After a problematic start, Andrei Makine is getting better with every new book. His earlier setbacks were partly due to the snobbery of the French, who did not believe that a Russian could write better than they could in their own language. When he pretended his novels had been translated, they began to earn high accolades and won a couple of prestigious prizes.
Yet the tone of these earlier triumphs was sometimes too dependent on mystique, as if cashing in on the much-vaunted but dubious "Russian soul", a quality eminently exploitable by crass publishers like the one who allowed Makine's Once on the River Amur (a Siberian waterway) to be rendered as Once Upon the River Love.
Makine then found his true and necessary metier in a series of apparently slight novels that disclose profound insights into Russia's recent history. Requiem for the East and A Life's Music, his two most recent books, have given us a poignant and privileged understanding of what it was to be a Russian caught up in the Second World War.
The rather awkwardly named The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme (it sounds no better in French) continues to piece together this mosaic, much in the way that the novels of Solzhenitsyn, when read in chronological order, bear witness to the terrible march of the Soviet regime.
But there the resemblance ends. Makine proceeds by glimpse and allusion; we don't realise, when we witness the vivid, stormy atmospherics of the first page, that this couple somewhere out on the steppe, swept away by urgent love-making in a strange bedroom that lacks a far wall, have seized a few precious hours from the Battle of Stalingrad raging 70 miles away.
We don't know who they are, how they came together, or why they talk about France. The stateless man, who is piloting a Red plane, remarks mysteriously: "As for the English, I don't know whether we can count on them. But you know, it's like a battle in the air. It's not always the number of planes that decides it, nor even how good they are. How to explain? It's the air. Yes, the air. Sometimes you feel the air is supporting you, playing on your side. The air or heaven itself."
With these few words you realise this is no ordinary war story. Genre-wise, it turns out to be partly a quest novel: the woman goes on to befriend a little boy from an orphanage and beguiles him with tales about her French provenance, her Russian destiny and the few days of desperate love. The boy feels intimately connected to that tempestuous night and 50 years later determines to find the plane in which the man crashed and died.
His quest fulfilled, the boy, who has grown up to be a writer, tries to have an account of it published. His first encounter with a representative of the industry is bewildering and galling and leads, after his precipitous exit, to a superb meditation on the relationship of truth to fiction. Some historians, he reflects, dismissed the whole of War and Peace on the grounds that Tolstoy muddled some of the details regarding the Battle of Borodino. Makine's rebuttal lies precisely in the story he concocts, a factional tour de force brilliantly and incontrovertibly grounded in some of the most monumental events of the last century, yet fragmentary, impressionistic, and touchingly, passionately human in the telling. It is not only an exquisite pleasure to read, it is the best, because it is the most human kind of history.
A superb new novel by the author of Dreams of My Russian Summersand Requiem for a Lost Empire,set in the period just before, and two decades after, World War II.
“Makine is without doubt one of the greatest living writers. Music of a Life proves it.” -Le Figaro( France)
A brief but extraordinarily powerful novel by the author of Dreams of My Russian Summersand Requiem for a Lost Empire, Music of a Lifeis set in the period just before, and two decades after, World War II.
Alexeï Berg’s father is a well-known dramatist, his mother a famous opera singer. But during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s they, like millions of other Russians, come under attack for their presumed lack of political purity. Harassed and proscribed, they have nonetheless, on the eve of Hitler’s war, not yet been arrested. And young Alexeï himself, a budding classical pianist, has been allowed to continue his musical studies. His first solo concert is scheduled for May 24, 1941.
Two days before the concert, on his way home from his final rehearsal, he espies his parents being arrested, taken from their Moscow apartment. Knowing his own arrest will not be far behind, Alexeï flees to the country house of his fiancée, where again betrayal awaits him. He flees, one step ahead of the dreaded secret police until, taking on the identity of a dead soldier, he enlists in the Soviet army. Thus begins his seemingly endless journey, through war and peace, until he lands, two decades later, in a snowbound train station in the Urals, where he relates his harrowing saga to the novel’s narrator.
Music of a Lifehas been Andreï Makine’s biggest bestselling novel internationally since Dreams of My Russian Summers.It is, in the words of France’s most distinguished daily newspaper Le Monde,“extremely powerful… a gem.”
Early works of an author who has hit the big-time are often reissued for reasons more venal than literary. None of the pre- and post- publications of Tracy Chevalier come anywhere near the standard of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but that didn't stop them being rushed into instant print once best-sellerdom was declared and the film came out.
Andrei Makine gained international recognition only when his fourth novel, Le Testament Francais, won two prestigious prizes. Famously, the refugee from the Soviet Union who wrote in French hadn't been able to get his first novel published until he pretended it was translated from "the original Russian" by the mythical "Francoise Bour".
It's a cute story, but why has that one, A Hero's Daughter, suddenly come out in English 14 years after publication? Are the translator and/or publishers jumping on a bandwagon in the light of later prizes awarded to them both?
At 163 elegant pages, and featuring only two central characters – that is, "without the bewildering patronymics or the excessive length" of most Russian novels (a grab on the back cover) – A Hero's Daughter lightly realises huge moments in recent Russian history.
Starting with the atrocious encounters between Germany and Russia in World War II, when existence was a frozen trench and the lads are kept going with vodka and blind loyalty ("For Stalin's sake it all made sense…"), it skips over 40 pretty good years to bring the eponymous hero into the '80s, the era of Gorbachev and perestroika.
Life starts changing in ways incomprehensible to an old soldier, if 53 can be called old. Ivan feels old because he is a veteran, and because, by great good luck, he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union for simply surviving the Battle of Stalingrad. The real act of heroism that he did commit, no one ever saw. But Ivan has a precious Gold Star to prove the benevolent idiocy of the authorities, and he will never sell it, not even to numb his misery with vodka after his wife dies in their backwoods village, when life holds nothing for him.
Well, not nothing. Although their son died, Ivan and Tatyana had a daughter, Olya, a model child who studied hard and went away to Moscow to become a translator. By now, Western snouts are poking greedily into Russian troughs and there is plenty of work for a girl who knows a language or two. And who is prepared to go the extra mile – the businessmen staying in the huge hotels expect more than mere translation. The valuta they pay for services rendered means that Olya can shop at the Beriozki shops for luxury goods only available in Western currency.
Deep down she doesn't approve of this lifestyle, although perhaps it is justified by the small-time espionage she can engage in while her drugged clients are snoring. It all makes sense for the New Russia's sake. Though it would kill her father if he were to find out. She'd drop it all anyway, the moment she found a nice boy to marry.
While Olya is ambivalent about her compromises, Ivan gets some real shocks. For the first time he is no longer trotted out to speak to local schoolchildren about his role in the great battle; and in Moscow one of his old mates spills the beans on what translators really do. Ivan gets drunk and goes berserk. The damage he does in a Beriozka becomes a radio news item, and grounds for Olya's rich Russian "fiance" to give her the flick, even though she's just survived an abortion with complications. All she wants to do is to shuck off her sordid life and take her father back to the village, where she can look after them both. Unfortunately, he dies suddenly of a heart attack. Olya sleeps with a man one last time, in order to raise the money for the coffin – flogging the Gold Star doesn't do it.
The stories of Ivan and Olya are truly tough, but strangely uplifting. Life in the Soviet Union was never easy, and whatever benefits rampant capitalism might be about to provide lie outside the novel's time-frame.
Meanwhile, the penury, shortages and brutal hardship that drive ordinary citizens to alcoholism and prostitution are countered by some kind of irreducible humanity. Olya emerges as an innately good girl who will one day find her proper level; Ivan is moved by an untutored morality based on vague but sound instincts. Their friends are all pals to them and to each other.
The human face of Soviet society may have been covered with warts, but virtue of a sort shone out of it, as it also does from this deceptively slight, excellently translated, and deeply involving first novel.
In Soviet Russia the desire for freedom is also a desire for the freedom to love. Lovers live as outlaws, traitors to the collective spirit, and love is more intense when it feels like an act of resistance. Now entering middle age, an orphan recalls the fleeting moments that have never left him — a scorching day in a blossoming orchard with a woman who loves another; a furtive, desperate affair in a Black Sea resort; the bunch of snowdrops a crippled childhood friend gave him to give to his lover.
Love for another person. Love for humanity as a whole. Are the two compatible or mutually exclusive? In his most ambitious novel since Dreams of My Russian Summers, Andreï Makine takes us into the heart of Africa. His hero is Elias Almeida, a black revolutionary whose father was killed when Elias was still a child, and whose mother, to feed him, was forced to prostitute herself. Saved from death by a Catholic priest, Elias becomes a brilliant pupil destined for greatness. However, the memory of his parents turns him into an important cog in the worldwide revolutionary movement, sending him to Cuba and the Soviet Union to be trained for espionage and sabotage. He begins in his native Angola, still struggling to liberate itself from the colonial yoke, and moves to other political hot spots. But what happens when a black revolutionary dedicated to bettering the world falls in love with a white woman who wants only to live a peaceful, simple life?
International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards (nominee)
A moving, utterly captivating love story: Romeo and Juliet as if told by Chekhov or Dostoevsky.In the remote Russian village of Mirnoje a woman waits, as she has waited for almost three decades, for the man she loves to return. Near the end of World War II, 19-year-old Boris Koptek leaves the village to join the Russian army, swearing to the 16-year-old love of his life, Vera, that as soon as he returns they will marry. Young Boris, who with his engineering battalion fights his way almost to Berlin, is reported killed in action crossing the Spree River. But Vera refuses to believe he is dead, and each day, all these years later, faithfully awaits his return.Then one day the narrator arrives in the village, a 26-year-old native of Leningrad who is fascinated by both the still-beautiful woman and her exemplary story, and little by little falls madly in love with her. But how can he compete with a ghost that will not die?Beautifully, delicately, but always powerfully told, Andre. Makine delineates in masterly prose the movements and madness that constitute the dance of pure love.
In an era when everything is an event, and nothing just happens naturally, it's hard not to be suspicious of the a novel that is the first ever to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, by a Russian émigré who has been compared to Nabokov, Pasternak, and Proust. Add in the fact, repeated in the novel, though apparently true, that after being turned away by French publishers, the author pretended to be only the translator of the novel, and that it was then published, and you've got a book that can't possibly live up to the hype that precedes it.
Makine, who fled the Soviet Union in 1987 when he was thirty, tells the semi-autobiographical tale of a young man who, along with his sister, spends summers in Siberia with his French grandmother, Charlotte Lemonnier. Trapped there after the death of her Russian husband, Charlotte shares a world of memory with the children, memory of France prior to WWII. In the intensely paranoid world of Soviet Communism, Charlotte 's very Frenchness is deeply suspicious to her neighbors and the authorities.
The boy grows up loving his grandmother and the idyllic world she summons, but torn between this Francophilia and a youngster's need to conform and embrace his Russian side. In his mind, the Russian aspect of his character comes to represent a kind of barbarism and a capacity for brutality, while the French aspect represents a gauzy humanism and a love of beauty. It is this sense that shows him that it is right for the Soviets to fear their Frenchness:
I became aware of a disconcerting truth: to harbor this distant past within oneself, to let one's soul live in this legendary Atlantis, was not guiltless. No, it was well and truly a challenge, a provocation in the eyes of those who lived in the present.
Here in the West, it is blithely assumed that humanism and the good reside exclusively in the souls of progressives. For Makine, and his narrator, precisely the opposite is true; in the East, at that time, it was necessary to look backwards to find values and a culture which exalted human being, while the progressives of the Soviet Union did all they could to extinguish them.
Memory is so personal that it's not too surprising that Makine's narrative sometimes seems overly diffuse and obscure. He lays on the Proust and Nabokov parallels a tad too heavily at times-a few less references to cork-lined rooms and moths wouldn't hurt; we get the message. And I'm sufficiently Francophobic to find it amusing, rather than touching, that someone recalls France with such a golden glow. But the lyricism of the writing, some memorable images, and the way the story implicates the tragedy of 20th Century Russia earn the book a qualified recommendation.
In Makine's fifth novel, the memories of an unnamed narrator weave through the 20th century as he recalls episodes in the life of his family-experiences that include those of a battlefield doctor in Afghanistan who was also a KGB agent, a Russian villager who defied the Soviet regime, and a man who swears to avenge the death of his beloved.
This luminous, beautifully crafted new novel by much-praised Russian ‚migr‚ author Makine (Dreams of My Russian Summers, etc.) takes as its subject three generations of a Russian family, caught in the violent political struggles of the 20th century. The novel begins after the Russian revolution, when Pavel, a Russian farmer, refuses to comply with the demands of Stalin's government. The novel then jumps to late-20th-century Russia, where Pavel's son is swept into a murderous web of KGB espionage, falls in love and then loses his lover in the maelstrom of historical change. When he next hears of her, she has been murdered. The novel gradually becomes a tale of revenge, as the spy goes to Florida to find his lover's killer. The outcome, however, is not what he expects. Shortly after the novel introduces Pavel's son, we learn the story of Pavel's father, a deserter from the Red Army, followed by the story of Pavel himself. Each temporal leap the novel makes illuminates and defines its crucial events, rather than muddying the waters. Makine writes lyrically, baring his struggling characters' emotions and vivifying their oft-chaotic backdrops with equal brio. As the young spy's friends and family disappear from his life, his memories become the only things left for him; Makine renders these in brilliantly sharp detail. The arc of the novel shows, above all, that life patterns repeat themselves; we watch the same conflicts playing themselves out in the three life stories presented here. Throughout, Makine displays the sensitivity and honesty of his acclaimed previous works. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (Aug.)Forecast: Makine shows impressive staying power with this fifth novel to be published in English translation, and Arcade is demonstrating its faith with a first printing of 25,000 copies. Chances are good that the writer's reader base will continue to grow steadily.
A novel of love and growing up by Andreï Makine, whose bestselling Dreams of My Russian Summerswas hailed by the Los Angeles Timesas one of the "best autobiographical books of the century."
In the immense virgin pine forests of Siberia, where the snows of winter are vast and endless, sits the little village of Svetlaya. In the early years of the century the village had been larger, more prosperous, but time and the pendulum of history had reduced it by the 1970s to no more than a cluster of izbas. As wars and revolution had succeeded one another, the men had gone away, never to return, the women reduced to dressing in black.
But for three young men-the handsome young Alyosha, the crippled Utkin, and the older, dashing Samurai-little is needed to construct their own special universe. Despite the harshness of the environment and their meager resources, the three adolescents form a tight band of friendship and dream of another life, a world of passion and love. The warm lights of the Transsiberian train passing through give them fleeting glimpses of that other world. And when they learn one day that a Western film is being shown at the Red October Theatre in the closest real city, Nerlug, twenty miles away on the mighty Amur River, they trek for hours on snowshoes to see it. Through that film, starring the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and replete with gorgeous women whom he succeeds in seducing one after the other with consummate ease, the boys' lives are changed forever. Over the next several months they travel seventeen times to see their hero. And when that film is replaced by another that is equally daring and seductive, their obsession only grows.
Written from the perspective of twenty years after these youthful events, Once Upon the River Lovefollows the destinies of these three young idealists up to the present day, to the boardwalks of Brighton Beach and the jungles of Central America.
With the same mastery of plot and prose that marked the author's Dreams of My Russian Summers,this novel demonstrates Andreï Makine's remarkable ability to recreate the past with such precision and beauty that the present becomes all the more poignant and moving.
Once Upon the River Loveoffers further proof that Andreï Makine is one of the major literary talents of our time.