Simon Baker reviews Andreï Makine’s latest novel
In Andreï Makine’s previous novel, The Woman Who Waited (2006), which is set in 1970s USSR, the unnamed narrator sees through his peers’ weak ideologies; he knows that their anti- establishment stance is merely a neat justification for a life of indolence. In Human Love, Elias Almeida, a communist revolutionary, sees that many of his well-to-do comrades use their political activism as a means of escape or as preparatory research in a writing career; theirs is ‘the arrogant desire to transform other people’s lives into an “experiment”, into a testing ground for their own ideas’. Each main character seeks out real humans rather than a theoretical ‘humanity’, and both fall for women they hardly know.
The novels have similar starting-points, therefore, but while Makine’s previous protagonist stays in a small town and becomes disillusioned, Elias travels from country to country and, despite his scepticism, remains committed to the ideal of a world in which people do not kill, rape or tyrannise. He knows that his goal of bringing an end to suffering is futile, but, as he says towards the end of the book, ‘I’d have hated myself if I hadn’t fought to do so’.
Elias is Angolan. His parents are killed when opposing Portuguese rule, and the teenaged Elias finds a home in the Congo among revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, who is presented here as a somewhat risible figure who views the ‘working masses’ in the abstract and lives within the bubble of his own rhetoric. Elias travels to Moscow to study and is recruited as an agent by the Soviets, who use him to spy in various African countries in the years before the USSR’s collapse.