Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Not-So-Jolly Jester: Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man

Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man, which I read in Geoffrey Strachan’s translation of the original French La vie d’un homme inconnu, is the kind of book that makes me grumpy. The novel details—and I do mean “details”—the emotional and geographical wanderings of a little-known Russian émigré writer living in France who decides to visit the motherland after his much-younger girlfriend dumps him. Shutov, the writer, is a sentimental guy and he wants to visit an old flame.

Peterhof/Petrodvorets at Saint Petersburg's 300th
Shutov’s surname may be rooted in “shut” (sounds like “shoot”), the Russian word for a clown, fool, or jester, but he doesn’t fit in with St. Petersburg’s carnivalesque atmosphere at the city’s anniversary celebration. He says, “Nothing has changed in thirty years. And everything has changed.” Right. A paragraph later, when Shutov tells himself, “I was wrong to come…,” I wrote “Yes, you were!” in the margin. Reason A: As we all know, you can’t step in the same river twice. Reason B: The trip is a colossally awkward plot device designed to give Shutov a chance to observe changes and fail to have a soulful reunion with Yana, the old flame, who is now a busy businesswoman… but miraculously redeem the journey by meeting Volsky, an old man who inhabits a room in a former communal apartment Yana now owns.

It’s Volsky’s last night in his room before moving to a nursing home, and Shutov watches over him, listening to his life story, which includes the blockade of Leningrad, reaching Berlin for the Soviet Army during World War 2, Stalin-era imprisonment, and a love story involving numerous coincidences. Volsky’s life hits on numerous elements of the mythos of Soviet Russia and Leningrad, combining the miracle of survival and the ability to find a certain happiness amidst chaos, arrests, and death. The problem here isn’t the material, which is important, it’s Makine’s treatment, which makes Volsky feel like a clichéd composite of the Soviet period right down to a tear-jerking final trip to an old site before he moves to the nursing home.

Even worse, Volsky is a tool to inspire Shutov to find perspective on his own dull life. If, that is, the reader can believe this self-centered guy is ready for perspective. This element of the novel felt especially literarily cheap and obvious because Makine summarizes the novel’s action and message at the end, lest the reader missed something. An example: “The violent feeling suddenly overcomes Shutov that he will never be a part of the Russian world that is now being reborn within his native land.” But we knew that many pages ago.

The Life of an Unknown Man reminds me of a Soviet-era package tour to Russia: a schedule stuffed with group meals in hotel dining rooms and ideological excursions, but no contact with Russians other than tour guides and food service personnel. Sure, you see the important sites and many of them are lovely. But you feel manipulated, told what to think. There are lots of Russian novels available in translation that address World War 2 in the Soviet Union and/or the Stalinist repression that I’d recommend over Makine’s The Life, everything from I(rina) Grekova’s Ship of Widows to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Two other Soviet-era books that have become classics: Anatolii Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat and Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate.

To be fair, I should note that lots of readers enjoyed The Life of an Unknown Man far more than I. Among them: Kirkus, which starred it; Amy Henry on The Black Sheep Dances; Mary Whipple on Seeing the World Through Books; Viv Groskop in The Observer, and M.A. Orthofer on The Complete Review, who links to numerous other reviews.

Notes on two other books: I had so much difficulty with G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, a clunky and contrived attempt to mix a Persian Gulf cyberthriller with djinns and The Thousand and One Nights that I stopped reading half-way through. Grumpy again! I also read the first hundred or so pages of WiesławMyśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, in Bill Johnston’s translation. Stone Upon Stone is very good, vignettes of rural Polish life that come close to qualifying as stream-of-consciousness, but it’s the kind of book I’m best reading over time, in chunks, so I don’t lose the nuance. I read wonderful passages about farming, the significance of a new road, and melees at dances. It’s easy to see why Bill Johnston won the Best Translated Book Award for Stone Upon Stone: he creates a memorable English-language voice for Myśliwski’s first-person narrator. It’s a book I’ll study and analyze, too, because its narrative voice feels like a Polish cousin to some of the Russian-language stories I’ve worked on.

Disclaimers: Thanks to Amy Henry who sent me a copy of The Life of an Unknown Man that she received from Graywolf Press, whom I also thank. Amy also facilitated my copy of Stone Upon Stone from Archipelago Books—thanks to both of them! Finally, I picked up a copy of Alif the Unseen from Grove/Atlantic’s booth at BookExpo America; I’ve always enjoyed speaking with Grove/Atlantic about literature in translation.  

Up next: Anita Konkka’s A Fool’s Paradise. Then Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners. I think it’s my summer for Finnish-related books… I may have to read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book next.

Image credit: Saint Petersburg’s 300th Anniversary, from

No comments:

Post a Comment