Andreï Makine is a remarkable novelist. He joins a select band — Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett and Kundera — who have published in a language that is not their mother tongue.
Makine was born in Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, in 1957. He learnt French as a child, and sought asylum in France in 1987. As a penniless émigré, without papers or a support network, he slept rough in the cemetery of Père Lachaise while writing his first novel, in French. Notoriously, it was at first rejected by publishers, who refused to believe that a Russian could write good French: A Hero’s Daughter was only accepted when he pretended it was a translation from Russian. In 1995, his fourth novel, Le Testament Français, became the first novel ever to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médici.
Human Love is Makine’s 10th novel, and has, once again, been superbly translated into English by Geoffrey Strachan. Strachan’s translations are so seemingly effortless and limpid that one would forget they are translations at all , were it not that Makine’s vision — the sweep of his romanticism, the focus of his lyrical intensity, the aching melancholy — is so deeply unEnglish.
Exile has shaped Makine’s imagination. The narrator in Le Testament Français felt himself from childhood to be an imaginative exile in his own country, dreaming of an imaginary France as he listened to the recollections of the woman he believes to be his French grandmother, Charlotte; and he ends up a literal exile in Paris. Most of Makine’s protagonists are uprooted by war or revolution, and by brutal and ever-changing régimes. Children are orphans, or born to women who have been raped; they are brought up by foster parents, or institutionalised in “re-education camps”. As adults, they find themselves strangers in foreign lands: a French nurse in Russia; a Russian princess in France; a Russian army doctor and spy, roaming Angola and Afghanistan…