- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

REQUIEM FOR A LOST EMPIRE
By Andrei Makine
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Arcade, $24.95, 264 pages
REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN



"One day it must be possible to tell the truth." These words are the refrain that echoes and re-echoes through the pages of "Requiem for a Lost Empire," the fifth and perhaps most ambitious novel thus far by the Russian-born novelist Andrei Makine.
From his earliest youth, Mr. Makine was attracted by the idea of France. Not only did he emigrate there in the late 1980s, but he decided to write his novels in French rather than his native Russian. Indeed, his first three novels testified to his fascination with things French: The protagonist of "Dreams of My Russian Summers" was spellbound by his French grandmother's reminiscences; the young man of "Once Upon the River Love" delighted in the cinematic exploits of Jean-Paul Belmondo; while "The Crime of Olga Arbyelina," a rather lurid tale of sex and murder, involved incest between a mother and a son, treated in what might perhaps be described as a typically "French" manner, that is to say, with a kind of soft-focus, romanticized eroticism.
The theme of Mr. Makine's fourth novel, "Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer," was the lost idealism of Soviet-era Russian youth, no longer able to believe in the patriotic and Marxist values they were raised to cherish. Now "Requiem for a Lost Empire" develops that theme, simultaneously broadening and deepening its many ramifications, plumbing the abyss of painful disillusionment, not only with Soviet-style communism, but with the modern world in general.
The novel spans three generations, beginning in the present, with the narrator, a former army doctor who has spent much of his adult life working for Soviet intelligence. "Our age," he has come to believe, "is nothing more than a monstrous organism that digests gold, oil, politics, and wars, and secretes pleasure for some, death for others." His narrative is addressed to an absent woman, she who once expressed the hope that it would be possible to tell the truth one day. She has been his longtime partner, a fellow agent with whom he was originally paired by the agency in a sham marriage, but whom he came to love genuinely and deeply. Their work has put them into hot spots all over the world, on the trail of international arms dealers who reap the benefits of a trade that sows pain, destruction, and violent death in its wake:
"Everything that in the North was words, discreet consultations, slow approaches to a key person, turned in the South to cries of pain, the whistling of bullets and bitter hand-to-hand fighting, as if a horrible, unbridled process of translation had become established between these two continents."
It is to this woman that the narrator unfolds the heartbreaking stories of the previous two generations of his family, whose lives seem to epitomize their country's tragic history in the 20th century. We first encounter his grandfather Nikolai walking his horse at the edge of a forest: He is deserting the Red Army, but fearful of encountering the Whites, for whom he is still the enemy. He fled his regiment, we learn, "because of a machine." He came upon some revolutionaries who were awaiting orders from Moscow as to whether or not to kill a group of hapless civilians they had rounded up.
A strange apparatus "vomiting forth a long strip of paper" provided their answer: "Shoot them as enemies of the revolution." Although Nikolai has witnessed such executions before, something about "that white snake coming out of the machine constricted his throat with an anger and a grief that were of quite a different order."
Journeying home through a ravaged landscape strewn with bodies, dead and dying, he encounters the still-living head of a body buried up to its neck. Unearthing this poor soul, Nikolai is amazed to discover it is a pregnant woman, who is unable to speak because her tongue has been cut out. He takes her home to his village, where she becomes his wife. Although he teaches her to write, the couple find their deepest happiness in realities that do not require words: "The work on the land, the silence of their house,the lives of the animals …" Meanwhile, however, "The world around them was becoming more and more talkative. People held forth about work instead of working. They made decrees for the happiness of the people and let an old woman starve to death in her izba with its collapsed roof."
To Nikolai, it grows ever clearer that the brave new world of the Revolution is a lie. All he longs for is to be left to live his life in peace:
"The child was asleep, the fire hissed softly in the stove, the window, all covered in ice, blazed with the thousand scarlet granules of a sinking sun. This brilliance, this silence, were enough for life. Everything else was a bad dream. Speeches, hate-filled voices talking about happiness. Fear of not being hard enough, not showing yourself to be happy enough, hate-filled enough toward all the enemies, fear, fear, fear. While all life needed was these minutes of a winter sunset, in a room protected by this woman's silence as she leaned over the sleeping child."
The contrast between this simple, natural world of ordinary human life and a noise-filled world of lies, hatred, and death-dealing machinery continues to play itself out over the next two generations. The narrator's father, Pavel, the "sleeping child," grows up to serve as a soldier in the Red Army fighting the Germans in World War II. Returning from the war, he rescues a Balkar woman from the attentions of some ruffians, and the two of them make their way to the tiny village in the Caucasus from which she and others of her ethnic group had been deported by Joseph Stalin.
For a while, they live in peaceful seclusion with their infant son, but finally cannot escape the dictator's power. For their child, the novel's narrator, smuggled to safety by a family friend, the trauma of leaving home and family is what wounds him and removes him from the silent contentment of infancy into the anguish of language:
"Only the day before everything was still fused together into a luminous mixture of sounds, skies, familiar faces. When the sun went down, his father would appear on the threshold of the house — and the joy of the setting sun was also joy at seeing this smiling man whom the sun brought home, or was it, perhaps, the father's return that sent the sun plunging into the branches of the forest and turned its rays copper? His mother's hands smelled of clothing washed in the icy waters of the stream, a fragrance that scented the first hours of the morning, mingling with the breeze that blew down from the mountains."
But now, in fearful flight, the infant observes "the world disintegrating into objects he could name, and which, once named, hurt his eyes. The moon, a kind of frozen sun… ." In place of his family's house, the only house he's known, a street "lined with houses! Their multiplicity hurts his eyes, provokes a painful need to respond. The word 'house' forms in the infant's mouth, leaving an insipid hollow taste… . All at once his family's life seems to him fragile in the face of this threatening world… . He wants no more of this world where everything is booby-trapped by words. He does not want to understand."
The words — and the world — grow more pernicious as the infant becomes, first an army doctor, then an intelligence agent. His job has made him all too familiar with booby-traps, both verbal and mechanical. In one hot spot after another he sees the hateful machinery of war ripping apart human flesh, while in the glittering capitals of the West, he hears the brittle cynicism and half-truths of the chattering classes dismissing post-Soviet Russia as a corpse, a phantom, a black-hole; even going so far as to dismiss the sacrifices made by the Russian army in World War II.
Occasionally confusing in its presentation (and perhaps a little naive in its portrayal of the beneficent nature of the narrator's work as an intelligence agent), "Requiem for a Lost Empire" is nonetheless a powerful and compelling novel: shocking, harrowing, beautiful, and in many ways profound. Its focus is on consciousness and conscience rather than character development, experience and emotion rather than story or plot. With immense poignancy, it captures the complex and contradictory tangle of memories, thoughts, and emotions that the demise of this empire has engendered in the hearts of its people.

Merle Rubin is a writer and editor living in Pasadena, Calif.


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