The Life Of An Unknown Man
by Andrei Makine
When reviewing his last novel, Human Love, I described Makine as unashamedly romantic. He has an ability to wear his heart on his sleeve whilst not being terribly sentimental which could be summed up by a sentence in his latest novel where one character highlights 'The extreme difficulty of having faith in human goodness and at the same time the awareness that only this faith could still save.' By placing his characters in jeopardy and demonstrating the power of love in the face of it he has been able to write at a pitch that almost demands orchestral underscore. Human Love played out against the backdrop of Angolan revolution in the 1960's and 70's and took the reader on a harrowing journey. This time the theatre of war is back in his native Russia and covers the Siege of Leningrad, the march forwards to Berlin and beyond into the era of Stalin's purges. It is another harrowing tale, enough to make every hair on the head of its unknown man turn white, and yet it is a tale of nostalgia and admiration for 'not a territory but an era', the 'monstrous Soviet era.'
Makine begins his novel in the present day however with, naturally, a Russian emigre. Shutov, a former dissident who has lived in Paris for twenty years, is not only a disenchanted writer but
He is the absolute prototype of a man ditched by a woman young enough to be his daughter. The plot for a lightweight novel in the French manner, a hundred pages of Parisian bed-hopping and gloom. All a love affair such as his would be worth.
Makine has a lot of fun in this first section with his own literary influences. Comparisons with Nabokov, Proust and Chekhov have been made and it is the latter who provides part one with its repeating image of a couple 'hurtling down a snow-covered hill in a toboggan' (from A Joke) and Shutov's frustration that in a modern world it would be dismissed as sentimental, over the top, old-fashioned ('And yet it works!'). The fact that Shutov has misremembered the story undercuts wonderfully his treatment of his own love life and adds the perfect punchline to this slightly sad figure's own joke of a life.
Literary Paris fascinated her and Shutov seemed like a very well-established writer. The illusion lasted less than a year. The time it took for a young woman from the provinces to get her bearings and realize that this man was, in fact, no more than a marginal figure. And even his past as a dissident, which in the old days had given Shutov a certain aura, was becoming a flaw, or at least a sign of how prehistoric he was: just think, a dissident form the eighties of the previous century, an opposition figure exiled from a country that had since been erased from all the maps!
If the first section plays with the romantic nature of Chekhov the second satirises modern Russia through Shutov's confusion at its altered state when he makes a return journey in order to pursue an old flame. TV adverts, new social structures and the new order of power are all eye-opening moments for Shutov as he stumbles about in his ill-conceived plan. The targets in Putin's Russia are all pretty obvious and the fact is that these two sections take up two-fifths of a novel that only really gets going when Shutov meets and finally speaks to the man with the real story to tell. Awaiting his transfer to an old people's home which has been delayed by the tercentenary celebrations in St. Petersburg, the seemingly mute old man that occupies one of the apartments in the building in which Shutov is staying turns out in fact to have a lot to say.
Over the next hundred pages we hear from Volsky, the unknown man of the title, as he finally gives voice to a story that is both tragic and yet, as the title suggests, commonplace: 'A circle completed and, within it, the span of a whole life.' A singing student at the Conservatoire in Leningrad, he meets the woman who will form the other part of that circle just a day before the speakers that line the streets will bring the news of war. No sooner has he met Mila than they are separated by the realities of civilian life during military siege. Makine has undoubted skill in describing human hardship, the scenes in Leningrad are enough to set your teeth chattering or heighten any hunger pangs as Volsky struggles to survive on the meagre ration of 125 grams of bread.
He began exploring the very last zone that precedes extinction. He had always pictured hunger as a relentless, gut-wrenching torment. And so it was, for as long as one had the strength to feel it. Then the torture came to an end for want of a victim, the latter having become a shadow for whom a mouthful of water already represented a painful effort of digestion. The cold, too, caused suffering to those who were utterly exhausted and waiting for the tend. Yet this increasing weakness seemed to be external to the body. It was the world that was changing, making objects too heavy (the can in which the water was heating now weighed a ton), lengthening distances (three days before he had managed to reach the bakery: a veritable polar expedition).
Volsky comes as close as is possible to death, saved by an act of charity and the generosity of another. What really saves him however is the moment when he is reunited with Mila, already altered beyond recognition by the privations of war. The two of them grab hold of one another like the survivors of a shipwreck and their love alters their perception of the world around them, now seeing 'the world from a very remote perspective. A perspective that could have seemed godlike in its detachment yet was grievously human, for each of them greatly dreaded the other's death.' Their connection through music and singing (for Mila was another choral student) is another transcendent aspect and amidst a decaying city they add their voices to the others at the Musical Comedy Theatre. It is a salvation of sorts but as food continues to decline and the cold remains their company is depleted by occasional deaths, the parts allocated not so much by the director 'but by a silent being, present at every performance. The Grim Reaper himself.'
The inevitable call up for all men not already at the front eventually comes but before he leaves they both take part in concerts close to the front line. Makine creates a memorable set piece with the singers performing virtually under fire and it is when mortar shells begin to actually fall among them that Volsky and Mila are separated. We then follow Volsky as he joins the defence of Leningrad and I will stop describing any more of the plot there for fear of spoiling it. If the circle of a life is about bringing two points together to enclose it, then the trajectories of Volsky and Mila having already been separated and brought together twice will not be immune from repeating that pattern again. As in previous novels Makine specialises in the transcendence of love and pushes his characters to the very limits of human endurance in order to heighten that further. For that reason it's hard not to be slightly disappointed by the opening sections of the book but what they do allow is for Shutov to undergo a form of personal epiphany and, in the books final section, to find not only his writing but also his emotional life reinvigorated. If there are those that praise Makine with comparisons to Chekhov then it could be that those modern Russian criticisms of the master mentioned earlier are aimed by Makine squarely at himself. If so, then this book is eventually a fine rebuttal, a writer proving that it may be all the things you accuse it of being, 'And yet it works!'