Brief Loves That Life Forever, by Andrei Makine
From fear to frustrated idealism, aspects of Soviet life are recalled by a watchful narrator
Brief Loves that Live Forever
History may provide a harsh legacy for its survivors, yet the prevailing theme of love as an even tougher master dominates this unusual episodic meditation from the Siberian-born Andreï Makine. It is not a formal narrative. Instead, the muted sequences recall moments from a life dominated by the changing face of modern Russia.
Makine’s literary life has been conducted through French, the language of the country in which he sought asylum in 1987. Yet he remains a consummately Russian writer whose subtle, passionate work, which includes the Prix Goncourt-winning Le Testament Francais (1995; 1997), Requiem for the East (2000, 2001), A Life ’s Music (2001, 2002) – possibly his finest work to date – and The Life of an Unknown Man (2009, 2010), is sustained by an eerie beauty and a melancholic awareness of the way lives falter into defeat.
There is also a gentle anger – people do not forget the past – and Makine , in this, his 12th book, again sensitively translated by Geoffrey Strachan, ensures that it is not only impossible to elude the past but also wrong to erase it.
In the opening chapter, his narrator recalls walking along in the company of a seriously ill man. “Suddenly he proposes that we go via the centre of the city, lengthening our journey by a diversion that is especially puzzling, since he can have no love for this city in northern Russia, where every street reminds him of his tormented life.”
After much effort on the part of the ill man, the two men arrive near a park railing as a car pulls up. A woman steps out of the vehicle, holding a boy’s hand. The child looks at the sick man, who’s having a coughing fit. It all seems quite random, yet the narrator is uneasy and often thinks of how his companion spat blood into an already fouled handkerchief, causing him to offer his own.
The man gags and splutters, watched by the narrator, who senses “the atrocious injustice of life, or History, or perhaps God, at all events the cruelty of this world’s indifference towards a man spitting blood . . . A man who had never had the time to be in love.” But it is not about not being in love; the man’s plight is about not having the time to enjoy love.
Elsewhere, the narrator describes watching a young woman in a cemetery in a town in southern France. She is crying, and as she walks away he goes to the grave where she had been and wonders: “A husband? A fiancé? A brother? Dead the previous year.” The sharp white sunlight reminds him of “a brilliant late winter’s day in my native land”. No matter where he is, the narrator, and one suspects Makine, is never far from Russia.
Each of the eight chapters – which are more like philosophical interludes, exploring the contrasting faces of love and the price it exacts – spans the life of the narrator from childhood in an orphanage to middle age. As a boy, he had sat in a classroom along with his fellow orphans when a man who had once known Lenin came to address the class. On the great leader’s birthday, April 22nd, the self-appointed member of “History’s elect” had come to speak about his relationship with Lenin. But he failed to convince; he seemed far too young. Then it transpired that the man, a performer well used to public speaking, had been only nine when Vladimir Ilyich had come to his village to observe the implementation of the party’s policy of introducing machinery to rural life. There had been a catastrophe: the tractor that the soviet was due to demonstrate to Lenin had broken down. The seriousness of this failure is not lost on the class. But the mechanic was not shot. Instead, having been calmly questioned by Lenin, the man detected the fault and the tractor started.
Aspects of Soviet life – the fear, the lack of privacy, the sexual repression, the frustrated idealism, and the impact all these had on lives – are recalled by the narrator, who has had to exist in the shadows of his many memories.
The tractor story was not sufficiently real for the boys at the orphanage. Their history teacher has another idea. She organises a visit to the village where a woman who knew Lenin now lives. The narrator sets off on the outing, in the company of five girls; none of the boys had wanted to come. It is an extraordinary event. When the group arrives, there is no trace of the woman. The girls return to the train station, and the narrator meets a girl who knows all about the now elderly woman who had paid a huge price for her association with Lenin, which had included the exchange of coded letters.
Betrayed by her husband and disowned by her children, the woman, who was eventually rehabilitated by the party and contacted by her family, has decided in old age to remain alone. Impressed by the girl’s knowledge, the narrator compliments her, only to be told she is the woman’s granddaughter and has tried in vain to contact her.
At times, Makine’s tone in this book approaches that of the parable teller, yet he succeeds in presenting his observations within the context of individual stories. In one of the most moving, the narrator recalls seeing his girlfriend off on the bus to Leningrad. As he waves he notices Zhorka, a man he knew when they were boys. They used to play in the woods, exploding old shells. One day, a shell had burst, maiming Zhorka for life, denying him any hope of love. The narrator tended to avoid him but, puffed up by the previous night’s passion, decides to hail him, and they set off to the woods.
Zhorka presents the narrator with a bunch of wild flowers. It is a poignant moment in a narrative that ends in equal measures of symbolism and irony.
In another sequence, an angry young woman marches through a ridiculously beautiful giant orchard too vast for the bees to pollinate. It will bear no fruit, nor will her idealised love be returned. The narrator will live to hear of her tragedy.
Andreï Makine has witnessed history transform his country. His sombre, perceptive fiction reflects each ebb and flow; his quiet voice is unique. Even here, in one of his minor works, he again articulates the profundity of human experience – no small feat.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.