This is as much about the (almost accidental) war hero (formally, an exalted ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’) and his fate – disillusioned vodka death after a sweet tragic wartime romance – as much as the progeny of that romance of the title, who doesn’t exactly have a grand time of it living the modern life in Moscow. You can see why Makine got out even though the times were a changing. Makes you hate what Abramovich has done with Chelsea even more.
Le testament Francais
It is impossible to escape superlatives talking about Andreï Makine, an emigre Russian who writes in French. I’ve been on a bit of a binge. He is a fantastic writer. Funnily enough the book of his that I’ve had the hardest time with is the one that made his reputation, uniquely winning all the major French literary prizes in the same year; it is also his longest. ‘Le testament Francais‘ (France 1995, UK 1997) gets you there in the end, but I have to say whereas the others have gripped from the start it annoyed me for a lot of the time. Probably something to do with the structure, because the elements that make his other stuff so great – a liberating growth of personal awareness and escape and possibility (hey, hey, it’s the ’60s! but …), a sense of time (the Russian revolution and its consequences for later generations) and place (Russia, Siberia, France) that are fine indeed but also transcended – are all there. Just don’t start with that one.
Once upon the River Love
Try, rather, the brilliant and captivating ‘Once upon the River Love‘ (France 1994, UK 1999) as it celebrates the impact of a season of Jean-Paul Belmondo movies on a small Siberian town and three young teenage boys from a nearby village in particular. Rites of passage abound – the journeys through snow, the accidental train ride to the coast, the prospect of the west. Lyrical, moving and magical, the dignity of ordinary Russians coming out from under the memory’s shadow of the privations of the war and Stalin, the doubletalk.
The crime of Olga Arbylina
And then there is the ‘The crime of Olga Arbylina‘ (France 1998, UK 1999) which will take you places you never imagined. Like an immediately post-war Russian emigre community on the outskirts of Paris. Starts off with a seeming murder mystery, two bodies, one dead, at a river’s edge. In the end you find how they got to be there. Some journey, personal odysseys in the swirl of history and more snow, an incredible piece of writing, frenzied and still; where Olga takes you is hard to bear and yet … all I can do is repeat myself and descend into the platitudinous – an incredible piece of writing. The thing about everything of Makine’s that I’ve read is that you feel like starting over again right away. And at the back of my mind, the slightly daunting thought that I may have to dip my toes in Proust after all.
The woman who waited
Read Andreï Makine‘s new book, ‘The woman who waited‘ (Sceptre, 2006), and it’s up there with his best. I can think of no other writer who achieves so much in under 200 pages, who packs so much engrossing description and meaning and psychological movement in. Russia again – the weather, the landscape – but this time initially a look at the young intellectual rebels so/too desperate for western acceptance (here, I suspect, we see more than elsewhere in his work, the reason he actually split for France) played against previous generations still living with the devastating consequences of the Second World War. The woman at the centre of the tale – full of surprises – is unforgettable; the love story – ultimately unfulfilled but both liberating and desperately sad because disappointing, a flaw of the narrator – rivetting. There’s probably an allegory of Russia in there too. Tremendous writer, top class.
The new Andreï Makine didn’t disappoint. ‘Human love’(Sceptre, 2008) goes global, with a black African recruited by Moscow as its central character but the essentials are all there – the Russian cold, the inevitablility of what follows from a revolutionary stance, the flaws, disillusion and the redemption of a simplicity of moments, of people just being people, never forgetting or excusing the world’s imperfections and the initial impulse to change. It’s a stunning piece of writing that rejects black and white, idealism and cynicism, a brilliant grey that turns to silver. For all the contempt, Makine sings beautifully. And like his best books, I just wanted to turn back to page 1 and see what I missed the first time around – only 249 pages but it contains so much as it toos and fros through four decades of international politics, war and diplomacy. And in passing, Che Guevara has never got a worse press.
The story of an unknown man
Andreï Makine is an extraordinary writer (he writes, just for a change). He draws you right in, takes you through utter desolation to feeling golden. I can think of no other writer who can make you feel so, and make you feel so alive. With him it’s usually the little things in passing time – gestures, shared moments of joy, compassion, shining memories – that matter, that can redeem an individual’s life against the desperation entailed in the grand narratives of history. Little things as signifiers of, as, to recall the title of his last astonishing, ‘Human love’. This is intense prose poetry on a grand scale. ‘The story of an unknown man‘ (Sceptre, 2010) is a story within a story. It starts with an Russian emigre writer in Paris (like Makine) grown disillusioned with the modern publishing and literary scene and the demands of the marketing department; I don’t know how autobiographical that is but I wouldn’t be surprised; his is a very low profile on the web. He has also just been dumped by his much younger girlfriend, and is all too aware of how a writer can experience the things that happen to him or her:
Always his scribbler’s mania.
This Paris section of the book marks something of a double departure for Makine, though nothing is lost. His setting is contemporary and he displays a humourous touch – in his discussion of his and the girl’s literary differences, and, in particular, his appearance on a late night tv arts programme.
He would also quote Chekhov: ‘In a short story, cut the beginning and the end. That’s where most of the lies are told.’ Lea listened with daunting eagerness. ‘Playboys take women out for drives in open-top cars,’ Shutov thought with a smile. ‘Destitute writers treat them to the Russian classics.’ (p21)
Indeed, the book starts with him remembering (or, as it turns out – a lovely touch – mis-remembering) a story of Chekhov’s in which a man whispers ‘I love you’ to a girl and years later goes in search of her, which prompts his decision, with his life falling apart, to go and visit his old haunts in a much changed post-communist Russia, the Soviet Union as was, that he escaped from.
He hates it. The new capitalist Russia is as unreal as the rest of Europe. The old love from his student youth he’s gone back to find is one of the new capitalist barons to emerge after the fall of the USSR, and he discovers that for all that he left it, he isn’t Russian, his is a soviet soul, with all the history and sacrifice that brings with it – Stalin, the show trials, labour camps in Siberia, the sieges of the Second World War, the purges, surviving, the survival of the human spirit. Channel surfing late night television in St Petersburg proves to be a depressing experience, all sense of the communist experience (he’s not interested in the ideology) lost.
He meets an old man with a tale to tell, of love and survival in the siege of Leningrad, of a heartening post-war project thwarted by politics. This is the core of the book and the hardships and misery (and the cold) – Makine’s trademark riffs, of ” wars, camps, the utter fragility of any bond between two human beings” (p236) – are what, I guess, make him such a difficult sell. I try telling people but there are very few takers. He always gets brilliant reviews from other writers; in my time at a library enquiry desk I was never once asked for him.
Please believe me, divinely he sings – a major, major writer.
He knows that the only words worth writing down arise when language is impossible. As in the case of that man and woman separated by thousands of miles of ice, whose eyes met under lightly falling snow. As with that red-haired boy, standing there transfixed, his blind eyes turned towards the stars he has never seen. (p247)
And as in ‘A life’s music‘ – my favourite of his books, a book to be read in a single sitting – music plays a significant part in what happens, provides extraordinary moments of elation, tragedy and rescue. Incredibly moving moments. In the post-war work camp he’s trapped under logs, given up for lost (p209):
The words of the priest came back to him: the sufferings God inflicts so that man may expatiate, purify himself … The smile this brought cracked his dry lips. If that were the case, so many men should be infinitely pure. In the camp. In the country ravaged by war. And, indeed, by the purges! After everything these people had endured they should have been as shining as saints! And yet, after ten years of suffering, a prisoner could still kill for an extra slice of bread. God … Volsky remembered the buckles on the shoulder belts worn by the German soldiers. ‘Gott mit uns,’ God is with us, was embossed on the metal. These soldiers had also suffered. So …
He looked up: night was beginning to fall and in the tangle of tree trunks above his head there shone a pale, ashen cluster of stars. A woman saw it at that moment, and knew that he, too, was looking at the sky …
They find him through his singing. The book is only 256 pages long but, like all his other titles, you feel it has covered a lot more (in a good way). I always just want to go back to the beginning, start all over again. You don’t have to be snowed in for him to hit the spot. I leave you with a final telling heartbreaker of a quote, a frozen moment over in a second, that is the saving of him, from p204:
and Volsky sensed that moment when a human mind wavers between compassion and scorn.
Brief loves that live forever
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 unintiated he’s a Russian emigré, 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 people’s ordinary encounters and experience that stick with you. He takes you to unexpected places, extraordinary brief moments in time, “far beyond doctrines”. And I’m not talking 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 volumes, 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 – reading him (and his faithful translator, Geoffrey Strachan, of course) feels so good. And with Brief loves that’s particularly apt because the last chapter brings 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 cataegories 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, fellings, acts – all played out against the background of the great failed 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, from the first novel.
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 samisdat 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 to pollinate the blossom, so they bear no fruit. This a classic symbol of 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 enough 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 in that May day parade at the beginning
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.