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'Unknown Man': The Riches Of A Terrible Past

Andrei Makine has been hailed as a Russian Proust and a French Chekhov. This isn't as excessive as it sounds, though his new novel shares more with Solzhenitsyn for its vivid depiction of the hardships of war and labor camps and its critical assessment of the triviality of capitalist culture run amok.

There's nothing trivial about Makine's work. Dreams of My Russian Summerseasily ranks among the favorite books I've ever reviewed. It's about a boy growing up in the harsh conditions of 1960s Soviet Russia under the enlarging influence of his French-born grandmother's stories of a richer, freer world. Since the book's publication in 1995, Makine has produced a string of beautiful elegies to Russia's tragic history — though none with quite the impact of that multiple prizewinning fourth novel.

The Life of an Unknown Man, his 12th novel, originally published in French in 2009 and ably translated, like the rest of his work, by Geoffrey Strachan, comes closest for me. It's about a disillusioned Soviet-born writer named Ivan Shutov, who rails against what he sees as the hollow poverty of contemporary literature. (We certainly disagree on Nabokov, whom he disdains as merely clever, a writer who impales words like butterflies.) When his much younger French girlfriend moves out of his Paris garret for a more promising prospect, Shutov — whose name derives from the Russian for sad clown or buffoon but aptly evokes "shut off" in English — decides to go back to Russia for the first time since he emigrated decades earlier. He hopes to reconnect with what really matters, including an old girlfriend, Yana.

Makine's book gains momentum when his protagonist lands in an utterly changed St. Petersburg. He's as flummoxed by its "geyser of energy" as by its flamboyant tercentenary revelries. The irony is that he — who escaped to the West — stayed stuck in the Soviet era while his country moved on.

Yana is now an elegant, frenetically busy businesswoman. She puts up Shutov in her opulent 11-room apartment, still under construction. Created by combining four communal flats, the new apartment is still occupied by one remaining holdout from the former 26 tenants. Volsky, a paraplegic who's about to be relocated to an old-age home, is the one person Makine's disoriented writer really connects with on his nostalgic pilgrimage — a fellow relic of the Soviet Union.

Andrei Makine has been hailed as a Russian Proust and a French Chekhov. Reviewer Heller McAlpin says that's not actually excessive praise.
/ Hermance Triay
Andrei Makine has been hailed as a Russian Proust and a French Chekhov. Reviewer Heller McAlpin says that's not actually excessive praise.

Makine's novels often take the form of a story within a story, in which a survivor of last century's miserable upheavals relates his or her harrowing tale to a younger listener — whether it's the French-born grandmother in Russian Summers telling her grandson about being trapped behind the Iron Curtain in the 1920s, or the pianist whose career was derailed by history in Music of a Life (2002). Volsky is also a musician — a singer whose heartbreaking love story encompasses the devastations of the siege of Leningrad, World War II battlefields and the frozen gulag.

Once again, Makine has written a book about the indomitability of the human spirit. But The Life of an Unknown Man is also a stern reminder of essential values — including "the wisdom of simple happiness." Volsky's tale of woe, like that of Makine's earlier heroes, offers inspiration because he rose above it. He "contrived to conquer the world's whirligig absurdity," figuring out "how to exist otherwise than in a world manufactured by the petty cruelty of men."

Hearing Volsky's story helps Shutov understand his unlikely nostalgia and "explain the richness of that wretched past." The old man's unwavering moral vision, which extends "immeasurably" beyond his own narrow view, provides a sharp contrast to the empty, frenzied materialist world of lavish apartments fitted with gold faucets — and gives both Makine and his character a subject well worth writing about.

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