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Old 25th Mar 2005, 12:00   #1
bakunin_the_cat
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Default Andrei Makine: Confessions of a Fallen Standard Bearer

If I'd seen this in the shop, without the WBD recommendation, I might have bought it. A book about Soviet Russia. A book about two young 'pioneers' marching towards the dawn of a new age, waking up one day to realise that it was all just a sham and as time moves on, whatever illusions they had left were shredded and gutted in the bloodbath of Afghanistan.

Plenty of material there, you'd think to write a pretty good novel. Except he forgot to write it. It seems like having had this great idea, no doubt coloured by his own childhood experience, Makine either couldn't be bothered or, as I suspect, wasn't up to the task of writing it.

Ah but you say, you're missing the point. The book's is really about life within a narrow area. The courtyard. The clatter of dominoes on the domino table. The hum of the babushkas muttering about the length of Svetlana's skirt and old Yuri's fondness for vodka.

But if that was the point, again it falls down. The writing just isn't good enough, evocative enough, inventive enough. If that was the idea, I'd want to feel like I practically lived there. I don't. I feel like I've had it described to me by someone not gifted at description.

That said, it's not all bad. There are occasional moments especially earlier on in the book where he's describing the kids' total trust in the future, of belief in progress where you do think hey maybe this guy can write after all. Sadly these disappear far too quickly, living little more than a ripple in the memory of quality.
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Old 31st Jan 2008, 22:00   #2
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Default Andreï Makine

If the unnamed narrator of Andreï Makine’s The Woman Who Waited (2004) was of the same era as the titular woman he would have been packed up and sent off to war and learnt a bit about the harsh realities of life. But the war was thirty years ago and in the Russia of the 1970s, under Brehznev, this young man has instead been packed up and sent off to university, only to have his disdain for the government shaped by the enclave of of writers, artists, and other liberals he finds himself amongst.

That’s all backstory, however, to The Woman Who Waited, which begins years later, looking back at those years and, for the narrator, the event that lingers on in his memory. Back then he was an arrogant young writer who takes up an opportunity to head out from Leningrad to a desolate village in the rural north - where a handful of old woman and just enough childen to run a single room school live - to research the folklore of the people.

The village, however, has little folklore to share, any tradition it once had now in ruins due to the war:
For it was this that had erased all other legends from the popular memory. To these elderly inhabitants of Mirnoe it was becoming the one remaining myth, a vivid and personal one, and one in which the immortals, both good and evil, were their own husbands and sons, the Germans, the Russian soldiers, Stalin, Hitler. And more specifically, the soldier Vera was waiting for.
Vera, a woman in her mid-forties, is the woman our narrator becomes fixated by. Thirty years before her husband-to-be went off to war and never returned. Through all this time there’s little in her loss to suggest she has given up the ghost or that her unflinching hope has slipped into ritual:
At this crossroads there was a small sign fixed to a post bearing the name of the village, Mirnoe. A little below this a mailbox had been nailed to it, empty for most of the time but occasionally harbouring a local newspaper. Vera went up to the post, lifted the box’s tin flap, thrust her hand inside it. Even from a long way off I sensed that the gesture was not automatic, that it had still not become automatic.
To our narrator, she’s a simple person. Indeed all these village types are. While Vera continues the wait for her husband, she spends her time teaching the children, looking after the women of Mirnoe, and, when she allows herself time, taking off to the train station to wait once more. There’s nothing in their lives, from what he can intuit, that makes them his equal. On first meeting Vera, having heard about her story, he stupidly assumes that there is nothing about her that can surprise him:
I followed her with my eyes for a long time, struck by a simple notion that made all other thoughts about her destiny pointless: ‘There goes a woman,’ I said to myself, ‘about whom I know everything. Her whole life is there before me, concentrated in that distant figure walking beside the lake. She’s a woman who’s waiting for the man she loves for thirty years, that is, from time immemorial.’
But as the two spend more time together Vera continues to surprise our narrator, consistently challenging his every preconceived idea about village life, village people, and herself. When it was once thought fit for satire , it becomes clear that “these villages were quite simply abandoned or dying, reduced to a mode of survival not very different from the stone age”. He even finds himself, in relation to the world in which he grew up, coming to understand how irrelevant some things are:
‘I also realized that up here in Mirnoe all those debates we had in Leningrad, whether anti-Soviet or pro-Soviet, meant nothing. Coming here, I found half a dozen very old women who’d lost their families in the war and were going to die. As simple as that. Human beings getting ready to die alone, not complaining, not seeking someone to blame.’
Makine’s telling of the story is beautifully translated and eminently readable, the prose often lyrical, always engaging, the lightness of its meditations hiding the weight of their message which, like its haunting tone, echo long after the last page has been turned. To the narrator, by capturing Vera in prose “a kind of murder occurs” in the way that his attempt to portray her words prove a barrier to “this being of infinite and inexhaustible potential” - but it’s Vera who is able to move on by burying her past, while the reader just sits there, reflecting.
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Old 31st Jan 2008, 22:25   #3
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Default Re: Andreï Makine

Merged into our previous thread (that is, post!) on Makine. I knew we had one somewhere...
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Old 5th Sep 2008, 20:27   #4
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Default Re: Andreï Makine

I read Human love(amour humain) this summer and my love for Makine is growing steadily with each books.This is a one in the hard line,like Requiem for the East,about war and love.Like in all his works he manage to nail an idea,a felling in you.Lots of repetition,a thing said usually echoes few time in the next pages,like ricochet,and when it should be ennoying it is enjoyable.
It's my forth and next is Music of a life(music d'une vie) till i read them all,and then start again...
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Old 10th Oct 2008, 13:39   #5
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Default Re: Andreï Makine

I finished Music of a life last night and a half
If any of you want to try Makine,this is the book i would most recommand.It's short,beautifull as always,incredibly clever and humain,ironique at times.Little more than 100 pages of pure mastery,of perfectly balance prose,of images that seems futiles and becoming escential to the story.
If was in bed shaking my head,stuned by the power of the tales,very few books left me in that state of wonder.
I came prepared and still was again surprised.
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Old 10th Oct 2008, 13:55   #6
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Default Re: Andreï Makine

Thanks saliotthomas - I keep seeing Makine in the shops but hadn't heard of this title. Might give it a go. (Here is the UK edition for anyone else interested.)
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Old 10th Oct 2008, 14:09   #7
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Default Re: Andreï Makine

This is it.I liked the praises that sound astonishingly sincere when made about Makine.

Quote:
'When I describe Andrei Makine as a great writer, this is no journalistic exaggeration but my wholly sincere estimate of a man of prodigious gifts. In his combination of clarity, concision, tenderness and elegiac lyricism, he is the heir to Ivan Bunin, the first Russian ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.' -- Francis King, Spectator
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Old 10th Oct 2008, 15:57   #8
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Default Re: Andreï Makine

I read 'A Life's Music' when I was working in the Amazon.co.uk warehouse. They tend to overstaff in the run up to Christmas (because most temporary workers just quit rather than working the compulsory Christmas Eve shift), so I had time to read the whole book during a lull in the work. Reading in a crowded warehouse isn't ideal, and I can't remember much about it except that it beat picking and packing. A recommendation of sorts.

Edit: Though I read 'The House at Pooh Corner' the day before in the same warehouse and would pick that as the better of the two.
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Old 2nd Nov 2008, 21:47   #9
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Default Re: Andreï Makine



There is a tune, for which I'd gladly part
With all Rossini, Weber, and Mozart,
An ancient air, whose languid melody
Has secret charms that speak only to me*...

We've all had them, those dreams whose intimations of life are so strong that we can see, smell, and embrace someone we love and long for just as they slip from the grasp of light sleep. We wake up, dizzy and lump throated, frantic to bring the dream back, to sink into it again and to possess that person for one moment longer, knowing that the trance was sweetest just as it was lost.

The Franco-Russian author Andreï Makine captures this moment when ''secret charms'' speak in his 1995 novel Dreams of My Russian Summers. I read the novel with mixed expectations, having no knowledge of the author but an interest in his 2006 novel, The Woman Who Waited after reading this review. My utter lack of familiarity with Proust, particularly with À la recherche du temps perdu, caused me initially to doubt my adequacy to approach Makine's novel of remembrance. However when I sat down with Dreams of My Russian Summers, all doubts and fears were swept aside by the beauty of the language as translated by Geoffrey Strachan.

Dreams of My Russian Summers is as difficult to encapsulate as that achingly sought spectre who appears then vanishes in troubled sleep. Makine jumps back and forth in time to tell the coming of age story of a Russian boy who spends summers with his grandmother, Charlotte, in her apartment near the steppe outside the Siberian village of Saranza. From her flower potted balcony, Charlotte entrances the unnamed boy and his sister with stories of France, her homeland, creating for them a gilded world of tragedy and romance that begins with the 1899 death of French president Félix Faure in apoplectic orgasm.
The death of Félix Faure made me aware of my age: I was thirteen; I guessed what ''dying in the arms of a woman'' meant, and from now on I could be spoken to on such subjects. Furthermore, the courage and total absence of hypocrisy in Charlotte's story demonstrated what I already knew: she was not a grandmother like the others. No Russian babushka would have ventured on such a discussion with her grandson. In this freedom of expression I sensed an unaccustomed perception of the body, of love, of relationships between man and woman -- a mysterious ''French outlook.''
With the narrator's entrée to French lore, his imaginative powers are unfettered from their Russian beginnings within the bleak concrete blocks of Soviet housing. Nightly spellbound by his grandmother's tantalizingly descriptive summer tales of France, the young boy feels himself drawn to her native tongue and its ability to portray emotion. He's captivated in such a way that his worldview suddenly bursts into being, alive with empathy for persons both fictional and corporeal.
The fatal love that had caused the heart of the president to burst reshaped the France that I carried inside me. This came mainly from storybooks. But on that memorable evening the literary characters who rubbed shoulders on its highways seemed to be awakening after a long sleep...Without being able to explain it myself, I felt as if I heard a string vibrating in the soul of this woman (referring to Emma Bovary). My own heart sang out in unison. A smiling voice that came from Charlotte's stories prompted me: ''Emma Bovary, c'est moi!''
The burgeoning empathy that the narrator describes suddenly enfolds not only his beloveds, but the unsavory and brutal as well. The boy is able to perceive motivations that are exceedingly noble and those that are much less so. He feels his grandmother's fear and ultimate bravery in wartime. He keens intimately the excitement of his friend Pashka upon hearing a poem by Victor Hugo. Simultaneously, the now lustful teenage boy understands the desire for power embodied in stories he hears about Lavrenti Beria, the despotic head of Stalin's secret police and serial rapist who trawled the streets of Moscow for prey in his limousine.
And I hated myself! For I could not help admiring this stalker of women. Yes, within me there was someone who -- with dread, with repulsion, with shame -- reveled in the power of the man with the pince-nez. All women belonged to him! He cruised around the vastness of Moscow as if in the middle of a harem. And what fascinated me most was his indifference. He had no need to be loved, he did not care what the women he chose might feel toward him. He selected a woman, desired her, possessed her the same day. Then forgot her. And all the cries, lamentations, sobs, groans, supplications, and curses that he had occasion to hear were for him only spices that added to the savor of the rape.

I lost consciousness at the start of my fourth sleepless night. Just before fainting, I felt I had grasped the fevered thought of one of those raped women, who must have realized that whatever happened she would not be allowed to leave. This thought, which cut through her enforced intoxication, her pain, her disgust, resounded in my head and threw me to the ground.
In such manner, the boy grapples with his newfound powers of empathy. All the while, as the narrative shifts and flashes forward and back, both the boy and his grandmother grow older. Now a young man with his own emerging, complex history, the narrator searches for the right tools to wield in the world as an imaginer and empathizer.
This language-tool, employed, sharpened, perfected, was, I told myself, nothing other than literary composition. I had already sensed that the anecdotes about France with which I had amused my fellow pupils throughout that year were the first draft for this novelist's language: had I not manipulated it to please sometimes the ''proletarians'' and sometimes the ''aesthetes''? Literature was now revealed as being perpetual amazement at the flow of words into which the world dissolved. French, my grandmaternal tongue, was, I saw now, the supreme language of amazement.
All of which sent a pang through me and caused me to feel the need to rent a Parisian garret and reside forevermore among words, wine, words, words! Then, I looked round the office lunchroom. The jig was up. The reverie was ended; clients would be waiting. As someone who considers herself the most selfish of readers, Makine's journey of emotional involvement with fiction and her human counterparts affected me deeply, though the novel must be experienced in its entirety for its languorous qualities to seep in. No amount of searching for the best passages can find the wispy loved one. To my unpardonable delight, none of the dog earing I lavished upon my lovely hardback edition can target exactly the right phrases. Dreams of My Russian Summers is the first book in a long time that I instantly began to reread after finishing it, only to quit in exasperation, as though I had tried to hold someone that last, flickering moment before they vanished forever, as though I had awakened from a delectable dream and was caught trying to return.


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Old 5th Nov 2008, 18:05   #10
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Default Re: Andreï Makine

A beautifull review Beth.On of the best i read in a long time,not only because i love Makine but because it perfectly recreate fellings and atmosphere of the book,this isolation and intimatie certain read can sumon. It so good having someone put the right words on impressions onself cannot expresse propely.Bravo again and thank you.
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