The Life of
An Unknown Man
Geoffrey Strachan, Translator
(Graywolf Press)The old man lives at the top floor of a walkup in the poorer part of Paris. He writes throwaway novels in French, lives --- or lived --- with Léa. She was young enough to be his daughter, and she put up with his nagging for over a year (he's quite a crabby old bastard).
He wouldn't stop picking on her about her taste in literature. Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, "the Russians." Nothing to do with keeping the walkup clean, washing the dishes. No, the old priss tells her that Nabokov "writes like a butterfly collector: he catches a beautiful insect, kills it with formalin, impales it on a pin. And he does the same thing with words."
After their last fight --- in which she pointed out that his name, Shutov, means "fool" or "buffoon" in Russian --- she found someone her own age (and disposition) to move in with. So much for May and December. Meanwhile, "His friends were living their lives, marrying, surrounding themselves with children and grandchildren, while he was transforming himself into an ageless ghost."
He remembers Yana, his love from back in the waning days of Soviet Russia. Would she remember him? Could he visit her? He calls, gets a conditional yes, so he flies to what used to be Leningrad. But it turns out that Yana has found a rich husband and they own a chain of hotels. She's no longer his poor village lover.
Furthermore, it's the middle of the tercentenary celebration of St. Petersburg, and everyone is coming to town. She had offered to put Shutov up at her place, but when he gets there, she has barely time to be with him (Blair just blew in ... Bush too.) Her place is an old collective apartment that they are tearing apart to make it a luxurious complex for her family. But there is one left over from the collective: "We have to live with a grandfather who doesn't even belong to us," Yana explains. An old man who is deaf and dumb.
The old man lies in bed in one of the back rooms. Yana tells Shutov they'll be taking him away tomorrow. When she leaves, and he decides to take a TV into the old man's bedroom. They can watch the tercentenary together.
At first, no reaction, but when they show a scene from the Seige of Leningrad, Volsky, who is supposed to be completely out of it, speaks up: "That's exactly the place where we were fighting to the death. For the motherland, as we used to say in those days."
§ § §
I'm damned if I can figure out why The Life of an Unknown Man has such power. First of all, there's Shutov, who drives everyone (even a willing young lover) away from him. For the first fifty pages we have a romanticist who manages to deaden everyone's romance.
Then, since he's a romanticist, he decides to return to his homeland, to seek out his old love. The switch from the drab walkup in Paris to the carnival is thrilling, and contrary. Paris is dull, the energy is all in St. Petersburg. Russia is the future --- computers, cellphones, CNN, stock market, the carnival, the mock executions, tributes to Putin, the almost naked ladies from Brazil dancing in the streets, along with a mock execution of the mayor of the city, and lesbian rock on television. Shutov calls it "modernity gone mad." He thinks of the change: in Paris, "where he felt so little at home, to this luxury apartment, where he is even more of a stranger."
The tercentenary celebrations only sharpen this impetus toward the great world spectacular: forty-five heads of state stuffed with our caviar, glutted with our vodka, bored with our Tchaikovsky. Bill Gates and his riches? Better to admire our own millionaires, who have achieved this status in just a few years!
"Russia, he thinks, has just caught up with the global game of role-playing, its antics, its codes."
And then, just as suddenly, he stumbles into the revelations of Volsky. The old man's not deaf, he's not dumb, he's just wondering: "What's to be said about it? Everything's clear these days?" He's seen it all. He lived through The Seige, and suddenly we've gone from ladies dancing in the streets and young women humping each other on TV to starving in the bombed-out streets of Leningrad 1942.
The hunger and the cold. "One November morning this close proximity of life to death permeated his very breathing. During the previous two days he had not had the strength to leave the apartment."
At this first attempt to go and fetch his hundred and twenty-five grams of bread he had collapsed on the stairs, spent a moment before recovering consciousness, and had then taken an hour to climb back up to his room, where, thanks to the fire, his body resisted merging into the lifelessness that prevailed in the streets.
"This increasing weakness seemed to be external to the body. It was the world that was changing, making objects too heavy (the can in which the water was heating now weighed a ton), lengthening distances (three days ago he had managed to reach the bakery: a veritable polar expedition)." From the cold water flat in Paris to the carnival; from the carnival to the bodies in the streets, the bombed-out buildings, the hunger: "They understood that death had ceased to surprise, it occurred too frequently in this city in extremis. Many were the apartments inhabited by corpses, dead bodies were deposited in the public streets, only a slender frontier separating them from the living."
Volsky remembered a passerby stopping at the entrance to Palace Bridge one day, beside a man stretched out in the snow, who suddenly collapsed himself, joining the man on the far side of that frontier. "I almost did that just now," he thought, glancing at the old man's body.
§ § §
Makine is a master of the extreme. And just when you think that one extreme has been breached, he brings in another. After the war, Volsky lives in a cottage in the valley with Mila, the two of them learning to live "normally." Their cottage had been right in the the middle of battles, the ground was laced with bodies from both sides. As they are building a garden, digging into the rich soil, they find the remains of a German soldier: "'All those children who died because of him,' thought Mila as she touched a skull with the edge of her spade."
Yet the air they breathed was tinged with the acrid scent of russet leaves, the chill of the hoarfrost whose crystals shone like rainbows in the sun. On the ground the last flowers, burned by the frost, rose up among the bones. And from the pale, luminous sky there emanated a gentle aura of convalescence.
It's almost too much, isn't it? No: it is too much. From childhood to war and famine, from famine to being soldiers, killing, watching those around them being killed. Then comes the peace, and they find "a gentle aura of convalescence." They start a little school for the many war orphans. They try to teach them their new ideas of peace and --- it is too much --- there are complaints. Soon the police come, the Stalinists; for their beliefs and teachings, which they never hid, they are condemned to the Gulag.
§ § §
It is all too much, and Makine manages to bring it off, this roller-coaster that was our 20th century, a mad century of war, invasion, dictatorships, starvation, bombs, executions, concentration camps. He is able to invest them all in one short, passionate volume: the complete breadth of fifty years of violence, extending over a vast range of lives and countries, so many destroyed in the name of nationalism, race, purification, patriotism. All swept together in a mad roil of fire and death.--- Lolita Lark