Old and new historical untruths inspired Andreï Makine (AM) to write this portrait of the Soviet Union(SU) and Russia using the lives of a father, son and grandson, who knew each other briefly, if at all. The grandson is the narrator. In bits and pieces during the book, he owns up to have worked as a spy for his fatherland. A mysterious woman with silvery hair saved him as a toddler from a secluded hut in the Caucasus and placed him in an orphanage. As a schoolboy he visits her on Saturdays and she teaches him her language.
AM describes the horrors of his grandpa's civil war and the murderous agricultural reforms in the 1920s, and the terror of the 30s. And his dad's 4-year fight against the Nazis, which ended in ignominy. Having thwarted a rape committed by superiors, he is stripped of his medals and tossed into a death squad of 600 often unarmed men, ordered to win crucial terrain by attacking in human waves. He survives these suicidal assaults, but years after the Final Victory "was shot like a dog with machineguns". When the now 14-year old (grand)son hears this spat at him by peers, he wants an explanation from his silver-haired savior. And like Sherazade, she begins to tell him his history, slowly...
AM's portrayals of grandfather and son will surely evoke readers' emotions. The nameless (grand-)child's own life story is harder to bond with. From an inquisitive 14-year old he morphs into a doctor in Aden (South Yemen) who helps solve, thanks to his language skills, a hostage crisis with a French dimension. Since then, he and a mysterious older woman have worked undercover for the KGB in a number of Soviet satellites, tracing the sources of the illegal arms provided to rebel groups and documenting evidence of field testing by manufacturers. Until his mysterious lady partner vanishes. His search for the truth of her life and death is engaging, but not convincing. A stern editor could have worked miracles.
AM believes that today's media, PR experts and intelligentsia may be as adept and devious at distorting the truth as older propaganda warriors, and gives telling examples. Well, maybe. But espionage writing is not (yet) one of Andreï Makine's strengths. I love his books and will continue to follow him.