"A woman, so intensely destined for happiness... refusing instead to love" characterizes Vera. She's a mysterious, strikingly attractive woman who captures the mind and heart of the young nameless narrator of this delicate, reflective love story that enchants the reader. Since age sixteen, Vera has been waiting faithfully for three decades for her soldier fiancé to return, living alone in an isolated northern Siberian village close to the White Sea. Andrei Makine is a master in exploring characters who survive at the edge of civilization, whether they are exiled political dissidents, ex-convicts, or the local people who belong to this remote harsh world. Here, he shows this at its most intimate level.
The plot itself is simple: a young man and an older woman meet during an important period in their lives and their worlds collide. Representing not only two generations, they also reflect two different visions of love, loyalty, altruism - life. It is highly relevant that the story unfolds against the remote, stunning landscape of the North, beautifully evoked by the author. There is undoubtedly a certain level of romanticizing of the Siberian environment - childhood home of Andrei Makine - in his detailed depiction of the forest emerging from the mist, the lake bathed in silvery moonlight, and even the very basic bathhouse that the community shares. It is, as the narrator reflects, a place frozen outside time.
Twenty-six-year-old Leningrad intellectual, jaded by the political environment there (it is the mid nineteen seventies and oblique references to Soviet reality seep into the story), arrives in Mirnoje to undertake research into the folklore of the North. Vera's life has been filled for many years with serving the community: she is looking after a group of old, abandoned war widows and teaches in primary school. From the first moment, the narrator glimpses the tall striking silhouette, clad in a long army coat, he is intrigued. Increasingly, though, his intellectual curiosity turns into something more. As he invents reasons to stay close, talk to her, and takes to following her in her daily routines, physical infatuation takes over that he finds difficult to control. Vera, old enough to be his mother, fully aware of the young man's desires, responds calmly, gently, yet remains aloof and mysterious. Keeping a diary of his evolving image of her, he rationalized her motives for the monastic life she leads, trying to capture the essence of her being. More than once, though, he has to revise his interpretation of who Vera is and what kind of love had made her wait for a man she hardly knew. Is it possible for the narrator, and by extension the reader, to conceive of such love and relate to it?
Makine's telling of the story, in slow motion, is achingly beautiful. It has to be savoured sentence by sentence, not rushed through. Having read the original French, which is, as always, exquisite, I cannot comment on the English translation. However, having read other Makine work in translation, I have been impressed with Geoffrey Strachan's particular talent to convey and transpose the delicate nuances in the fluid and poetic language that is the hallmark of Makine's French. [Friederike Knabe]