The life-sustaining power of love and music is a central theme in Andrei Makine's most recent novel, "La vie d'un homme inconnu". Nostalgia for a happier and innocent past has overcome fifty-something writer Ivan Choutov, a former Soviet dissident, living for the last twenty years in Paris. His work and life appear to be at a standstill. His much younger girlfriend is moving out, leaving him to ponder his own young love from his past life in Leningrad. Overcoming his long-held reluctance to reconnect with his hometown, he returns to St. Petersburg. And here the real story, the story within a story, emerges. Makine, acknowledged master of exploring the innermost nooks and pathways of the human heart, has reached a new level of depths with this most powerful, deeply stirring and far reaching exploration of the human condition set against the backdrop of historical times of hardship and dangers, but also of endurance, determination and hope.
Revisiting St. Petersburg after twenty years is a shock to Choutov. There is little that reminds him of the place he knew, the Russia he had been dreaming of: "...une vie bercée par les strophes aimées. Un parc sous la dorure des feuilles, une femme qui marche en silence, tell l'héroïne d'un poème." His own youth's heroine, the girl of his melancholy dreams, has grown into a modern business woman with no time for the "old" romantic visitor. The depiction of the modern St. Petersburg, vibrant, youthful, fast-paced and a bit crazy - seemingly more "westernized" than the cities of Western Europe - is convincingly realistic. Wandering the streets of the festive city, Choutov, however, feels increasingly alienated and discouraged. Where to go from here, where to find some inner peace and, above all, his emotional home? Have Russians like him lost more with the break-up of the Soviet Union than they bargained for? How to bring together this new Russia with the essence of the Russian soul and identity?
A chance encounter on his last evening in the city, while not necessarily bringing easy answers or solutions, opens a new path for Choutov to see his world and that of his city with a deeper understanding and appreciation. The second narrative that the meeting enables takes Choutov and the reader back to the devastating times of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad(1941-44), and, after a lull in the aftermath of the defeat of the German army, to the resumption of the Stalinist purges. The heart wrenching stories of the struggle for survival of the local population is epitomized by the story of a young couple, Volski and Mila. They stand for the hundreds of thousands who were lost in those troubling times, an "unknown man" and an "unknown woman".
Without wanting to reveal much of the extraordinary account that forms the centre of Makine's novel, one of many deeply affecting scenarios stands for many: Volski and Mila, both musicians, have joined a small choir that sings and plays all over the encircled city to bring some lighter moments to the starving and despairing. One day they are asked to sing close to the frontline, to support the local defence forces, determined yet poorly equipped, and to confuse the Germans on the other side of the Neva river...
Makine's ability to speak in the voice of Volski, to recount the deep scars to body and mind, to reflect on his life's ups and downs, is extraordinary. Music brings solace and calms the soul. The emotional depth of his character and his overwhelming belief in the power of love, that is often closely connected to the music on his lips or in his heart, makes Volski a profound human being who will linger in the reader's mind long after the book is closed. For me, having read a number or Makine's novels, both in English and the original French, "La vie d'un homme inconnu" stands out as one of his most personal and intimate, yet powerful in his painting of the broader canvass of a very significant and painful period of recent Russian history. My apologies for not feeling confident to write this review in French. [Friederike Knabe]