Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2020

Le Testament Français by Andreï Makine, translated by Geoffrey Strachan

Le Testament Français was published in the US as Dreams of My Russian Summers, but UK publishers retained its French title even in translated editions.  It was the first book ever to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, and it became a bestseller in France and elsewhere.  I picked it up from Brotherhood Books in 2014 because in my 2011-2012 Year of Russian Reading I’d read Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man (La vie d’un homme inconnu).  And so I knew Le Testament Français would be a fine book, and it is. As the blurb on the back of this edition says:

Once in a while, there comes a book that captivates critics and public alike.  Andreï Makine’s autobiographical novel is such a book… Its subtle blend of memory and imagination is reminiscent of Proust… But in its broad sweep and mystical vision, Le Testament Français belongs to the tradition of the 19th century Russian novelists.  (Independent on Sunday, date & reviewer’s name not provided).

Famously, Makine was born in Russia in 1957, fled the Soviet Union for France in 1987, where he slept rough for a while and struggled to have his writing accepted as authentic because publishers thought a Russian couldn’t possibly write so well in French.  Since they didn’t think it was his own work, he pretended to have translated it, and that’s how this beautiful novel eventually came to be published.

It’s a coming-of-age novel, one in which the conflicted soul of a young Muscovite eventually reconciles his love of all things French with a love of his homeland, Russia.  As a boy he inhabits two parallel universes: the Soviet Union under Stalin, and a dream-world, an Atlantis derived from the stories of his French grandmother who lives in Saranza in Siberia, where he goes for the school holidays.

Charlotte had fled there in the exodus from Moscow in WW2, and never left it.   She was notified twice of her husband Fyodor’s death during the war, and was finally reunited with him long afterwards but he died within a year.  Under Stalin they had been persecuted as foreigners and even after many years in Saranza she is still regarded as  an outsider, and only the woman who delivers the milk feels at ease with her.

But this information about Charlotte’s life comes only in fragments.  The boy learns some of it from Charlotte’s stories and some of it from the ‘Siberian suitcase’, a suitcase of newspaper clippings and photos that Charlotte, in her haste to escape the bombing, grabbed by mistake instead of the case of clothes and food for the journey to the east.  But the stories that entrance the boy are stories of Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, of their glamourous presence at the Paris Opera, of magnificent ten-course meals with exotic ingredients like bartavels and ortolans garnished with truffles, and of seeing Proust in the park at Neuilly. The boy and his sister live in this alternate world, speaking French fluently in the holidays and Russian during their more prosaic days at school in Moscow, among classmates who mock him for his dreamy, bookish ways.

The power of this wondrous world wanes as he get older.  He starts to raid the school library to read up on everything French, from the Soviet-approved texts about the Paris Commune to the treasury of French literature which has mostly escaped the censor’s attention. He wants to put his grandmother’s tales into chronological order, into a sequence of events, and in so doing makes sense of his people’s history in a way not accessible to others under Stalin’s regime. He is horrified when he discovers how the Tsar met his end, and his coming-of-age is punctuated by these disconnects between his feelings for a magical world of luxury and glamour, art and beauty, and the grim reality of life under the Soviets.  This becomes more pronounced when his parents die and his Russian aunt takes over the care of the children. She is a sturdy Soviet, anti-Stalin and she doesn’t care who knows it.  It is from eavesdropping on her conversation that the boy learns about the notorious Beria, who used to trawl the streets in his big black car, so that he could kidnap pretty girls, take them to his rooms and get them drunk, rape them and then kill them.

As you might expect from an exile, there’s nothing much that’s good about the USSR in Le Testament Français and yet the book concludes with the boy’s love for his motherland and the possibility of truth being revealed under glasnost.

Highly recommended if you can get hold of a copy.

Author: Andreï Makine
Title: Le Testament Français
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Cover painting: Place de l’Toile by Gustave Loiseau ©ADAGP Paris and DACS London, 1997
Publisher: Sceptre, 1997, first published in 1995
ISBN: 9780340682067, pbk., 275 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books

 


Responses

  1. I should read it. I’m always in awe of these stories of foreign people reading French lit in remote parts of the world. It’s like Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie.

    PS: “publishers thought a Russian couldn’t possibly write so well in French.” After Romain Gary, how could they think that?

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    • Hi Emma, I hope all’s well in your part of the world.
      Re the publication… Well, that’s the story (in the book’s intro and at Wikipedia). Is it true? Or half true? Who knows…

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      • Hi, well things are going down hill at Mach speed. We are have a curfew at 9 pm and doctors ask for a curfew at 7pm and a lockdown for weekends. *sigh* Well see what’s next. The real issue is that hospitals are crowded again.

        Re the publication. I remember this story from the time the book was released.

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        • We heard 50,000 new cases in France in the last 24 hours. We had 0 cases today but they’re still limiting movement and numbers…

          Like


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