#6Degrees: Starting from The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Well, well, who’d have thought that this bleak novel would feel oddly appropriate for the times we are living through? McCarthy’s tale of a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape is the starting point for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation, a reading meme hosted by Kate and one that I always look forward to. We all start with the same book but our thought processes and associations are so different, we all have hugely divergent and entertaining journeys!

Despite the dark, dark story and patient accumulation of sordid details, I found The Road ultimately uplifting. Another book which perks me up even though everyone else seems to find it truly bleak is The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. We read it in our English class in Romania in Communist times and interpreted it as a condemnation of colonialism, so it felt strange to me to see it being condemned as a racist book. Yes, he tends to see ‘the natives’ as an indistinguishable but much-oppressed mass, but that just shows (whether he was doing it deliberately or not) the imperialist attitude of the past and present.

Conrad of course, famously, was not writing in his native language – although, goodness knows, he certainly made English his own! Another author who writes in his second language, but so fluently that he had to pretend at first that he was being translated from his Rusian mothertongue, is Andrei Makine. His best known work Dreams of My Russian Summers explores this relationship with bilingualism and biculturalism, and draws on autobiographical elements. It’s the story of a young boy who grows up in the Soviet Union with a French grandmother and tells the story of the grandmother’s life as well.

Summers with grandmothers are the main feature of one of my favourite books The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The perfect little book, an understated expression of the love between a granddaughter and grandmother, the grief of losing a mother and daughter, as well as the freedom they both experience in a remote place in the middle of nature.

It would be far too easy to continue the rich vein of summer stories for the next link. Instead, I will focus on remote locations and the book that instantly springs to mind is Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, her memoir of finding salvation in wild nature and isolation in the Orkneys.

While I had some reservations about that book and the urge to find the perfect isolated spot with good Wifi, I have no reservations about recommending the nature writing and immaculately detailed and thoughtful observations of Kathleen Jamie in Sightlines. One of the most unforgettable essays in that book is The Hvalsalen, set in the whale museum of Bergen, so whales provide the link to my next and last book.

I’ll steer clear of the obvious choice, Moby Dick or Pinocchio, and instead opt for a book I haven’t read but which sounds both fascinating and emotional: The Lost Whale by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. It is based on a true story from 2004 about a young Orca whale who lost his pod and tried to strike up a friendship with humans. Publishers Weekly deemed that it ‘brings a thorny dilemma to the table–what should humanity’s role toward nature be?–and the book does a surprisingly good job of showing the range of emotions behind that question.’

So a thread which travelled from the US to the Congo to Russia to Finland to Scotland to Norway and finally Vancouver Island. Doing my best to travel while staying indoors! Where will your 6 links take you this month?

 

Andrei Makine: Music of a Life

Makine1Alexei Berg is a promising young pianist whose parents are imprisoned by the Soviets in 1941, on the eve of his debut concert. He runs away to find family in the west of the Soviet Union, assumes the identity of a dead soldier, becomes the driver and protégé of a Russian general and is taught how to play piano by the general’s daughter once he returns to Russia. He never reveals his real identity or his musical abilities until one day…. And yes, I did find the end of the book too rushed and the love story not entirely convincing. But this is not an epic story, nor a work of suspense. Nor is the story told in quite such a simple manner. Instead, it is told as a story within a story. Our unnamed narrator is trapped by a snowstorm in a remote railway station somewhere in Siberia when he comes across Alexei, now an old man, who tells him the story of his life. And perhaps forever changes his own.

This is not only a beautifully written elegy to a wasted talent, but also a far too familiar account of life, death, survival of human emotions and beauty under the twin evils of dictatorship and war. But it is about more than that: it is about art as the triumph of human spirit, and its suppression robbing us a little of our humanity. It is about music as life and life as music. Or the concert of a lifetime. Or how we only have a limited time on life’s stage. Or how the concert we have planned to play won’t necessarily be the music we end up playing, but there is music there nevertheless if we know how to listen. Or, or, or…

You can see how this short book, gives rise to all sorts of philosophical musings. Let me come back down to earth for an instant. [It’s that Russian soul of profound melancholy speaking to me.] Makine is Russian born and bred, but fled to France at the age of 30. He started writing novels in French, living the poverty-stricken life of ‘La Bohème’ for real, even had to pretend they were translated from Russian in an effort find any publisher. He achieved recognition with Le Testament Français, which won the two highest French literature prizes in 1995. He is one of the most respected writers in France today, has been translated into many languages, but is not all that popular back in Russia. Not surprising, given his frank, sometimes distressing portrayal of Soviet times in many of his novels. And, although he claims in interviews to have no nostalgia for ‘Motherland Russia’, Makine is forever trying to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western Europe. 

Makine2Russia does permeate his works: the sensibility and descriptions are so reminiscent of Russian masterpieces. The door of the waiting-room blasting open and letting the chill air and snow in at the railway station where the characters are waiting for their delayed train. Alexei’s search amongst corpses, both Russian and German, for a plausible fake identity.  It is the individual experience and these single moments of sharp insight that Makine tries to convey, rather than a sweeping panorama of society or a historical period. In a period when we rush to label nations and cultures (he takes exception to the term ‘Homo sovieticus’), the author gives us the example of a single person, not a particularly likeable or heroic person, perhaps not even a musical genius. And somehow this story becomes exemplary, reverberating in the Siberia of your soul long after you finish reading.