In The Life of an Unknown Man Andreï Makine creates a work of simple elegance that at its core explores the relationship of the past to the present, of truth to art, and of truth to life.
The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine. Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan. Graywolf Press, 192 pages, $15.
By Nathaniel Beyer
Why read a novel? Even the short ones tend to be long and filled with words (gasp). Plus, as many people will tell you, they “aren’t real,” which I take to mean that they are not based directly and unequivocally on a set of “facts.”
Of course, if you are a Russian writer looking back over the twentieth century, questions about what is real and the value of words on a page are understandably complex. Andreï Makine, a Russian living in France, writing in French, but perhaps better described as kind of Soviet Proust, writes from the intersection of the present and the past, of facts and emotion. In his new novel, The Life of an Unknown Man, he creates a work of simple elegance that has at its core explores the relationship of the past to the present, of truth to art, and of truth to life.
The novel opens with Shutov, a Russian émigré writer in Paris whose most notable work is behind him, approaching the hump of middle age. He obsesses over his failed relationship with Léa, a woman two decades his junior. He also is brooding over a Chekhov short story in which a man meets a lover after many years apart. In the pages of Chekhov, he admires the startling power of an old-fashioned, breathless declaration of love, a passion that towers over the “pygmyism” of contemporary writers and their small-ball psychology. Thinking about Léa, Shutov enjoys playing the grumpy defender of things past against his former lover’s fondness for the new.
We are told Shutov has fallen in love “with every aspect of Léa”: the slope of her arm and the curve of her body, her worn, leather jacket and the “slightly childish diligence of her writing.” Yet as we read we see that his love is a kind of willful ignorance, part of a game played by two people who are reaching a point from which their lives will in time irrevocably diverge.
If this set up seems like the makings of another tale of a middle-aged man intent on self-destruction, the sort of thing already done to great effect by, say, Philip Roth or the two Richards, Ford and Russo, think again. Like Makine’s brilliant Dreams of My Russian Summers, The Life of an Unknown Man fully flowers when Shutov returns to his native Russia searching for the “golden foliage” of a lost love.
Shutov decides that the solution to his present troubles lies in the past, specifically his Russian past. He manages to track down his long-lost almost-love, Yana, with whom he spent an afternoon in a park decades before and who has since married and divorced an oil baron. She agrees to see him when he returns to St. Petersburg, even letting him stay at an apartment she is renovating. His trip coincides with the tercentenary celebration of the city, and the hotels are booked. However, it turns out that Yana, a modern Russian more interested in her cell phone than Chekhov, has little time for entertaining an old acquaintance.
At one point, wearied by the spectacle of the city’s celebration, Shutov returns to his quarters late. Tucked away in the apartment sits Volsky, a holdover from the building’s days as a communal dwelling. According to Yana, the old man is a deaf-mute awaiting final arrangements for transport to a nursing home. Impulsively, Shutov wheels a TV into Volsky’s room so he can watch the festivities. Surely, Shutov thinks, the sight will elicit a cry from the mute lips, a wail of “indignation and pain” that Shutov himself feels but can’t express. Instead, seeing an infomercial for a real estate development and recognizing the site as the location of a battle during World War II, Volsky begins to speak. It is his story that is at the heart of the novel.
Volsky’s narrative unfolds with the hypnotic power of a parable. A music student and singer with a promising career ahead of him, Volsky sits in a café, sipping hot chocolate with a group that includes Mila, a young woman who catches his eye. It is Leningrad, June, 1941, and they part. By October the country is at war, the city blockaded, and its people surviving on 25 grams of rationed bread each day, bread that has straw as its principle ingredient.
During this slow-motion nightmare, Volsky meets Mila again but at first fails to recognize her emaciated form. (He sees her as she hauls the body of her mother to the graveyard.) They are a pair with nothing left, aside from battling for survival. They wander off, eventually stumbling into a theater that puts on performances for the starving crowd, people so exhausted and starved that they no longer have the energy to clap but can only bow to show their pleasure. As war decimates the ranks of the actors, Mila and Volsky are called upon to sing and ultimately share their only kiss during wartime, playing the roles of Marie and d’Artagnan in an operetta version of The Three Musketeers.
It is as if love in such a cruel time can only be realized through the imaginary world of the theater. “A theatrical illusion created so close to extinction,” Makine writes, “acquired the force of a supreme truth.” Eventually, they sing for the soldiers at the city’s front lines and give a performance at the start of a suicidal offensive. Singing as the Russian troops dash towards the entrenched German positions, several of the troupe are shot, and both Mila and Volsky are wounded by mortar fire. Separated for the length of the war, Volsky becomes a soldier, his face scared, his hair turning white. In a passage that recalls Hemingway’s description of the retreat from Caporetto, Makine describes the Battle of Kursk, seeing the tanks as “hoards of black tortoises, their carapaces ramming one another, ejecting from their blazing shells human beings who burned like torches.”
Makine gives Volsky and Mila a dollop of human happiness. He finds her again in peacetime, disgraced from having to sell her body for food to feed a group of orphans she has looked after during the war. They find a burnt-out izba, a rustic cabin, to renovate. They rebuild the structure, he finds work as a mail carrier, and she teaches grade school. Near their house, they stumble upon a mass grave of German and Soviet soldiers, and the two plant a grove of trees on the site. This commemoration is a way for them to make sense of their experience, to heal by preserving and rebuilding the war-torn land.
In their story, Makine gives us a portrait of a love emerging from catastrophe. Indeed, their romance is not just forged through mutual survival—in fact, they spend most of the war apart—but through a process of purification in which everything but the most essential is burned away. All that remains is love and the human voice, a trope that Makine returns to throughout the book. “We need voices” an actor tells the pair during this horrific period in human history. Makine is dramatizing, brilliantly, the frailty and strength of human connection in a time of massive trauma.
If the heart of the book is Volsky’s tale of war and loss, why does Makine bring in Shutov? The contemporary story provides a critical contrast with the heroic past, a vision of the safe and sound self smothered in a sentimental self-regard. At the beginning of the book, Shutov is obsessed with duplicating an experience he sees in literature and a love he imagines took place in his past. Léa is a young woman who lives in the moment, attracted to current fashions and aesthetic fads. There’s nothing wrong with that—everyone starts out being naïve and impressionable. But Shutov is shut off from the present as he defensively rails against it. Ironically, he thinks his mistake was “his desire to love Léa as one loves a poem.” But it is this very desire that blunts his sense of reality.
In the end, Shutov realizes that he has misread the Chekhov story, that when the couple meets again after so many years the man only wonders what had made him love the woman in the first place. Shutov had read the story, and his life, through the lens of fantasy.
Why read this novel? It’s not just that Makine, by way of Geoffrey Strachan’s graceful translation, writes beautifully or that he envisions an emotional, personal truth within the violent rush of history. It is that the novel’s best moments invite us into another’s imagined life so that we can see the reality around us more clearly through the distorted mirror of fiction.