29 February 2016

From a Large Flat Land: Andrei Makine

In a letter to his mother, written in 1919, T.S. Eliot, a native of the Midwest, might have been thinking of himself when he made this comment about the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev: "There are advantages in coming from a large flat country which no one wants to visit."    Turgenev, who died in France in 1883, made the transit from east to west and, a century later, so did Andrei Makine.

By chance, two of my favorite living Russian writers represent two different Russias.   Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is from Moscow, capitol city of European Russia although residents of St. Petersburg would loudly contest that designation on cultural grounds.   Andrei Makine comes from central Siberia, part of what is known as Asian Russia.    Born in 1957,  Makine. after several early displacements,  grew up in an orphanage.   Although his schooling was  erratic, Makine's teachers recognized a brilliant student.  Bilingual since early childhood, Makine wrote his doctoral thesis at the University of Moscow on contemporary French literature. 
In 1987, while taking part in a teacher exchange program with France, Makine asked for and was granted  political asylum.  At first he led a clandestine existence, taking shelter in the old Père Lachaise cemetery for a period he has described as one of "permanent despair."  He got his first job as a professor of Russian at the Lycée Jacques-Decour and then wrote another doctoral thesis - this one at the Sorbonne - on the Russian writer Ivan Bunin.  Makine, who has said "(S)tyle is more important. It's not the what, it's the how," wrote about Bunin. "He was a great stylist who wrote very suggestively. He didn't spray us with ideologies or worries. His writing is pure poetry." Makine has also named Katherine Mansfield as his favorite writer in English.
All Makine's novels have been written in French but they were so good that publishers suspected a hoax of some kind.  Makine played along, saying that the works were translations of his Russian originals and then they were published    Only with his third book, Once Upon the River Love, did Makine abandon the deception.  His next book, Dreams of My Russian Summers (1995) won  both of France's top literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis, establishing Makine as one of the most celebrated writers in Europe.   Success enabled him to acquire a home,  a former lunatic asylum in Montmartre. "The poet Gérard de Nerval was taken care of in my building.  It was the only place he felt really well. He found real happiness there."

Contemporary French fiction is characterized by a language in constant analysis and self-examination, what  the French refer to it as nombrelisme or navel-gazing.  Makine contrasts this to his style, calling it "external."  

"Beauty was the least of our preoccupations in the land where we were born, Utkin, me, and the others.  You could spend your whole life there and never discover whether you were ugly or beautiful, never seek out the secrets of the mosaic of the human face or the sensual topography of the human body."
 "Love, too, did not exactly take root in this austere country.  Love, for love's sake had, I think, simply been forgotten - had atrophied in the bloodbath of the war, been garroted by the barbed-wire entanglements of the nearby camp, frozen by the breath of the Arctic."

Its title accurately reflects the wistfulness that suffuses Once Upon the River Love (Au Temps du Fleuve Amour). The  river itself (Amur in Russian, Amour in French -- the pun in not possible to replicate  in English)  is just an element of the backdrop,  although the Amur is one of the world's  ten longest rivers, like so much else about Siberia, it seems very far away.
It is winter in eastern Siberia, the village is buried under snow up to the chimney tops, an escaped prisoner has frozen to death in a tree,  and the brightest lights are the windows on the trans-Siberian express.   Of course, the train seems to thunder as it passes in the dark of a brutally cold night. 
The residents of little Svetlaya are in no doubt that they live on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.  With meager prospects for the future - the only jobs around are in logging, mining, or guarding the local gulag - but they are fascinated by the shreds of Western culture that come their way.  
In a nearby village the Red October Cinema is running a sort of film festival of Jean-Paul Belmondo movies  That a run-of-the-mill B-movie adventure could undermine official Soviet propaganda  extolling the crop yields on a collective farm more effectively than lofty ideals of freedom and democracy is both charming and sad.   Three boys, Samurai, Utkin, who is disabled, and Mitya, make repeated pilgrimages to the cinema, tramping  through cold woods, so enamored do they become with the French tough guy on the big screen.  Although they have no way of knowing it,  each will eventually find his own way out of Siberia:   Samurai to die in an unnamed Central American liberation struggle, like Che Guevara,  Utkin to write captions for pornographic cartoons,  and Mitya who gets the prize - a job in the movie industry.  
Makine's attraction to the French language is an idea with a history behind it.   When Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, his novel about Russia during the time of Napoleon, two per cent of the novel (portions of dialogue) was written in French because  the upper class characters in his story would  have been ardent Francophiles.  For them France represented the culture they found lacking in their own country.  The romance continues to this day.

For further reading: Once Upon the River Love by Andrei Makine, translated from the Russian by Geoffrey Strachan, New York, Arcade Publishing: 1998.

1. Isaac Levitan - The Lake (unfinished), 1900, Russian State Museum, St.Petersburg.
2. Isaac Levitan - Winter. 1895, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Tania said...

And now, "de l'Académie française" !

www.thebluelantern.blogspot.com said...

Tania, Merci pour Le Figaro.
For those who don't read french, the article says that Andrei Makine was elected to a "chair" at the Academie Francaise on March 3, 2016. He was elected on the first ballot and will take the place that was formerly held by Assia Djebar.
Since he came to France makine received the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medeci.