Love in a Snowy Climate

Human Love by Andreï Makine

Books Eastern Europe France Literature Russia

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…

In a chaotic and violent world, Makine’s characters construct their private histories and mythologies, their inner sanctuaries of self, woven out of intense moments of personal memory, and sometimes from iconic inherited recollections. Makine, like his fellow émigré Conrad, is drawn to the framing device of the nameless narrator — a window for the outsider to look in. A stranger listens — in a place of waiting, such as a railway station or a graveyard — to the history of another, piecing together his or her life from glimpses of “the mysterious consonance of eternal moments”.

The imagined lives constructed in these novels seem as delicate and elaborate as the domed nest of a long-tailed tit, woven out of spider’s web to withstand the weather. Yet the wonderful architectural complexity of the nest is apparently effected using a relatively limited repertoire of movements. As the scientist Niko Tinbergen writes, “The most amazing thing about it is, in my opinion, the fact that so few, so simple, so rigid movements together lead to the construction of so superb a result.”

The same, perhaps, is true of Makine’s novels. Readers will quickly recognise almost obsessively recurrent themes, images and tropes. In several novels, there is the figure of the silvery-haired elderly woman — a rescuer, a foreigner (who usually teaches a boy French). Her name may be Charlotte, corrupted in Russian to Shura, and then Sasha, and then re-constructed as Alexandra. She appears in the three novels that can be loosely grouped together as a trilogy, though in a shifting relationship to the boy she rescues, so that she can never quite be said to be the same woman. Yet her attributes are also distributed among other women in other novels, such as Tanya in A Hero’s Daughter, who is also a nurse with a maimed right hand and also saves a nearly dead soldier by holding a mirror to his lips.

Images, too, resonate between novels: stars seen in the water, or the “myriad luminous dots” of a distant town, from which const­ellations may be formed; a bird nursed by a child; long railway journeys through snowy wastes; the rank smell of frying fish; the act of sex seen from a riverbank, and often through a framing window. Voyeurism and rape regularly counterpoint moments of brief lyrical romance.

These are evidently private points of reference for Makine, and the temptation for reviewers has been to read too much autobiography into his fiction. Yet these recurrent motifs are more like pieces in a kaleidoscope (itself a recurrent image), shaken into new patterns in each novel.

In Human Love, there will be little temptation to read the novel as autobiography, though many of the same elements are present. The hero, Elias Almeida, is black; he is an Angolan refugee, who trains in Russia to become a “professional revolutionary”; his life is pieced together by an unnamed narrator.

The novel is about love, but starts with a horrific rape in the first chapter, and an act of sexual voyeurism in the second. It begins on the frontier between Angola and Zaire, where the narrator and his colleague, a Soviet military instructor, are imprisoned in a hut. On the floor of the hut is an African in a suit, whom they take to be a corpse. Through a window, the narrator, expecting at any moment to be killed, can see his captors violating a peasant woman: this “reduction of life to no more than pleasure and death” makes humanity seem no more than “insects”.

Yet when he searches the body of the African, who is Elias, the man revives enough to speak, and speaks in Russian. He tells of a train “tracking through an endless forest in winter”, of “the feel of a woman’s hand in the icy darkness”, and a place in Siberia that offers “one sure refuge”. At the heart of this novel lies the thoroughly romantic, and indeed simple, notion and that “it was love that made the world matter, without which we should be no more than insects”. Take away the counter-examples — the rape, prostitution, mutilation, voyeurism — and this might not sound amiss in the pages of Patience Strong.

Makine does, in this novel, skirt close to the edges of sentimentality. It is rescued in part because the sections describing the romance in Russia, where Elias meets his true love, Anna, are charged with the lyricism at which Makine excels, and which depends on a heightened sense of the fleeting and fragile (the smell of snow on Anna’s coat becomes an iconic moment for Elias).

Makine is brilliant at evoking Elias’s loneliness and vulnerability as a black man on the snowy streets of Moscow, and the vividly disorientating violence of a racist attack from which he is rescued by Anna. If love is an altered state of consciousness, Makine is superb at evoking its “hallucinatory sharpness”, when the sight of one particular coat can alter even a gloomy cloakroom full of “bristling coat-hooks”. Their love gains intensity in the snowy wastes of Siberia. (It is notable that Elias never remembers with nostalgia the landscape, light or weather of his own native land, but only Makine’s.)

This brief love affair ends. Elias leaves for the revolutionary front; Anna marries an up-and-coming diplomat. But Elias’s memories of Anna will remain the touchstone of his life.It is here that the novel suffers. In other novels, Makine explores the ambiguities of obsession — of how waiting may warp in the absence even of hope; of how perpetually ­rewoven memories of love may become an end in themselves, not an outward-directed emotion; and of the borderline between hopeless love and delusion.

Human Love is full of explorations of ideas about obsession, and images of mindless repetition. The revolutionary training exercises involve mind-numbing repetition, designed to detach brutal techniques from their ends, so that even torture will be performed as a move in a game where the players are “hypnotised by the marquetry of their own chessboards”. And the victims of this mindless violence take refuge in mindless rituals.

But we are not allowed to wonder if Elias’s talismanic fingering of his gleaming memories of love might be delusional. The possibility is introduced that Anna does not remain worthy of his love. As a diplomat’s wife, she becomes like a “big smiling doll”, trapped like a “clockwork toy” in her “constructed” life; but then she is shown to be inwardly true.

For Makine, love will change the world — though only, in true romantic fashion, “hopeless” love. If Elias had married Anna, he says at one point, he too would have become a “fat Angolan apparatchik … opening accounts in the West”. As it is, his love keeps him an “Angolan Robespierre”, moving untouched and uncorrupted through the corrupt post-revolutionary regimes – and as much of a cipher as any conventional figure of the “noble savage”.

The novel ends with full-throated romantic certainty, even in death: “And yet on this boat, adrift on an ocean at night, the sovereign truth of life broke through: the certainty that the passing of a man who loved does not signify the death of the love he carried within him.”

Readers will doubtless be divided over how grudgingly English and Larkin-esque they feel in response. Most of us will only admit to wanting to find “Our almost-instinct almost true/ What will survive of us is love.”

Makine’s 10th novel retains all the freshness and intensity of first love; yet readers may feel that in the construction of this often brilliant novel the usual balance between complexity and simplicity is ultimately skewed. Unless, of course, you too believe that love is “in fact, so simple”.