Out of Time and Place

By Hobson, Charlotte | The Spectator, October 23, 2010 | Go to article overview

Out of Time and Place


Hobson, Charlotte, The Spectator


The Life of an Unknown Man

by Andrei Makine

Sceptre, £16.99, pp. 250,

ISBN 9780340998786

The misleadingly titled Life of an Unknown Man is in fact the story of two men, and the dualities that their characters embody - fame and anonymity, unhappiness and happiness, West and East. Like Andrei Makine himself, the protagonist, Shutov, is a middle-aged Russian emigre author living in Paris. His powers, both sexual and literary, are slipping away from him, and his sense of failure is minutely and rather brilliantly dissected in a parade of petty humiliations, ridiculous outbursts and painful internal dialogue. Orphaned as a child and lonely in emigration, 'for a long time Shutov had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers'. Makine conveys compellingly how his compulsion to ironise, to seek metaphors and parallels - to approach life through a literary filter - has become a serious barrier to intimacy.

When his young girlfriend leaves him after yet another literary argument, Shutov travels to St Petersburg: perhaps in the country of his birth he will be less isolated. Long ago a woman called Yana and he watched a sunset together, a fleeting emotional moment which in Shutov's imagination has fused dangerously with an image from a short story by Chekhov. Modern Russia, however, horrifies him. All trace of that romantic, idealistic nature which Russian literature both expressed and inspired - a quality which, amazingly, survived under Soviet power - seems to have been deleted like an unnecessary flourish. Yana is now a wealthy property developer, with a son who publishes soft porn.

In the midst of all this New Russian life, however, lies a silent figure, an old man called Volsky who, thanks to the vagaries of Russian housing, still has a claim to a room in Yana's lavish apartment. Shutov's solipsistic agonies now give way to Volsky's life story, in which the suffering is on an epic scale. It is quite an ordinary life for a Soviet citizen of his age: the siege of Leningrad, followed by service in a tank regiment; a brief postwar respite is shattered when he and his wife are arrested and sent to the Gulag. …

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