Posts Tagged ‘Andrei Makine’

Andrei Makine 2015 maybeI’ve written about Andreï Makine before, and doubtless I’ll do it again.  I may be repeating myself; in my reading experience he’s unique.  He’s an extraordinary writer who has just had a fantastic novel published; he’s a fantastic novelist who has just produced an extraordinary new book.  It keeps happening, but, despite being reviewed well, because they are translations – he’s a Russian émigré who writes in French, a good story in itself – he has little to no visibility in bookshops or libraries in the UK, and you will only find his work in mega-bookstores if you’re lucky.

 A woman loved (2013; translated by Geoffrey Strachan – UK: Maclehose Press /US: Graywolf Press, 2015) is the latest of Makine’s books to be published in the UK.  The woman of the title is Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, and the novel is ostensibly about a man – Oleg – trying to tell her story in film, firstly for the Soviet cinema, and subsequently for post-communist, free market, Russian television.

Here’s a quote from A woman loved that is pure essence of Makine:

Several years later Oleg will still remember that lunch with Eva. The USSR will no longer exist, the Berlin Wall will have come down. But when he tries to define what has not changed since then he will call to mind the silvery gleam over the fields, the autumn sunlight on the bare forests, and the tender look in the eyes of a woman smiling and talking about tea leaves.

This is what he does.  He captures powerful moments of stillness and beauty outside of history, often arising from the direst of circumstances.  He’s a magician, he takes you there, enriches you, and he does it time and time again.  You finish the book and just want to start all over again.

A woman loved is concerned with many things, all in the context of Oleg’s struggle.  It is special within Makine’s oeuvre in that the life a historical character is woven into the narrative.  This is one of his longer books (UK edition 304 pages, US 243) but one of his great qualities – and I do mean this in the best possible way – is to make you think you have read a much longer book, so much is going on:

  • Catherine_II_of_RussiaCatherine the Great: I knew practically nothing about her but she’s a fascinating subject, a German princess brought to Russia as a young girl for an arranged marriage into the Romanov dynasty.  Her unpopular (and impotent) husband was deposed and she became a reforming Empress, furthering the European shift of Russian society, flirting with the works of progressive pre-Revolution French intellectuals.
  • She did a lot more than flirt with many men at court; her favourites were well rewarded, so what becomes problematic is the notion of love – what was she loved for?  For access to power and preferment? – was she ever really loved?  Did she ever truly love?  The book’s title works both ways.  One of the key events in the novel (if it ever happened … the evidence is pursued in the plot) was the possibility of one genuine love affair which seems to have been different, to have offered a simple more … “a secret journey to Italy“?
  • Her sexual appetite is the stuff of legend, though the notion that she did it with horses is pure propaganda.  Which leads us to…
  • What is history, how can it be written?  Whatever the ideological interpretations at play, the grand historical narratives – the theatre of history, of biography – miss the personal, what really went on in the (secret) real life spaces in between, even with the lead ‘actors’?  Could she, did she, as one reading of the title suggests, have a real love?  “Film what Catherine was not,” as one of Oleg’s girlfriends says.  As opposed to “the chronicles of wars, rebellions, and political intrigues, the tangle of bloody, brilliant vanities that goes by the name of History …”
  • And what does it mean when you are in a position of absolute power and responsibility?  “She lived up to the limits of the games humans play, at the peak of what you and I can imagine in terms of power, riches, sexual pleasure. These limits were her daily fare. So she must certainly have wanted to go beyond them and …”
    They say it as one.”
  • Then there’s Russian history in general:”the time when the last days of socialism still guaranteed a certain economic security and the capitalism people dreamed of seemed like a cost-free Disneyland“; elsewhere “Violence plus utopia, a very Russian formula“.
  • and the specifics of life under Communism and the rampant capitalism that came after.  It’s quite clear from Makine’s previous two books (the outstanding The life of an unknown man and Brief loves that live forever) that while he left Russia because of the lack of freedom, he’s appalled at what has been lost by the mass of the people in what has followed, and almost certainly won’t be going back for any length of time.  His contempt for the oligarchs and their pals shines out.  Interestingly he sees the glamour of success as portrayed in Hollywood movies as having fuelled and polluted Russian visions of the good life.  Which leads us nicely on to …
  • Film making, the mechanics, politics and economics thereof, and by extension the whole struggle to make art, either smuggling dissidence past the Soviet state censors, or fighting against the gross mass market imperatives that ‘freedom’ brings.  We first meet Oleg, the film maker, hauling carcasses around a meat factory to subsidise his film studies.  With the fall of communism he’s a drunken mess.  Until he meets an old buddy from the meat factory who’s made minor oligarch status, runs a TV production company and wants a whole series.  Who also wants an episode bringing the horse legend to life as part of the package.
  • So Oleg, why the fascination, nay obsession, with Catherine the Great’s story?  That drives A woman loved?  Because there’s a German branch in his ancestry, and a family saying blaming Catherine for them being where they are; an ancestor came to Russia with the young princess.  Oleg’s life is inevitably entangled with this intellectual pursuit.  His own love life even involves at least a couple of the actresses who play Catherine at various stages in her and his life.
  • This bit should be a footnote really, but I’ll let it lie here: There is a parallel in Makine’s biography; he had a French grandmother, which makes all the more intriguing Oleg’s discovery, near the end, of a feeling that is “utterly new to him, [that] he passionately wants to explain to Eva. Tell her how the sense he has carried with him since childhood of being torn between his Russian and German identities is slipping away and he is going to learn to live without thinking about it.”
  • And even if we forget about the film-making and Catherine for a moment, Oleg’s life, echoing some of Makine’s earlier short novels about life under postwar Soviet communism as it does, is still a riveting experience.  And, telling us about how it felt in Russia, he never preaches.

A woman loved succeeds on all these levels.  There is a glorious road trip at the end, the route taken from what has gone before narratively.  It’s another tour de force from Andreï Makine.  It sings.  I urge you to read him; he will enrich your life.

A postscript on book jackets

Makine - A woman loved USMakine - A woman loved FrenchMakine - A woman loved UK                            Top left is the US edition, ny favourite; a touch of class in the way it references older classic French book design.  To its right the – obviously – French edition, suggesting costume and scenery and longing (there’s always plenty of frost and snow in a Makine novel); they’ve moved on graphically.  And underneath the disappointingly corny old UK contribution.  Hey – it’s a film!

Another postscript

Here on Lillabullero I have tabulated Andreï Makine‘s works to make sense of the variant titles that have cropped up with UK and US editions, and collected my diverse comments on all his translated works here.  He has no great web presence beyond book reviews and the rare interview; the hits I get on these pages – top of the second page in Google when I looked, and it’s been higher – are testimony to that.  He deserves far greater recognition.


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Can it really be six years since Alan Johnson was on Desert Island Discs.  Well, yes: almost to the day.  Some Desert Island Discs appearances stick in the mind and his was certainly one of those.  You can listen to it right now via the wonderful Desert Island Discs archive.*  Here, then, was the then Secretary of State for Health in a Labour government modestly and good humouredly engaging listeners with a genuine poor boy succeeding against the odds tale (thanks, as he acknowledged, to two remarkable women), in the context of which life music had played – with his youthful beat group ambitions – and still played – as active listener, with a son working in the music industry – a meaningful part.   At one stage he actually quotes unbidden a Super Furry Animals lyric – “She came in smelling of cabbages / pumpkin roots and all winter’s ravages” – from their song Cityscape Skybaby.   A friend sent him a brief email saying he’d enjoyed the show but had never heard of the Super Furry Animals, so could he recommend a CD to start with; he got back an enthusiastic and much more detailed than he’d expected intro to the band’s recorded output.  Clearly a good bloke, and no ordinary politician.

This boySo I was looking forward to Alan Johnson‘s This boy: a memoir of a childhood (Bantam, 2013).  It’s an absorbing story and one which seems – regrettably – almost unthinkable these days.  It takes us as far as him getting a job with the Post Office, which is where, with involvement in the union, his political career began:

At eighteen years of age I was about to move house for the seventh time. I’d left school, had four jobs, been in two bands and fallen for the woman I was about to marry, in the process becoming a father as well as a husband.

Born 1950, he grows up in poverty, in the slums of West London on the borders of  Rachman’s growing empire.  Lily, his mum, has a heart condition which keeps her in and out of hospital; she’s working when she shouldn’t be because his dad’s a lazy bastard who abandons them one Christmas Eve.  The remarkable Linda, his elder sister, to whom the book is dedicated, pretty much runs the show even before Lily dies when Linda is 16.  Linda successfully battles with officialdom to keep her brother out of care. The travails of the marriage had been kept from Alan so for a lot of this he’s relying on what his sister has told him, which takes some of the power of personal testimony away but it’s still a gripping story of dedication and simply keeping going.

Both Linda and Alan had passed the 11-plus exam and gone on to grammar schools but both left before taking O levels to put money on the table.  Alan didn’t have much fun in school anyway, where Malcolm MacDonald and Steve Hackett were contemporaries.  Music, football (QPR) and reading were what kept him going.  He’s particularly fond of the old red and yellow Pye International rhythm and blues singles, though Paul McCartney is the Beatle he identifies with, even if his chosen book title, This boy, is a Lennon song.  Musical progress is hindered by the theft of their instruments.  There is much about the local area – “Notting Hill was beginning its biggest phase of demolition since it suffered the unwanted attention of the Luftwaffe during the war” – and plenty of period detail.  But as that quote suggests, there’s a certain clumsiness in the prose – who is he writing for? – that grates, with echoes of the self-published memoirs that we used to get offered when I was working in the library.  So, in May 1963, in the twilight of his career, the great Stanley Matthews is playing, at the age of 48, for Stoke against Chelsea:

I went alone, Unfortunately another 66,198 people went as well, and I was very lucky indeed not to have been crushed to death. Incredibly, in spite of periodic tragedies at soccer stadia in Britain and around the world, the potential perils of having vast numbers of supporters crammed into football grounds were not addressed in any significant way until the terrible Hillsborough disaster of 1989 led belatedly to the introduction of proper safety measures and all-seater stadia.

You have to ask how necessary it was for us to be given that perspective on the event.  And then we’re back to the more interesting details – the experience – of just how much of the great man he actually managed to see.

Despite these reservations I’m glad to have read Alan Johnson‘s book.  He’s a good man, his sister a real heroine.  It’s a stirring tale and it’s a sad thought that he may be the last of a certain breed of politician – those who had proper jobs before embarking (or even finding themselves embarked, as he relates on Desert Island Discs) on a career in politics.  We could do with a few more.

Makine - Life of an unknown manAndrëi Makine

I’ve written about the brilliant Andrëi Makine‘s The life of an unknown man (2011) before but I think it’s worth recording that my book group also greeted it rapturously last month.  Reading it again I was struck by how impressive the opening section – the émigré writer Shutor’s exit from France and his disillusion with the publishing and literary scene there – was this time around, when on first reading it had seemed bitty and something to be got through before the ‘real’ story gets into gear when he’s back in a ‘new’ Russia that he tries hard – and fails – to be a part of.

Certain quotes rang out this time around that encapsulate what Makine does so well.  In speaking of Russia in the twentieth century: “the richness of that wretched past.”  In creating in his writing the glimpses of love and care amongst the bigger (and usually awful) picture: “the fragile tenacity of such moments.”

A work of huge emotional power, the book works like a symphony, like a piece of music both literally – there are sung tunes that reappear at crucial moments – and in the way certain themes of love lost and the hope of its regaining weave in and out of the narrative.  Then there’s the haunting image, during the Siege of Leningrad, when a musician has to burn his scores to keep warm: “As the sheets blazed, ripples of music and singing went up in smoke.”  It’s great book.


That asterisk

*No mention of Desert Island Discs on Lillabullero is complete without reference to The Box Ticked‘s splendid little ditty that goes under the name of Daydreaming.  With its opening verse “I’m daydreaming daily / about Desert Island Discs / I’m having second thought about / the records I pick” and the killer line “My book is The sirens of Titan” (Kurt Vonnegut‘s wondrous science fiction masterpiece) not to mention a glorious chorus to which resistance is futile. See and hear it live here right now.

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Makine - Brief lovesAnother 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 timeAnd 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.

The Unbearable Lightness of BeingUnbearable lightness 1988

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:

And just in case you don’t believe me, here’s the back cover of Brief loves

Back cover plaudits from 'Brief loves that live forever'

Back cover plaudits from ‘Brief loves that live forever’

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This is the sign that barred my way on a favourite walk last week:

Not one I’d encountered anywhere before.  Fair enough, I guess.  It’s a nice thought, runs being scored, centuries even, in the years to come, from wood from the trees I’ve often walked by and seen spring into fresh leaf since The Parks Trust opened up the path skirting the Stony Stratford Nature Reserve in the Ouse Valley Park in January this year.  Test ground or village green, the contemplation of the well executed straight, on or off drive is a beautiful thought, the few I ever managed rare glimpses of personally attained perfection.  The path has been a real boon, finally making sense of the Nature Reserve which previously could only been seen from afar from the riverside, giving the option of a circular walk where none existed before, and the birds have been worth taking the binoculars along for – nesting crested grebes, cormorants, lapwings, the usual suspects.

Book group book this month was one of my all time favourites, a book I love dearly.  The first time I read Andreï Makine‘s novella A life’s music (2001. English translation, 2002) I just went back to page one and started straight over again; it’s lost none of its power for me since on this re-reading.  Or its vividness.  For a mere 106 pages its sense of the sweep of Russian history from the 1930s and the purges to the mid-70s is immense – like a big fat Russian novel in that respect.  It’s an epic poem that sings of life’s glories, stolen little moments of the universal joys that are still – unexpectedly, suddenly – to be had in the face of a ordinary hardships, never mind a grinding totalitarianism and its hypocrisies.  A life’s music speaks of compassionately of “the disconcerting simplicity with which broken lives are lived”  but also of “the provocative heedlessness of clouds, birds, sun …”   It’s no anti-communist tract, though Zinoviev’s notion of Homo sovieticus, of wasted lives that will put up with and accept so much, is consciously addressed:

this human stagnation, down to its tiniest sigh, down to the clink of a bottle against the edge of a glass, down to the pages of Pravda under the scrawny body of the old man in his worn overcoat, pages filled with stories of targets achieved and perfect bliss.

But its the glimpses of human contact, of being alive, that can never be erased, that are celebrated here.  Reading it again I was more struck by the book’s relish in contingency … if those soldiers had not cruelly taunted that squirrel is one such.  A group of people are holed up, huddled together, in a railway station on the edge of Siberia waiting for a delayed train.  The writing puts you in there with them.  The narrator is woken by strains of music from a piano.  He finds its source and as the long journey to Moscow gets underway it’s the pianist’s story that takes over, a tale of stolen identity to escape political persecution, a hazardous escape, in fact, into the war; wounded, he finds himself with a cushy post-war position driving a top general with a delightful daughter, which all comes to a dramatic end at a party.  Again, a piano is involved.  There’s an emotional coda wherein the subsequent 20 years are telescoped leading to an emotional – talk about sadness and joy – ending, a special kind of private triumph.  “This,” said one of the women in our book group, bowled away by a book she’s never have dreamed of picking up, “is why I joined a book group.”

There are a couple of pages elsewhere on Lillabullero devoted to Andreï Makine and his works that you can get at from this link or from the Pages menu over on the right of your screen.

A few more cryptic crossword clues from the Guardian or Observer newspapers that have tickled my fancy of late.  With some its the classic simplicity that I like rather than any great intellectual effort being involved – though one is really neat – or the tang of a language that can mean two things at once.  With others the response can only be a groan.  Plus a couple of neat anagrams.  It’s the setter’s nom de croix first.  Answers at the bottom, under the photograph that you can reflect on… 

  • from setter Everyman: Fruit brought into Northants Town? Good heavens! (3,6)
  • from Paul: Titanic’s destiny to be notorious? (2,4,2,7)
  • from Rufus: Try out striker in international game (4,5)
  • from Rufus: Certainly less than 50% (3,4,)
  • from Puck: Environmentalists such as Ethel Merman and Thomas Hardy? (4-7)
  • from Orlando: Sailors from Cowes may be audacious (8)
  • from Araucaria: Don’t declare – stick (5)
  • from Orlando: A lot of porridge or just a bowl of cherries (4)
  • from Gordius: Rhetoric of a socialist or otherwise … (7)
  • from Gordius: Basic facts of loads beneath supporters (5,5)
  • from Picaroon: They keep drinks cool, with loud requests to swallow litre (3,6)
  • from Everyman: I’m Toby, cranky and eccentric (3,2,2,4,4)
  • from Paul: Cash rarely jazzy – his genre soul (3,7)

  • from setter Everyman: Fruit brought into Northants Town? Good heavens! (3,6)  Cor blimey
  • from Paul: Titanic’s destiny to be notorious? (2,4,2,7) Go down in history [sorry]
  • from Rufus: Try out striker in international game (4,5) Test match
  • from Rufus: Certainly less than 50% (3,4,)  Not half
  • from Puck: Environmentalists such as Ethel Merman and Thomas Hardy? (4-7) Tree-huggers (sorry Geoff – not strictly Ximenean I’ll grant you, but sweet)
  • from Orlando: Sailors from Cowes may be audacious (8) Insolent (Cowes, Isle of Wight: In Solent)
  • from Araucaria: Don’t declare – stick (5) Baton (Bat on)
  • from Orlando: A lot of porridge or just a bowl of cherries (4) Life
  • from Gordius: Rhetoric of a socialist or otherwise … (7) Oratory
  • from Gordius: Basic facts of loads beneath supporters (5,5) Brass tacks
  • from Picaroon: They keep drinks cool, with loud requests to swallow litre (3,6) Hip flasks
  • from Everyman: I’m Toby, cranky and eccentric (3,2,2,4,4)  Not in my back yard (anagram)
  • from Paul: Cash rarely jazzy – his genre soul (3,7)  Ray Charles (anagram)

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Andrei Makine

Andrei Makine is an extraordinary writer.  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.

There is more on Makine elsewhere on this website – a short note, a bibliography (there are variant titles in the UK & US) and some links.  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.

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