With matchless delicacy and economy, Makine (Requiem for a Lost Empire, 2001, etc.) chronicles a talented musician’s victimization by the Stalinist purges of the WWII years.
Russian-born Makine’s unnamed narrator is introduced to us “stranded” in a railway station awaiting a delayed train, where he overhears faint strains of music, eavesdrops on an apparently elderly man who’s playing a grand piano in a distant room, and weeping—and then is told the latter’s life story. The stranger is Alexeï Berg, a former musical prodigy who had fled Moscow in 1941—on the eve of his first concert appearance—when his parents, a prominent playwright and a celebrated opera singer, were designated enemies of the state and arrested. In scarcely 70 pages, Makine presents a movingly detailed history of survival, adaptation, and bitter disillusionment, as Alexeï hides from Soviet authorities in an underground room at his uncle’s farm in Ukraine, appropriates the uniform and identity of a young soldier (Sergeï Maltsev) whose body he finds on a battlefield, serves as a general’s driver and becomes the latter’s beneficiary following the war. Then, in a stunning succession of ironies, “Sergeï” grows dangerously close to the general’s teenaged daughter, who urges him to “learn” to play the piano, which she’s studying—with revelatory, and life-altering, consequences. Music of a Life is thin, but perfectly conceived and controlled. Its graceful narrative skillfully blends summarized action with powerfully evocative images—plague survivors wearing long-nosed masks; “the swift arpeggio of the strings snapping in the fire,” in which a prized violin is burned; a woman dragging through a forest a sled which carries a small coffin—charged with strong understated emotion.
A masterly dramatization of “the disconcerting simplicity with which broken lives are lived.”