Exile and memory stalk Russian writer Andrei Makine

Andrei Makine’s fiction conveys a mood closely linked with his dislocation

Andrei Makine: “French gives me the distance writers need. You need to be away from something, a memory, a country.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Andrei Makine: “French gives me the distance writers need. You need to be away from something, a memory, a country.” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

It could easily be presented as a story from another era, the dramatic defection of a young Russian while on an official visit to France. A casual glance at the biography of the Russian-born writer Andrei Makine is reminiscent of cold war thrillers or of the real-life reports of how tennis players and athletes, violinists and ballet dancers or angry poets such as Nobel Literature laureate Joseph Brodsky seized an opportunity to flee.

But Makine, author of Le Testament Francais (1995), his fourth novel and the first book to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, and the beautiful elegy, A Life’s Music (2001), is that bit different; he smiles and shrugs and clearly would prefer to keep his personal story to himself because he knows that, eventually, he will write it all down.

Unlike a reporter seeking facts and the exact chronology, Makine is interested in mood and memory as well as the melancholic nostalgia which undercuts his limpid fictions. He says he writes for “all those people who had no chance to tell their stories”. Uneasy with the word “obligation”, he says he considers writing a vocation. And it suits his slightly otherworldly, wide-eyed demeanour; Makine at 58 is a truth teller whose approach is similar to that of South African writer Damon Galgut.

Makine was invited to Dublin by the French embassy to participate in the Francophonie, a month-long celebration of French language and culture. On being asked why he left Russia in 1987, considering it was the moment when the political situation seemed poised to become more human, he shakes his head: “I didn’t leave Russia; ‘my’ Russia left me. It had begun to change, it was becoming westernised and well this has only got worse, all the greed and corruption took over and well, it was no longer the place I knew.”

He speaks in a mixture of French and English, quickly revealing his logical turn of mind and his humour. “Name an English writer,” he asks. Shakespeare – that pleases him although he dismisses Dickens. “Name a German.” Goethe. “Good, but now name a French writer.” He holds up his hand and reels off a list. He then does that with Russian literary giants.

Books and their covers

His point is made. Gazing at the collection of his novels I have brought with me, he picks one up and exclaims with the exasperation of a true Parisian: “The English covers are so ugly, why is this? Why this fondness for the ugly? The French editions are lovely.”

Makine deflects any questions about Putin’s Russia, aside from conceding that it can’t be easy ruling over a large country with so many enemies at every border. Whatever about the wider, philosophical nature of his work, he does not offer easy statements on contemporary politics. It is ironic a writer who belongs so much to the Russian literary tradition happens to write in French. It happened for various reasons, not only because he decided to seek asylum – “but writing in French gives me the distance that writers need. You need to be away from something, a memory, a country. In French I am more careful, deliberate. I think about the words I use.”

His spoken French is clear and formal, easy to follow. He speaks it with a Russian accent.

Legend has it that when Makine first arrived in Paris, he lived in a cemetery for two years. “No” he laughs, “two weeks and it was good, mad people live in cemeteries and they are interesting.” Nowadays home is Montmarte. Piecing together his story is like learning a dance; he did serve in Afghanistan and was wounded when a tank was blown up. He winces slightly, he will wrote about it all in his fiction which is autobiographical yet mysterious. Ambivalence is central to his work, his narrators are constantly revising their findings.

Requiem for the East is my most autobiographical novel,” he says.

“It is also the most painful. Curiously for all that sadness, it is the one which women seem to like more than men do.” It follows three generations of a family through the hell of 20th century Russian history.

“In America it is called Requiem for a Lost Empire,” he says and with a smile announces, “If it was called Requiem for the East in America the people would think it was about New York.” Very funny. Yet Makine is not anti-American and smiles at the mention of the young boys in Once Upon a River of Time (1994) who lived in a Siberian village and dreamed of the world beyond it.

Gift of French

His native Siberia was where he spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and learned his French* from a woman who most likely was not his grandmother after all: “But she gave me this gift, French.” Makine left Russia when other young writers were beginning to swagger with the new freedom and write satires which were often heavy-handed. His art is different and although he is often compared with Chekhov, the Russian master he most admires is Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. “He is a great stylist, not so read as he should be.” Bunin also moved to France and died there in 1953.

Words are important, says Makine, the wrong one could get you sent to the Gulag. But the right when used are the stuff of art. “It is how you use them, the style.

“Pushkin did not use that many words, but his art . . .”

*This article was amended on March 14th, 2016.

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