A young writer is humbled by a story of enduring love in the Russian-born (now French resident) author’s ninth novel (The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme, 2005, etc.).
In the mid-1970s, Makine’s unnamed narrator retreats from a culture of youthful protest and posturing (and a failed love affair) to write about local customs and folkways in Russia’s remote northern “Archangel region,” populated mostly by exiles, World War II victims and bereaved women. What he finds in the village of Mirnoe (on the White Sea) is middle-aged Vera, who has spent 30 years in the hope that her lover, sent to war during its final days in 1945 and presumably killed in action, will eventually return to her. The narrator initially views Vera as a stoic, naïve peasant (like the elderly neighbors to whom she’s a tireless ministering angel). But he learns that she’s a village schoolteacher, a former doctoral candidate in linguistics who studied in Leningrad, and a still vibrant, passionate woman—to whom he is increasingly, helplessly attracted. The story is suffused with lambent pictures of Mirnoe’s harsh beauty, thematically rich imagery (e.g., “a butterfly disturbed under a dead leaf, deprived of a winter shelter”) and crisp, emotion-laden scenes (Vera rowing a boat toward the burial place of her dead friend, clasped in the narrator’s arms; the rescue of an elderly woman from her ruined home deep in a forest; the narrator’s weary endurance of his de facto chauffeur Otar’s cheerfully crude tales of sexual conquest). The story grows steadily more complex and moving than its somewhat banal central contrast (between intellectuals’ smugness and “the people’s” resilience) had promised—especially as the fullness of Vera’s character, and the truth about her sacrifices and the narrator’s compulsive evasiveness, all poignantly emerge.
Another fine work from one of Europe’s most lavishly gifted writers.