“When you expect nothing more, life opens up to what is really important …”
Old and new Russia meet in the superb, elegiac novel The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine. The story begins with fifty-year-old Russian exile, Shutov alone in his Paris flat remembering moments from his failed two-year-long relationship with his young lover, Léa. They met accidentally–she was a budding writer from the provinces with no place to live and was easily impressed with the cachet of living with a much-older published Russian émigré author. Shutov “is the absolute prototype of a man ditched by a woman young enough to be his daughter,” so he wallows in self-pity even as he performs a post-mortem of a relationship doomed to failure.
In spite of the fact that Shutov has published a few books in France, he remains a lonely émigré–still completely Russian–even though he left that country during the final years of the Soviet Union twenty years earlier.
“An exile’s only country is his country’s literature.” Who said that? Shutov cannot place the name in his confused thoughts. Some anonymous expatriate, no doubt, waking in the night and trying to recall the last line of a rhyme learned in childhood.
For a long time he had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers. Shadowy figures, certainly, but in his Parisian exile he got on well with them. On a fine summer’s day in Moscow Tolstoy saw the figure of a woman through an open window, a bare shoulder, an arm with very white skin. All of Anna Karenina was born, if we are to believe him, from that woman’s arm.
As the story plays out, it becomes clear that as an émigré, Shutov is essentially lost in time and place. He doesn’t fit into his newly adopted country, and when it comes to his homeland, he is stuck in the Soviet past that no longer exists. Nabokov knew that he could never go home again as that ‘home,’ as he knew it, no longer existed. Shutov thinks otherwise. Faced with Léa’s arrival to pick up the last of her belongings, Shutov impulsively decides to return to Russia–ostensibly to seek out Yana, a woman he knew thirty years before in Leningrad.
Leningrad has, of course, reverted back into being St. Petersburg, and Shutov arrives in the middle of the St Petersburg tercentenary celebrations and a “confusion of styles, the disappearance of a way of life and barely the first babblings of a new manner of being.” Street celebrations yield surreal exhibitions. Actors dressed as executioners and figures of terror have now become figures of fun:
“Three days of this burlesque May Revolution to undo decades of terror, to wash away the blood of real revolutions. To deafen themselves with the noise of firecrackers so as to forget the sound of bombs. To unleash these merry executioners into the streets so as to blot out the shadowy figures that came knocking at doors in the night not so long ago, dragging men out, still half asleep, throwing them into black cars.”
Behind the Winter Palace a placard announces a “family portrait.” Seated on folding chairs, a Peter the Great, a Lenin, a Stalin, and, beyond an untoward gap, a Gorbachev, complete with birthmark painted on the middle of his bald head. Stalin, pipe in mouth, talks on his cellphone. A Nicholas II and a Brezhnev (the missing links) rejoin the group, laden with packs of beer. Laughter, camera flashes. The barker, a young woman in a miniskirt, moves among the crowd: “Now then, ladies and gentlemen, spare a coin for the losers of history. We accept dollars too …”
“They’ve managed to turn the page at last,” Shutov says to himself. And the thought of being left behind, like a dried flower, between the preceding pages, gives him the desire to hurry, to catch up on lost time.
There was a time when a visitor from Europe to the Soviet Union had a certain air of privilege, but now Shutov is shabby in comparison with his affluent Russian friends.
Having come as a nostalgic pilgrim, he finds himself surrounded by modernity gone mad, a mixture of American razzle-dazzle and Russian clowning.
Almost as though he’s been locked in a time warp, Shutov cannot align his past with the excesses of New Russia, and instead of becoming soothed and reassured by his visit, he’s increasingly disturbed and alienated by what he sees. Shutov watches Russian television–that touchstone of culture:
On the screen is a thoroughbred dog, with a long, haughty, nervous muzzle. Hands with varnished nails fastening a glittering collar about the animal’s neck. A figure appears: 14,500. Fourteen thousand five hundred dollars, the presenter confirms, and specifies the precious stones that decorate this accoutrement. A sequence of other models: rubies, topazes, diamonds… The numbers lengthen to match the rarity of the gems. The next scene features a dog with clipped hair, whose body, sensitive to the cold, is to benefit from a distinctive garment. Fox fur, beaver, or sable capes … The same range of furs for its ankle boots … the program now moves on to a more difficult species to domesticate. A lynx, which must undergo a pedicure if you care about carpets and furniture. A vet is seen filing down the animal’s claws … For a dwarf hippopotamus, whose well-being depends on a good level of humidity, the installation of a hygrometer is essential. The brightness of the colors on your python’s skin can be enhanced by a wide range of food supplements …
Shutov is confused by New Russia and its “frenzied materialism.” With a growing sense of displacement he meets Volsky, an elderly man, survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s Purges, and years spent in a labour camp. Listening to the man telling his poignant story which begins in 1941, Shutov learns the value of a moment of compassion, hears how the human spirit soars over brutality, and how love endures despite monumental adversity….
The Life of an Unknown Man is split into roughly two parts–Shutov’s broken love affair and his visit to St Petersburg followed by Volsky’s story. Volsky is a living relic of Russian history, and it’s through Shutov’s meeting with this remarkable ‘unknown man’ that Shutov finally is able to come to terms with his own life. I cannot praise this extraordinarily moving novel enough, and it’s destined to make my ‘best of 2012’ list.
The Life of an Unknown Man was originally published in French as La Vie d’Homme Inconnu. The author was born in Siberia in 1957 and has lived in France for over 20 years. My copy came courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Geoffrey Strachan