The Life of an Unknown Man: A Novel Paperback – Jun 5 2012
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“It is impossible to exaggerate the power of this short, unbearably poignant novel. It is both brutal and lyrical. Makine consciously invokes Chekhov but his grasp of history is positively Tolstoy-like in scale. I can't think of a writer who would be a more deserving recipient of the Nobel literature prize.” ―Mail on Sunday
“Makine's laconic, sardonic portrait of the new Russia is laced with fury . . . a bold and eloquent novel.” ―The Guardian
“Like all his work, this novel has a wonderful flavor of a contemporary Chekhov with a splash of Proust. . . . What starts out an intimate account bursts out into something more ambitious and universal. Ultimately it's a haunting story, beautifully told.” ―The Observer
“Seamlessly translated by Geoffrey Strachan, Makine's novel explores the attempt of two 'ordinary' people to transcend suffering and find life's essential meaning. It is difficult to write without sentimentality about such a subject, but Makine's intelligence and truthfulness dismiss banality.” ―Pamela Norris, Literary Review
“Told with an intimacy made potent by Makine's lyrical, spare prose and Strachan's lucid translation. . . reconnects both the reader and the protagonist with Russia's blood soaked history, to startling effect.” ―The Financial Times
“Thrilling . . . Makine's most beautiful novel since [Dreams of My Russian Summers].” ―Le Figaro
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Top Customer Reviews
But I'll be seeing you."
There comes a moment in Andrei Makine's wonderfully rendered "The Life of an Unknown Man" when Billie Holliday's rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You" popped into my head. Two days after finishing the book the story and the song lingers, entangled in my mind like the memory of a lost love.
I've been an admirer of Makine's since reading his Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer, and Music of a Life: A Novel (among others). So, when I saw that his new book was available in the U.K. I decided not to wait until the U.S. publication and ordered it in the U.K. I'm glad I didn't wait.
Makine, for those not familiar with his work, was born in the Soviet Union in 1958. He emigrated to France as a young man immediately assumed the role of a struggling writer. Written in French (Makine learned French as a student in the USSR) his manuscripts were rejected by every publisher in Paris. He spent many nights sleeping in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Finally, out of desperation, he told one publisher that the manuscript of his first book was a translation from the Russian. It was immediately accepted for publication. Makine's work for me combines the grace and elegance of the best French writers and the sad dark soul of the best Russian writers.
The story unfolds slowly. Shutov is a middle-aged Russian/Soviet émigré writer living in Paris. His fame and his writing have diminished since his exile and, as the story opens his fling with a decades-younger French woman has just ended. Depressed, his thoughts turn to his early life in Leningrad and the girl he left behind. On an impulse he gets a visa, decides to return to Leningrad find this girl and arrives just as the newly re-christened St. Petersburg is about to begin its massive 300th anniversary celebration. He finds that his `girl' now a successful and wealthy woman and St. Petersburg represent all that is new and glitzy in the new Russia. This of course leaves Shutov feeling totally at sea. Twenty years of a memory of Leningrad evaporate like mist under a morning son. As it happens he is asked to baby-sit an aged, infirm, mute Red Army veteran who will shortly be moved out of his flat to a nursing home and it is here that the emotional heart of the story is found.
Volsky, the supposedly mute veteran, opens his eyes and tells Shutov the story of his life. It is a life that captures the essence of his life as a Soviet citizen and then a citizen of new Russia. It starts with the brutal siege of Leningrad, carries on through the desolate post-war years and Stalin's last `great purges' and finally takes us back to the present. This theme of the emotional disconnect between life in the USSR and the new Russia is a theme that has arisen frequently in Makine's work and it is here that the story starts to soar. I will not reveal the details of that story except to note that it was beautiful and moving. The story revealed not just the life of this unknown man and the love of his life, Mila, but serves as a parable for the life of a nation. I could write that the story Makine tells of Volsky and Mila moved me but I feel that is a bit of an understatement.
One passage, and there were many passages I could pass on, seems to provide some idea as to what Makine is up to. Writing of Volsky's time in the Gulag he notes that "If three tiny fragments of tea leaf chanced to fall into a prisoner's battered cup, he relished them. In Leningrad during the interval at the opera a woman sipped champagne with the same pleasure. . . . The woman at the opera knew that somewhere in the world there were millions of beings transformed into gaunt animals, their faces blackened by the polar winds. But this did not stop her drinking her glass of wine amid the glittering of the great mirrors. The prisoner knew that a warm and brilliant life was lived elsewhere in the tranquility but this did not spoil his pleasure as he chewed those fragments of tea leaf."
The Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam once said that "a person with inner freedom, memory, and fear is that reed, that twig that changes the direction of a rushing river." In "Life of an Unknown Man" Makine looks at the life of two unknown twigs whose inner freedom may not have changed the direction of a rushing river but whose lives warranted far more than fate allowed them. This is a book that left me lingering on the last page because I did not want to leave it behind me.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com
The book is brief, but the narrative has a “Zhivago”esque sweep. The veteran’s tale of lost love and a life in limbo is counterpointed by the lovesickness of the equally displaced narrator, who has returned to his native Russia to recover from a failed affair in Paris. Structurally, the contrast is entirely in the old veteran’s favor, an epic overshadowing a sketch. The book is built as a series of short episodes, shellbursts illuminating a few moments of ecstasy and many of suffering. Russia’s tragedy and present-day triviality have rarely been depicted so forcefully.