Siberian novelist Andrei Makine has become one of the wonders of modern Europe. After seeking asylum in France in 1987, he began to write fiction in French, and within an eye-wateringly short time established himself as one of the West’s finest writers.
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Dragging into his fiction all the melancholy that exile brings, Makine had seemed perfectly suited to France, itself no stranger to painful longing and Russian emigres. It looked as though this was his spiritual home, a sanctum from which he could safely explore his country, going into its bloodiest corners like a tongue probing a rotten cavity. This novel, however, suggests that Makine’s homesickness remains acute. It also shows that what he pines for has long since gone.
The Life Of An Unknown Man is an elegaic, sorrowful novel, as mournful and tender as a Mahler symphony. Its hero is a Siberian writer, much the same age as Makine, who lives in Paris. Shutov – a name meaning “sad clown” – is exhausted with the shallowness of the West, a feeling heightened by the fact his young girlfriend has just finished with him. Her infatuation lasted only a year, he reflects, “the time it took for a young woman from the provinces to get her bearings and realise that this man was, in fact, no more than a marginal figure.”
He is used to being abandoned, though, since he lost his mother as a young child and was brought up in an orphanage. The horrors of that time are hinted at only sketchily, but this harsh background is to assume greater significance when he encounters the true hero of this novel. Meanwhile, the barrenness of his life away from home becomes suddenly clear and intolerable: “His own exile banished him from the chronology of human beings. His friends were living their lives, marrying, surrounding themselves with children and grandchildren, while he was transforming himself into an ageless ghost.” To put himself back on the human clock in his homeland, he returns to St Petersburg for the first time in 20 years, and while there seeks out an old lover.
Makine evokes atmosphere with brilliant simplicity and charm. From the wistfulness of cloudy Paris he pitches the reader into the chaos that is modern Russia, a land whipped into a state of consumer madness, casting the West’s extravagance into the shade as it pursues “the frenzied search for a new logic to life after the highly logical madness of dictatorship”.
And yet it is a relic from that truly insane age whose story ignites this novel. In the house where his distracted former lover puts him up for his visit, he finds an elderly man awaiting his removal to an old people’s home. This man, previously considered mute and deaf, begins to talk to Shutov, as if recognising in him a rare affinity with a long-lost era.
Volsky is his name, and his tale is the stuff of legend. A brilliant singing student, his career was thwarted by the war, during which he survived the siege of Leningrad and, as a soldier, the march on Berlin. A passionate love affair with another singer is kindled among the cinders of ravaged Leningrad, a love that remains with him even now, as he approaches death, with the same intensity and devotion as when he was young.
Accounts of the atrocities of that era are legion, yet Makine makes it his own. Understated and at the same time lushly evocative and even romantic, his images are searing. The terror of starvation in a frozen city is almost palpable, as is the cruelty – “the wilful contrivance of evil” – of the regime that followed so quickly after the war. Yet, in the old man’s thankfulness for the good things he experienced, and for a love that cast everything else into insignificance, Shutov catches a glimpse of a past way of life that makes more sense, and is perhaps even more palatable than the brash society that has transformed his country.
Though he flirts with an excess of sensibility, Makine always reins it in before it swamps the clarity of his tale. Even so, this is a story saturated with loss and longing of every kind. The bone-deep ache of narrator and his old storyteller touch the reader at times with an almost physical power. Most disturbing is not the idea that the Soviet era might have been better in some respects than today’s heartless consumerism, but that, despite everything he has endured, Volsky has never become bitter.
In attempting to express emotions that go beyond the reach of words, Makine creates a novel that distils a miraculous example of human fortitude and love, and is in itself an extraordinary piece of work. A word of religion, as of party politics, would destroy a work such as this. What takes their place, and enriches the reader while also wringing his heart, is a numinous grandeur of spirit that captures the old Siberia and the human soul, no matter what country it lives in.