Brief Loves That Live Forever
by Andrei Makine
(translated by Geoffrey Strachan)
Siberian-born Andrei Makine's latest novel lives in the memory long after the last page is turned. In a series of interlocking episodes, the narrator - like Makine, an orphan - guides us through the totalitarian world of Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Makine's prose is spare and meditative, and leads us deep into memories of a world now gone.
First, we meet a Soviet-era dissident, Dmitri Ress. He has been singled out for particularly harsh punishment not because of the ferocity of his attack on the system, but because he criticised "the servility with which all men in all ages renounce intelligence to follow the herd". This was subversion of the worst kind and so the state set out to break him.
From this moment on Makine leads us deeper into a world of pomp and misery, of industry and decay, as the orphan narrator recounts his journey into adulthood. As a child who believes in the system and the future that his elders have promised him, he panics in the tangled maze. And when eventually he manages to escape, it is not the glorious future he finds but a woman, mourning her dead husband, whom he finds unforgettably beautiful in her grief.
Here is the theme that knits together the diverse episodes of this slim volume: that the fleeting happiness of love in the present will always have more resonance than either rage at the past or the promise of the future. We see this when our orphan, now on the brink of adolescence, meets a young girl who has come to find her grandmother - a woman who had once been a companion to Vladimir Lenin but who now, her revolutionary ideals betrayed, keeps herself hidden.
We see it in the soft acceptance of this 15-year-old who waits patiently for our adolescent orphan while her mother jostles with crowds of other women to throw her prisoner husband a food parcel. We see it when the two young lovers have nowhere to be together in private because "love is in essence subversive". And we see it in the astonishing spectacle of a Soviet apple orchard which our narrator, now a young adult, visits.
So vast is the orchard that it can be seen from space, but as a source of fruit it is useless: no bee would have the flying power to penetrate and pollinate it. Kia, a fellow orphan, uses the orchard to press home her point about the madness of the communist system. She wants to disabuse our hero of any illusions he might still hold about his country.
Finally we are brought full circle to the dissident Ress and the love that kept him alive when the iron fist of an immensely powerful state tried to destroy him.
Makine, who writes in French, is an elegant stylist, though not always easy to read. Sentences that at first appear simple turn out to be sticky with ideas: hefty thoughts are compacted into sparse prose. Marvellous images jostle with soft conclusions: love, it seems - at least on the surface - is all.
Guardian News & Media