Tr. from French by Geoffrey Strachan
In interviews, Russian émigré author Andreï Makine often describes his life as the ascetic existence of an intellectual from an era past: living alone in a small, empty apartment; drinking excessive amounts of coffee; writing novels on an electric typewriter in the dead of night. Shutov, the protagonist of Makine’s most recent novel, The Life of an Unknown Man — his twelfth — leads a life strikingly similar to Makine’s, with a key difference: Shutov’s writing never won him the prestigious French literary awards the Prix Goncourt or the Prix Médicis. Instead, he is a failed novelist who occupies a spare attic apartment in Paris, the city to which he immigrated, seeking escape from the Soviet Union. He lives apart from the rhythms of contemporary life and modern technology; media and new ideas do not enter his sphere of awareness.
If Makine has built a romantic aura around his own persona, with Shutov he mocks that romanticism. The entire novel, which winds its way from Paris to St. Petersburg and back — and through the history of the Soviet Union — serves to demonstrate to Shutov the triteness of his own existence. But it is an unresolved dynamic, and not all of the romanticism is self-conscious. There is a sentimentality that hovers throughout the book, leaving the sense of a truth sought but not found.
Shutov is a pathetic character. His name is derived from the Russian word for joke, “shutka.” His relationships are all slight and illusory. Seeking escape from the misery of one failed romance, he decides to return to St. Petersburg for the first time since his immigration to find another lost love, a girl he once shared brief moments of affection with years earlier. He finds himself faced with both a woman and a city that no longer bear any resemblance to his memories.
Shutov’s encounter with the carnivalesque reality of the transformed city of his youth is one of the most thrilling sections of the novel. As he makes his way through St. Petersburg’s citywide celebrations of its 400th Anniversary, he confronts a jumbled culture comfortably mashing together the de-contextualized aesthetics of Soviet history with the icons of the West. For Shutov, it is both exciting and disturbing. He tries to understand the spectacle as a coping mechanism, and as the only possible response to the horrors of the past century: “ ‘A collective exorcism,’ he thinks . . . ‘Three days of this burlesque May Revolution to undo decades of terror, to wash away the blood of real revolutions.’ ”
Yana, Shutov’s past love, is a successful businesswoman who embodies all the characteristics of the Russian nouveau riche. She’s busy having meetings and furnishing her palatial apartment, and has no time to reminisce. Shutov eventually finds himself left behind in her home with Volsky, an old man and former tenant of the building who no longer speaks. He is a dying relic of a past time existing for a few absurd moments in the extravagant environs of New Russia.
At this point in the novel, Shutov’s story disappears, and Volsky takes over as the central character. He recounts how he endured the great tragedies of the Soviet years: nearly starving to death in the blockade of Leningrad, then being drafted to fight in World War II, and later serving four years as a laborer in Stalin’s Gulag.
Volsky’s story essentially constitutes a novella within a novella, and the shifting stories and locations of the novel as a whole create a somewhat disjointed narrative, marked by dramatic shifts in tone.
The various pieces work together by building two characters whose contrasting experiences form the heart of the story — the one man unmoored, the other weighed down with the heaviest memories. Shutov’s life never takes on substance or finds a solid form. He is placeless and purposeless, alienated from his homeland in its contemporary moment of re-creation, and unable to build the life he thought he could have in his adopted city:
‘I was wrong to come . . .,’ [Shutov] tells himself. But has he really 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 of a stranger.
Volsky’s life is steeped in unimaginable pain, but it is staked on the great dramas of the twentieth century. It is as substantial as a life could be, intertwined with history and marked by an epic affair with a woman he met while both were starving opera singers in the midst of the Leningrad blockade. She is eventually arrested and killed in the labor camps, but he never stops loving her, imagining he meets her gaze when he looks at the sky.
Shutov hears Volsky’s life story, but fixates on the romance. The pain becomes almost a backdrop for idealizing a doomed yet eternal love affair. After leaving Volsky and St. Petersburg behind and returning to Paris, Shutov compares the heft of Volsky’s lived experience to his own:
[Shutov] now knows that the only words worth writing down arise when language is impossible. As in the case of that man and woman separated by thousands of miles of ice, whose eyes met under lightly falling snow.
Even as he ponders Volsky’s story, trying to make sense of what is really important and what is really worth writing about, he does not think about death or pain — only love made more real by death and pain. He finds it the kind of love that is no longer possible in the mercurial, shifting reality of the 21st Century, and he vows to tell the stories of these people who suffered and loved at a time when history was more cohesive.
This is a sentiment that rings hollow, sidestepping confrontation with reality in favor of contemplation of imagined reality. Makine’s writing is exquisite and seductive, and The Life of an Unknown Man is full of beautifully unfolded moments. But it is built around a notion of the contemporary as an incomprehensible time, in which the grand narratives of the past have disappeared and been replaced by some strange convergence of media and money. What is concerning is that this nostalgic lamentation — the notion of a person who has given up on the present — does not seem to be questioned, but rather held up as the condition of our existence.