Translated from the French in which he writes (The Life of an Unknown Man, 2012, etc.), Siberian-born Makine’s slim novel portrays the dangers of communism from the point of view of a romantic man.
The narrator is a middle-aged orphan looking back on his life in Soviet Russia, and the chapters are brief and often self-contained; this episodic book is about accumulation, not plot, and the narrator’s thoughts drift into memories of lost loves, the ravages of communism, and poetic dissidents—notably, a man named Dmitri Ress, who “never had the time to be in love” (this isn’t a shy book…). The structure, eschewing any strict chronology, creates an odd effect in the reader: everything seems to happen all at once. Does this sound shapeless? Not at all. Instead, the book is loose in the way of memory, as one thought blurs into another, touching on minutiae one minute, history the next. In this way, Makine’s book recalls work by Kundera and Sebald, those grand Europeans who wrote elliptical works combining the personal with the global. Here, he wants no less to write an old-fashioned novel of ideas, and he succeeds because he always finds something strong and concrete on which to pin his loftier notions. Consider one of the novel’s more powerful passages: a man visits the orphanage to sing the praises of Lenin, whom he once met. The narrator is unconvinced, considering this visitor “a man too meticulous, too smooth, lacking the bitter stench of History.” Instead, he seeks out an old woman who was apparently very close to Lenin, but he discovers her home an absolute wreck. What ultimately happened to her, as the narrator learns, expresses the great irony of communism: it aims to elevate the worker but instead dirties the cracks of everyday life, leaving a mess for everyone to clean up.
Moving and thoughtful, this novel—despite its slight frame—has a lot to say.