Andreï Makine, whose Dreams of My Russian Summers won France’s highest literary award, employs his beautifully lyrical style again in The Life of an Unknown Man. Maxine, who was born in Siberia and has lived more than twenty years in France, has set this novel in both Paris and Russia during the siege of Leningrad and Stalin’s purges. In spite of some of the grim details of starvation particularly, the beauty of the prose makes these images dreamlike, almost ephemeral. The sense of humanity at the core abides in two old Russians, one living in Paris and one whom the protagonist meets in Russia, both having lived beyond their generation and thus becoming “unknown.” The span of this novel takes us from literary concerns to love during wartime to the music that kept the Russians going in spite of deprivation. At the end, the reader feels keenly the loss of an unknown but incredible life of survival and the sacrifice of love.
The novel opens with Shutov (whose name means “clown”), a 50-year-old failed writer in Paris, lamenting that the romance in Chekhov, “the scent of roses,” would be unacceptable in today’s fiction. “Nowadays a hero has to be neurotic, cynical, impatient to share his unsavory obsessions with us.” Shutov argues with young Lea with whom he lives:
They often used to argue but with the theatrical violence of lovers, aware that the fiercest tirades will fade away at the first moans of pleasure. Shutov would rage against the poverty in contemporary literature. Lea would drum up a whole army of “living classics” to contradict him. He would thunder against writers castrated by political correctness. She would quote a “brilliant” passage.
Inevitably, Lea leaves him for a younger lover, and since he is so “out of touch” with current writers, Shutov decides to return to St. Petersburg where he has located his original lover, Yana. What he discovers when he arrives at Yana’s apartment complex is how Russia has changed:
Nothing has changed in thirty years. And everything has changed. Russia is attempting to erase the decades that came before her and her destiny . . . Over his [the Soviet dinosaur’s] head, history is returning to its course becoming more limpid . . . while he remains mired in those accursed times everyone would prefer to forget . . .
Has he arrived anywhere? A journey from an attic in an apartment building in Paris, where he felt so little at home, to this luxury apartment, where he is even more a stranger.
Yana herself is always on a cell phone as she wrangles deals with her son Vlad to renovate the building and get new tenants. Shutov is left on his own until one night he agrees to stay in the apartment with a deaf mute whom they are removing next morning to an institution.
Volsky, the supposed deaf mute, tells Shutov about his incredible life, from his beautiful memory of sipping hot chocolate in a café with Mila to the beginning of the blockade of Leningrad and his reuniting with Mila, and while everyone is starving in winter, their singing of The Three Musketeers:
When they mounted the platform they could see the frozen oscillogram of spires and domes through the cold gray mist. Their voices seemed to soar up like a fragile screen between this city and the enemy positions. They met the looks of the soldiers, young or older men, some maintaining a certain bold front, others drained, devoid of hope. The songs spoke of sunshine and love. But what could be glimpsed at times in their looks was the terrible brotherhood of the doomed. Yes, the acceptance of death, but also the mad certainty of being more than this body hurled beneath the bombs.
After they meet again, Mila tells her story. “Yet there was nothing new in Mila’s recollections: two million human beings waiting to die in a city that was an architectural fairyland.” When they finally do live together, “their own life together was like a subtle watercolor sketch invisible to other people.” The beauty of nature revived from trenches encircles them like an island where Volsky says: “And now the woman I love has her eyes closed, listening to the wind, and snow crystals settle on her face. A face like that of a young woman, with dark hair, drawn by a child.”
Inevitably, Stalin’s purges will part them, except for their mutual promise to look up at the sky each day, bonding them together. This is an extraordinary poignant and haunting book that, in spite of Shutov’s cynical discovery about Chekhov at the end, revives what literature should be—a catharsis for the reader.