THE LIFE OF AN UNKNOWN MAN
By Andrei Makine
Graywolf Press, $15
This fine novel opens with a lonely man in a cramped attic apartment in Paris reading Chekhov. He is lonely because his young lover has left him; he sits among the last few cardboard boxes of her belongings. The lonely man’s name is Shutov — “shut off”? - and he is also a writer, but there any resemblance to the master ends.
Shutov simultaneously envies and deplores Chekov’s romanticism, envies because he has to admit it works and deplores because he feels it is no longer believable in the post-Soviet 21st century. His former lover, a younger and more romantic woman, disagreed, which is one of the reasons she is no longer with him.
She calls to tell him she will come by the next day to pick up the last of her things, and he knows he must leave: “… above all, after that telephone call, he realized that he would not have the strength to be present at his own funeral in an attic that was about to be emptied of everything that was his life.”
Shutov is from Russia, 20th-century Russia when dictators ruled the land, and it is to Russia he returns, on the blindly romantic chance that an old flame, whose name he finds in an old notebook, will remember him and what they had together.
“In the air, Shutov hovers between sleep and unreality. He is on his way to see a woman of whom all he can remember, thirty years on, is a luminous silence, the clear outline of a face … [yet] she does not seem to be terrified by the interstellar chasm that has come between them. Does she recall their encounters in those parks where the sunsets would come and fade away over the Baltic?”
The woman, who is surprisingly friendly, but very preoccupied, is now divorced and has a son who works for a publisher. The youth’s view of books and writing is that of a cynical, pragmatic businessman and therefore antithetical to that of Shutov. Both the woman and her son represent the New Russia, the Russia of sudden and unfettered capitalism.
Rushing off, she promises to meet Shutov for lunch, and then dinner, but doesn’t. Instead, he finds himself, as a favor to her son, watching an elderly, bed-ridden man who is slated to be moved from the woman’s large communal apartment building in the morning.
Because the man is always silent, it is assumed he is both mute and deaf, but suddenly he begins to speak to Shutov, and his story, “the life of an unknown man,” opens up like a Russian nesting doll. Volsky is the man’s name, and before World War II, when he was young, virile and blessed with what used to be called a “God-given voice,” he was a professional singer.
It was then he met the woman he would love for his entire life, but before they could marry, they were separated by the war. As Volsky’s story unfolds, he tells an increasingly captivated Shutov what happened to him — and her — during the Siege of Leningrad, the March on Berlin and then, in what he had hoped would be the peaceful postwar years of happiness, the purges of Stalin.
Young Volsky dreamed of one day singing grand opera at the Kirov, but instead fate has him — in a scene that could be from Dante’s “Inferno” — part of a small chorus and a ragtag bunch of musicians, playing for the doomed Russian troops during the late stages of the Siege of Leningrad. There is even more horror ahead.
Somehow, Volsky survives, again and again, and he finds Mila, his love, and they try to fashion a life together. There are moments of great happiness, which come from the simplest of pleasures. As they are being forcibly separated, to be sent off to work camps, she whispers to him, “Every day, look at the sky, at least for a moment. I’ll do the same. …”
As Mr. Makine leaves behind Shutov’s cramped and unhappy life and the pathetic alternatives of the newly capitalistic Russia, for Volsky’s courageous story, his prose takes on a simple beauty that uplifts the soul. Over and over and over again, Volsky describes how he and Mila refused to be crushed by the mindless cruelty of their fellow man. An awed Shutov is deeply moved.
On his return to France, Shutov reflects on his experience: “In the plane, he feels for the first time in his life as if he were going from nowhere to nowhere, or rather traveling without any real destination. And yet he has never felt his attachment to a native land more intensely. Except that the country in question is not a territory but an era: Volsky’s. That monstrous Soviet era, the only period Shutov has lived through in Russia. Yes, monstrous, murderous, shamed and one during which, every day, a man looked up at the sky.”
Born in Siberia in 1957, Andrei Makine, has lived in France since 1987. He writes in French, and his fourth novel, “Dreams of My Russian Summers,” won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, the most prestigious French literary prizes. It has already been suggested that he would be a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.
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