The Spouse and I are hoping to visit Russia next year, so I’m on the lookout for contemporary books about Russia so that I have a bit of a feel for the place before we get there. I’ve read some of the Great Russians but I haven’t ever come across a single book written by a Russian woman and I don’t think I’ve read anything more recent than Doctor Zhivago or Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward.
The Life of an Unknown Man is by a Russian emigré who writes in French but it’s a powerful evocation of contemporary Russian life, and how its tragic history lies beneath the glitzy surface of the new Russia.
According to Wikipedia:
Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in particular is noted for exploring suffering in works such as Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. Christianity and Christian symbolism are also important themes, notably in the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. In the 20th century, suffering as a mechanism of evil was explored by authors such as Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. A leading Russian literary critic of the 20th century Viktor Shklovsky, in his book, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, wrote, “Russian literature has a bad tradition. Russian literature is devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs.”
From my experience of reading 19th and 20th century Russian literature, this is certainly true, and it’s also true of Makine’s story. Shutov is a Russian emigré and a minor writer now living in France. He’s not fashionable because he doesn’t care for postmodernism or experimentalism. He ekes out a modest living in a small anonymous apartment and seems to have no friends. When his Parisian girlfriend meets someone her own age, this prompts him to go in search of a long-lost love back in Russia.
Not having kept up with events in post-Soviet Russia he is expecting Moscow to be shabby and defeated as it was when he went into exile, but his fantasy of resuming this old affair with Yana collapses when he discovers that she is remarkably rich and successful. He was expecting her to be a bit down-at-heel too, but it turns out that she’s a well-preserved 50-something with nary a wrinkle in sight. He is the one who is shabby and doesn’t fit into her luxurious lifestyle.
There’s no fool like an old fool they say, but you can’t help feeling sorry for this melancholy character as he mopes around wondering how he’s managed to get through life without achieving much. What changes his life, and lifts this novel out of the ordinary, is his meeting with Volsky, an old man in the apartment block which Yana plans to develop. He needs to be got out of the way, and that’s not hard because he’s deaf and mute and of no consequence at all.
As Yana and her casually indifferent offspring organise for him to be shuffled off somewhere out of sight and out of mind, Shutov discovers that Volsky is neither deaf nor mute. The story of his life is extraordinary.
Volsky is a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad. At the time that the war begins he is a student at the Conservatory and he meets Mila, the love of his life, for the first time. They are separated, and miraculously reunited, and then as the siege bites, they form a troupe of singers to try to lift morale amid the starvation and death in Leningrad’s bitter winter. In contrast to the bland objectivity of the Wikipedia entry, the images that Makine paints of the siege are searing:
They hardly spoke any more. Words had lost their grip on what they were living through. They would have had to refer to these blocks of stone harbouring corpses as ‘houses’. And these vague, angular sketches of humanity as ‘townspeople’. ‘Food’ meant boiled leather, and the paste from wallpaper boiled in water. (p118)
Volsky is conscripted into the army, and isn’t reunited with Mila until after the war. She has had horrific experiences too, but despite her own suffering she cannot forget the corrupting effects of starvation on the orphans she cared for. She tells Volsky about the boy who stole bread gained at great cost which should have been shared with the other children….
The child who was eating it (it was Edward) did not hide himself, looked at her like an animal that knows it has done wrong. She slapped him, yelled oaths never uttered in front of children, wept. Then went rigid, helpless, staring at his young face disfigured by fear and the instinct to survive. Still chewing, he sniffled: ‘I was very hungry…My uncle works in the Party administration.’ These words disarmed her, so absurd did this reference to the apparatus of power coming from a boy of eleven standing at a table where there were still several crumbs of bread left. She knew he was lying. With a highly placed uncle he would not have been here among these lost children. He must have heard someone using the phrase, sensed the weight of authority that lay behind it, and repeated it like a parrot, hoping for privileged treatment. (p162)
In the midst of this horrific deprivation, even the children knew that the privileged did not suffer as they did.
Makine goes on then to tell how when the siege is lifted and the war is over, Mila and Volsky come to terms with the misery of the past by living in the present. They rebuild a quiet life on the outskirts of the city, and find contentment caring for orphaned children. But fate has worse in store, because Stalin’s purges begin and the couple are denounced for having ‘fabricated the myth of a Leningrad fighting all alone, without the Leadership of the Party.’ (p202)
To Shutov’s amazement, Volsky has lived a life of suffering that is beyond belief and yet in his old age and about to be turfed out of his home, he is serene. The story of his transcendent love for Mila is one of the most beautiful I have ever read.
By the way, if you too are thinking of travelling to Russia, you really must visit this website: it is full of smart advice delivered with great humour. And they offer a Russian reading list as well.
Geordie Williamson reviewed The Life of an Unknown Man for the ABC.
© Lisa Hill
Author: Andreï Makine
Title: The Life of an Unknown Man
Translator: Geoffrey Strachan
Publisher: Sceptre 2010
Source: Kingston Library