The misleadingly titled Life of an Unknown Man is in fact the story of two men, and the dualities that their characters embody — fame and anonymity, unhappiness and happiness, West and East.
The misleadingly titled Life of an Unknown Man is in fact the story of two men, and the dualities that their characters embody — fame and anonymity, unhappiness and happiness, West and East. Like Andrei Makine himself, the protagonist, Shutov, is a middle-aged Russian emigré author living in Paris. His powers, both sexual and literary, are slipping away from him, and his sense of failure is minutely and rather brilliantly dissected in a parade of petty humiliations, ridiculous outbursts and painful internal dialogue. Orphaned as a child and lonely in emigration, ‘for a long time Shutov had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers’. Makine conveys compellingly how his compulsion to ironise, to seek metaphors and parallels — to approach life through a literary filter — has become a serious barrier to intimacy.
When his young girlfriend leaves him after yet another literary argument, Shutov travels to St Petersburg: perhaps in the country of his birth he will be less isolated. Long ago a woman called Yana and he watched a sunset together, a fleeting emotional moment which in Shutov’s imagination has fused dangerously with an image from a short story by Chekhov. Modern Russia, however, horrifies him. All trace of that romantic, idealistic nature which Russian literature both expressed and inspired — a quality which, amazingly, survived under Soviet power — seems to have been deleted like an unnecessary flourish. Yana is now a wealthy property developer, with a son who publishes soft porn.
In the midst of all this New Russian life, however, lies a silent figure, an old man called Volsky who, thanks to the vagaries of Russian housing, still has a claim to a room in Yana’s lavish apartment. Shutov’s solipsistic agonies now give way to Volsky’s life story, in which the suffering is on an epic scale. It is quite an ordinary life for a Soviet citizen of his age: the siege of Leningrad, followed by service in a tank regiment; a brief postwar respite is shattered when he and his wife are arrested and sent to the Gulag.
Gone is the fractured prose necessary to describe Shutov’s life in the West. Here Makine conveys grotesque horrors in a series of lucid, finely balanced images: theatre audiences during the siege, too weak to clap, bow silently at the end of a performance; a young woman, ‘a statue covered in hoar frost’, frozen beside the burst pipe where she had been trying to draw water.
To Shutov, however, Volsky’s story is no tragedy, but an inspiration — because Volsky, despite everything, has been happy, thanks to the triumphant love between him and his wife Mila. Unfortunately Makine’s attempt to portray this great love is the least successful element of the novel. During the siege the pair achieve a state of transcendence driven by starvation and near misses with death — a moving and plausible piece of writing.
After the war, however, they continue in the same, almost saintly, vein, rising above each new trauma that the Soviet system throws at them. Fictional figures can survive all sorts of physical torture, but Makine’s unrelenting battery of self-sacrificing love, Buddha-like non-attachment and wordless wisdom soon reduces poor Volsky and Mila to cardboard characters.
Nonetheless, their example serves to give Shutov a new sense of identity. At last he has found where he belongs — not in modern Russia, but in ‘that monstrous Soviet era’,
a period he knows to be indefensible, yet one in which some human beings lived who must, at all costs, be rescued from oblivion.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a retrogressive position, a dubious nostalgia for a time that both Shutov and Makine went into exile to avoid. Makine’s judgment of contemporary Russia is swift and sweeping. Yet there is truth in the idea that a remarkable and precious element of the Russian spirit has been — not lost, exactly, but disregarded and dismissed in the stampede towards the free market.