A Woman Loved
by Andrei Makine
Maclehose, 302pp, £16.99
Near the end of this enchanting and disturbing novel Oleg, a filmmaker, stands with Eva, an actress, looking over the Baltic where “the snow continues falling into the silvery depths of the sea, in great, slow flakes.”
“They probably stood over there,” he says. “The future Tsar and Tsarina. Twenty years later the little boy who watched the snow falling would be the man beaten to death, strangled and disfigured by the lovers of the woman who was the little girl he held hands with. It’s a scene that haunts me. The beauty of that moment and then a tidal wave of absurdities – plots, conquests, rebellions, massacres, in a word, History…”
History has always pressed heavily on characters in Andrei Makine’s novels. Born in Siberia in 1958, he has lived half his life in France and writes in French, but he has never escaped the Soviet Union. He believes in the supreme importance of love for another person and in the beauty of moments which can briefly give meaning to life, but he has never been free of his awareness of the weight of History, the corruption and brutality of Power.
Oleg is making a film about Catherine the Great, the little German princess who became the Tsarina after a coup and the murder of her husband, Peter III. She is a fascinating figure: enlightened, liberal, yet autocratic and when necessary ruthless, infamous for the number of her lovers, and accused indeed of nymphomania. But was she hoping always to find someone who loved her for herself? That is Oleg’s question.
Catherine is his obsession for another reason. His family was one among the many who followed the little German princess to Russia. His father, an architect, having fought through the war in the Red Army, was afterwards sent to the Gulag for the crime of being an ethnic German, victim of a regime even more absurd, brutal and capricious than the Tsardom. Oleg himself will have trouble with the Soviet censors, and will indeed find himself thrown off his own film.
With great skill Makine weaves the two stories – Oleg’s and Catherine’s – together. There are moments of beauty and horror in both. What is Russian history? “Tyranny combined with a hunger for scientific progress… Violence plus Utopia, a very Russian formula.”
Oleg outlives the Soviet Union, disgraced and in poverty. Power wears a new face. Ideology gives way to money. One corruption succeeds another, State violence to private violence, commissars to oligarchs. A friend of his youth, making good in the new world, calls on him to revive his Catherine project, this time as a soap opera for his TV channel. Catherine can win him the ratings war – provided that Oleg serves up a meaty and very sexy dish. He may rebel, but in the end he can’t resist. Soviet man was a conformist of necessity; the new post-Soviet world demands its own conformity. The more things change, the more History remains “absurd, brutal and capricious”. Significant reality is to be found only in rare moments of beauty, tenderness and love, moments when the falling snow cloaks the world in softness.
Makine is a novelist who acknowledges the reality of how things are, and yet defies it. There is a perpetual tension in his work between the possibilities that life offers and the harsh reality of oppression. It is one of life’s bitter ironies that even a despot like Catherine the Great may search in vain for the love that some of the poorest of her subjects may receive. Oleg plays with the idea that, near the end, she toyed with the prospect of escape with the one lover, a much younger man, who demanded nothing of her. There was no escape, and a few years after her death, her son, the Tsar Paul, would be murdered like his father, leaving his heir, Alexander, burdened by guilt.
Chekhov once wrote that as long as Tolstoy was still alive and writing, it didn’t seem to matter that his own work fell short of what he intended it to be. I feel like that about Andrei Makine. He writes novels that invite one to live better, more intensely; he makes fiction matter. I would rather read him than any other novelist writing today. This is one of his best books, as good as anything he has written. I always advise anyone who hasn’t yet read him to begin with the early novel, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard-Bearer, and to follow it with Le Testament Francais and the novella A Life’s Music, which is a little masterpiece that says more in a hundred or so pages than lesser novelists manage in five hundred. This new one is the story (among much else) of “a man who did not know how to define himself as he confronted the world, inventing complicated identities for himself, alibis, justifications for his existence…” until he is granted for the moment at least “ a simple identity, free as his airy avenue that leads to the sea…”A happy ending? Yes, but one cannot escape awareness of the crushing cruelty of History, that record of the follies and viciousness of man.
We are fortunate, in our own grey time, to have a novelist like Makine, and he has been fortunate in the translator who has brought all his books to the English-reading world. Geoffrey Strachan renders him perfectly into English. I have read Makine in both French and English, and Strachan contrives to make the English reading experience no different from reading the original French. This is remarkable.