The last two Russian novels I have read, “Double Negative” by Ivan Vladislavic and “Captain of the Steppe” by Oleg Pavlov were both heavy on the metaphor, bleak, stark novels that spoke of gulags, highlighted the exploitation of human rights and delved into the machinations of totalitarianism and the associated regime. Therefore I must admit I approached Andrei Makine’s “Brief Loves That Live Forever” with trepidation. Would I be presented with yet another stark, bleak, heavy novel that almost transports you to a gulag with no hope of escape?
I was in for a massive surprise, a refreshing and poetic journey through the communist machine.
The fatal mistake we make is looking for a paradise that endures. Seeking pleasures that do not grow stale, lasting attachments, embraces with the vigour of lianas: the tree dies but their enveloping tracery continues verdant. This obsession with what lasts causes us to overlook many a fleeting paradise, the only kind we can aspire to in the course of our lightning journey through this vale of tears. These often make their dazzling appearance in places so humble and ephemeral that we refuse to linger there. We prefer to fashion our dreams from the granite blocks of whole decades. We believe we are destined to live as long as statues.
This is a complex and beautiful work, we follow our first person narrator from his post World War 2 life in an orphanage through to old age as he reflects on those brief moments where he has experienced “love” the magical times where the mundane and the structured is lost, if even for a fleeting moment, those times he cherishes forever.
The status of free lovers was on a par with that of vagabonds, thieves, dissidents. Which was mot mistaken: love is in essence subversive. Totalitarianism, even in the mild form ou generation knew, dreaded the spectacle of two beings embracing and escaping its control. It was less the prudishness of a moral order that the nervous tic of a secret police, refusing to admit that a tiny part of existence can lay claim to its personal mystery. A hotel room became a dangerous place: the laws of the totalitarian world were flouted there by the pleasure two people gave one another, with scant regard for the decisions of the latest Party Congress.
Throughout this novel we have the history of Communism in decay and the associated musings on the charades and corruption, however the escape from this world through memories, and cherished memories of love at that, is the beautiful theme throughout. To use a young boy trapped under a May Day parade structure as a metaphor for the façade is one example of how masterful writers can turn bleak subjects into poetic journeys:
My terror was so profound that, within this prison-like captivity, I must have glimpsed a more immense reality concerning the country I lived in, whose political character I was just beginning to grasp, thanks to snatches of conversation intercepted here and there…Much later the memory of this metallic straightjacket would make me think of my compatriots’ despair in the face of ubiquitous censorship and police control and, above all, the impossibility of leaving the country, breaking through the armature of the Iron Curtain. All across that vast territory the same grandstands, the same slogans from loudspeakers, the same leaders’ portraits. And beneath all the terraces, identical steel traps with no way out. I was not yet familiar with the concept of a “totalitarian regime”. But the intimate sensation of what could be experienced in one took hold of me at that moment, in the chill bowels of that symbolic structure…
Andrei Makine even though being born in Siberia, writes in French and this may have some influence over the fact that I just adore his style. A previous winner of the Prix Goncourt (for “Le Testament Francais” ) and with works translated into over 40 languages he is definitely a writer I would like to savour more.
The reflections of the small moments in our lives that only become significant once they’re gone, the endurance of simple beauty or observing someone touched by love, the realms and depths we will travel for love are all rolled up here. But not in a mystical manner like some novels can present the subject but more as a mirror from an old man looing at the momentous occasions throughout his life.
One of my favourites from the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Long List, a revelation and an absolute pleasure in being able to transport myself to the world of love under strict control…
“Love…” an incredulous voice murmured within me. Everything was provided for in the ideal society: enthusiastic work by the masses, incredible advances in science and technology, the conquest of space, taking man into unknown galaxies, material abundance and rational consumption, linked to radical changes of attitude. Everything, absolutely everything! Except….