by Andreï Makine
Although born in Russia Andreï Makine sought asylum in France, writes in French and has won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, Frances top literary prizes, with his novel La Testament Français (published in English as Dreams of My Russian Summers) . Whilst I found that book a little sentimental I did enjoy the romanticism of his last novel The Woman Who Waited and the spare brilliance of A Life's Music. Makine is unashamedly romantic and unafraid of making bold gestures in his writing; the stakes are always high and the themes fundamental to human existence. The title of his latest novel covers the two biggies: what it means to be human, and love. He has widened his landscape in this tale which takes us from the political unrest of west Africa to the frozen wastes of Russia and gives a unique perspective on Africa during the turbulent 1960's and 70's through the eyes of Angolan revolutionary Elias Almeida. It is a view of the world both painful and uplifting, focusing again on the fundamentals, 'When under threat, our existence is laid bare and we are shocked by the stark simplicity of what drives it.'
The novel is actually narrated by a Russian writer who shared a cell with Almeida; who in fact took Almeida for dead and tried to steal a pen from his body, the pen with which he writes the book we are reading, of course. As a child in Angola, Almeida had seen his mother prostitute herself and left to die after an interrogation which leaves her with a broken collarbone poking through her skin. This image keeps returning to him and his need to erase it helps form his belief in making a world where such a thing couldn't happen. When he goes to find his father in the jungles of the Congo he is caught up in the revolutionary zeal of one of the men there; a certain Ernesto Guevara. With his youth and the words of the Argentine ringing in his ears he sees revolution as the means to transform the way the world loves. 'For what is the point of such liberating turmoil if it does not radically change the way we understand and love our fellow human beings?'.
It is the very opposite that brings him face to face with the woman who will haunt his life. Whilst in Moscow, having been recruited by the Russians, he is attacked by racist thugs but saved from a beating by Anna, a beautiful Russian. The two of them follow a doomed trajectory through the history of Soviet sponsored political ferment. This is a theme familiar from his previous work; lovers separated by circumstance and yet connected by their love. That in this case the love is unconsummated shows that in this period of ideology it is perfect for a man like Almeida to carry that through his struggles. In this novel, against such a volatile backdrop, love is shown to be a far more fragile concept than before. The characters, Almeida in particular, are placed in such peril that it is never certain what contact if any they may have with each other again. The scenes of violence in Africa are particularly brutal (much like the film The Last King of Scotland), the image of a child soldier wearing a broken gas mask waving a gun through the bars of their cell showing clearly the tenuous grasp we all hold on life and the capriciousness of death. Another startling image is that of a woman raped by the UNITA soldiers holding Almeida and our narrator captive. As she lies dying they search her mouth to find the rough diamonds she has concealed there, the reason for her silence during their assault. Her bruised and violated body not only corporeal but standing as a metaphor for what is happening to the country itself.
Makine returns to themes and images again and again, their import changed each time by what has happened in the interim. Some may find this is simply repetitive but it has the power to show the danger of not learning from history, even within our own lifetime. Even the thought of return itself is a recurring theme.
'When death stares us coolly in the eye we perceive that in our lives there have been a few hours of sunlight or darkness, a few faces to which we return continually, and that what has kept us alive, in fact, is the simple hope of finding them again.'
This novel is a brave undertaking, not simply by Makine but by the reader as well. You may not like the world he depicts but it is after all the one we live in. As with any novel that tackles such huge ideas it is prone to the odd clunky moment but there is lots to admire. Almeida remembers the safety of burying his face in the crook of his mother's arm. It is a comfort you may wish for yourself after completing this harrowing journey.