Waiting for the hammer to fall
by Andrei Makine, translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Sceptre, 182pp, 12.99
THE narrator is a Russian writer in his twenties. Living in Leningrad during the Brehznev years he finds himself caught in "the vicious circle of dissident literature", where the choice seems to be "to complain about the regime and not write, or to write purely to complain about it". He feels this predicament strongly at a party given in honour of a visiting US journalist, and not only because his only recently ex-girlfriend can be heard making love with another man behind a canvas screen.
So, partly in disgust, he accepts an assignment to write about surviving folk-customs in the frozen north. "I had come," he reflects, "to escape from people who found our times too slow. But what I was really in flight from was myself, since I differed very little from them".
He bases himself at Mirnos, once a collective farm, now all but abandoned, inhabited almost entirely by old women. In the whole district there are only a handful of children. The woman who teaches them is different from the rest. She is younger, still in her forties: all the old women depend on her. Yet she seems as frozen as the neighbouring lake in winter. She has waited 30 years for the return of her fianc, who went to war in April 1945. The more the narrator learns of her way of life and history, the more mysterious and attractive she becomes, The story traces the development of their relationship, but it is also the story of the narrator's education in the realities of life.
"In this remote corner of the Russian North I had expected to find a microcosm of the Soviet age, a caricature of this simultaneously messianic and stagnant time. But time was simply absent from these villages, which seemed as if they were living on after the disappearance of the regime, after the collapse of the empire. What I was passing through was, in effect, a premonition of the future. All trace of history had been eradicated. What remained were the gilded slivers of the willow leaves on the dark surface of the lake, the first snows that generally came at night, the silence of the White Sea, looming beyond the forests. What remained was this woman in a long military greatcoat, following the shoreline, stopping at the mailbox where the roads met. What remained was the essence of things."
It is Makine's ability to get to that essence, to extract significance from the fleeting moment or impression, that makes him such a remarkable novelist. He deepens our understanding and quickens our appreciation of life.
All great writers have certain themes, moods, images, to which they return time and again. For Dickens it was the memory of the blacking-factory to which he was, if only briefly, consigned as a child: ruined or deprived children are at the heart of his work, and the question is whether they can escape and recover, or will be submerged. For Stendhal it was the tedium and stifling hypocrisy of the years that followed Napoleon's fall, and it is against this constricting respectability that his spirited heroes must struggle.
Makine has now lived in France for almost 20 years but his theme is the battle of individuals to be true to themselves and to retain a belief in the possibilities of experience, in that "simultaneously messianic and stagnant" Soviet time. Though he was born only in 1957, his novels, even those set almost in our own day, turn on the terrible paradox of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany: that this epic time of heroism and suffering which demanded so much of the Russian people was also a time of the Great Lie. And it is against the Lie, and in search of the Truth that can give meaning to life, that his novels raise their profoundly human voice.