Commentary: The Russian Emigre Novelist Andrei Makine Approaches Soviet History through Painstaking Investigations of the Private Past. Sebastian Harcombe Meets a Modern-Day Proust
Harcombe, Sebastian, New Statesman (1996)
The wistful photograph of Andrei Makine on the dust jacket of The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme, the latest of his increasingly enigmatic and haunting novels, was something of a bum steer. So, too, were the various second-hand myths of him leading a hermetic existence, writing in longhand through the night, subsisting on bread and tea. Waiting for him in a Paris cafe, anticipating the timorous entrance of a modern-day Proust, I was unaware that the sleek and energetic gentleman talking on his mobile phone at the next table was my appointed guest. Though many critics have commented on Proustian influences in Makine's writing--its poetic delicacy, intricate beauty, the meticulously detailed images--this man would look out of place weeping and wheezing in a cork-lined room.
Jacques Dorme is the final instalment of a trilogy that began with Le testament francais, the novel that catapulted Makine to success in 1995 after scooping both of France's major literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. Born in Siberia, he defected from the Soviet Union in 1987 and was granted political asylum in France. Early attempts at publication met with little success, even blatant hostility; French publishers were unwilling to credit a foreigner writing so well in their beloved language. In desperation, Makine sent out his work as "translations from the Russian" and the tide began to turn.
He speaks with a direct, effortless eloquence: "Writing in French is like being handed the pen already used by Racine, Corneille, Balzac--but, writing in any language, the ideas you are trying to express are essentially the same. Imagine a tree: the trunk is the absolute truth, what one needs to express. The roots are all the languages, dialects of one universal tongue."
French became a fascination for Makine in early childhood: "a tiny hole in the Iron Curtain through which to peer at other worlds". He absorbed his interest from a grandmother, a Frenchwoman living in Siberia--a figure who was to be hugely inspirational in his life and work. Though she is clearly the model for characters in both Le testament and Jacques Dorme, Makine keenly asserts that his works are not autobiographical but rather "hallucinations of the past, a series of things remembered and things imagined". His stories often concern an individual's painstaking investigation of their memories, characteristically presented with sombre dignity and a touching, affectionate and at times brutal honesty.
Jacques Dorme recounts the journey made by a Russian emigre in France back into the defunct Soviet Union to search for the crash site of a fighter pilot from the Second World War, a pilgrimage that provokes powerful recollections of the narrator's adolescence in a Siberian orphanage. …