Alexei 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.
Russia 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.