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by Andreï Makine

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 1-55970-571-X
Publisher: Arcade

The legacy of a century of geopolitical conflict is analyzed with a tad too much discursive insistence in this otherwise resonant, richly plotted, and quite moving fifth novel from the Russian-born (French-language) author (Dreams of My Russian Summers, 1997, etc.).

The narrator, whose identity is (appropriately) at first concealed from us, addresses a likewise unidentified woman as he describes various events in his family’s past—returning repeatedly to the image of “a child hidden in the mountains of the Caucasus” and being carried away from danger by a white-haired woman. As his narrative loops forward and backward in time, we learn that the narrator had been a battlefield doctor treating casualties in Afghanistan and other “small wars,” and subsequently was employed to monitor the activities of freelance arms dealers—presumably as a KGB agent during the Soviet Union’s chaotic final months. The parallel (earlier) story that emerges from his exchanges, with the aforementioned confidante, of “long underground passages of our remembered past” builds an even more graphic and gripping picture of a family involved in several generations’ political and military struggles: from an independent villager’s resistance to Red Army tyranny in the 1920s to his son’s hallucinatory years of service on WWII battlefields to the narrator’s climactic pursuit (related in convincing espionage-thriller fashion) of the double agent he blames for the death of the woman he had loved. The story’s meditative romantic tone and fragmented structure make comparisons with Ondaatje’s The English Patient inevitable. But Makine’s is a lesser work: a lament for the carnage spawned by nationalistic frenzy and sheer human folly that’s too often explicitly preachy, and elevated by spectacularly suggestive images (a starving, riderless horse tethered to a tree; “the eyes of a woman, large and sorrowful . . . [captured in] a fresco blackened by fire”).

Not Makine’s best; still, a worthy lyrical addition to his Proustian tapestry depicting a vanished country’s deeply conflicted past and present.