WARNING: Some readers may feel I have given away too much of the story.
Ivan Shutov was a Russian dissident writer of the early 1980s; he is now living in Paris, aged around 50. He constantly translates every experience into a literary phrase, often from Russian literature. He is old enough to be the father of his lover Léa who has just left him for someone of her own age after one of their many quarrels about literature, in which he had become increasingly aggressive in dismissing the modern literature she loves. Even when she is moved by the tragedy of a Chekhov story which he loves, he feels compelled to savage her emotion, claiming that these tragedies are trivial compared with what he has witnessed in Soviet Russia and as a soldier in Afghanistan. He could not help making such savage comments even though he knew they were destroying their relationship. When, inevitably, she left him, but he missed her desperately.
Life in Paris was now so empty for him that, twenty years after he had left, he returned to Russia, now that the Soviet Union had collapsed. He has tracked down Yana, who had been a fellow-student with whom he had had "a brief undeclared love affair".
The Paris part of the novel was not all that easy to read - the emotions were all rather complex; ideally the allusions to Russian literature require some prior knowledge of it. But now there is more clarity in the story-telling.
Of course Shutov is returning to a Russia utterly transformed, with materialism rampant. Yana is not the thick-set matron he had expected her to turn into, but a svelte, glamorous, vulgar nouveau-riche, who has just acquired a number of workers' flats she has turned into a vast apartment. The previous occupants have been moved out, all except for an old paraplegic, a former singer but now supposedly dumb, who will be moved to some old people's home as soon as the current celebrations of St Petersburg's tercentenary are over. St Petersburg en fŕte is a grotesque picture of dissolute decadence, and Shutov feels more of an outsider here then he had felt in Paris. When Yana's son Vlad boasts of marketing American-style mass down-market magazines, Shutov thinks of the dissident literature in Soviet times which could be both life-enhancing and life-threatening.
Yana and Vlad ask Shutov to keep and eye on the old paraplegic while they are out of the house - they are worried that he might do himself a mischief before he is moved out of what was his home. Shutov agrees to look after him. The old man, Georgy Lvovich Volsky, is not dumb at all: the television, with its rolling programme of extravagances of every kind, prompts him to speak.
We now have the story of Volsky and of his beloved Mina - the graphic story of the siege of Leningrad, where thousands were dying of hunger and where starving singers, musicians and actors defiantly performed to starving audiences in the city and on the front line. (The importance of music and of acting in taking people in helping people to forget extreme suffering is a theme that will recur again later in the novel.) Later Volsky took part in the battles of Stalingrad and of Kursk (a powerful description of the latter).
After the war Volsky and Mina set up a little home on what was the front line outside Leningrad, and for a while they live unobtrusively and happily there, thankful to have survived the war and delighting in nature. Mina teaches children in a nearby school and falls foul of the authorities for teaching them the songs the soldiers sang during the war instead of the patriotic communist songs that are now required, and the couple come under surveillance from state security agents. Soon they are arrested and sent to different camps. Volsky had suffered so much in the war that he saw the cruel life in the camp in perspective, displayed astonishing serenity, and was comforted by the thought that Mila was probably seeing the same beautiful sky as he was.
He suffers another blow after he has been released from the camp. That blow, too, he eventually absorbs, as he does the repeated encounters with mean-minded officials in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. He quietly does good where he can, enriches the lives of orphaned children; but eventually, with his strength breaking down, he ends up in this room from which he is about to be evicted by Yana. Still he is not bitter, and there is a touching and elegiac passage before he is finally moved out.
Shutov had already felt alienated from the new Russia; now he feels he cannot bear to stay there any longer, and he realizes how, despite his own tribulations when he had been living in his native land, how deeply attached he was to it, with all its suffering, endurance, love, nature. Life there was real, not febrile, meretricious and superficial as it is in Russia now. The life he had led in Paris, too, seems false to him. He knows what his task must be now: to write about the life of this Unknown Man.
Makine spares us none of the horror that Russians had endured during and after the war; one has to admires Volsky's almost oriental serenity and lack of hatred (for the Germans, for brutal interrogating officers, for Yana and her like, all of whom he actually pities). The book talks about the things that really matter, about how it is possible with their help to rise above the most terrible suffering and also to be aloof from the temptations of materialism.
All this is true enough; so I feel guilty about my feeling that there is something verging on the sentimental about this message.