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The Life of an Unknown Man

Last update - Friday, April 1, 2011, 22:38 By Metro Éireann

By Andrei Makine (Sceptre)

Siberian-born writer Makine sought asylum in France in 1987 at the age of 30, and has lived in Paris ever since. Although Makine has been prolific in his output this is the first novel of his that I’ve ever read.
The book earns most of its keep due to an autobiographical connection, and partly for this reason it was easy for me to imagine there would be similar recurring strains in Makine’s other novels.
Of course this is the case for many a writer, but with Makine I felt this to a higher degree, and after reading a few interviews with the author this feeling was confirmed.
Makine is deeply marked by the life he left behind, or – as he suggested in an interview with a UK newspaper – the Russia which left him. This latest novel is another testimony to this.
The story concerns Shutov, a Russian-born writer living in exile in Paris. As his life falls apart, when his much younger lover leaves him, he goes on a quest for his youth’s love back in Russia.
After 20 years in exile, what he encounters jars with his imaginings until a peripheral character, Volsky, takes centre stage and recounts a life so incredibly hard and beautiful that everything else pales in comparison. How can anything else compete?
When Shutov travels back to France it is Volsky that he thinks of, and indeed identifies with somehow. A man of the past, a man of deep feeling and thinking, an unknown man who knew, achieved and learnt so much but who will go to the grave unknown with a lived life meaning little or nothing to people today.
Shutov slides out and closes the door somewhat disgusted, but knows he cannot escape that which makes up our world today.
As he returns to Paris he discovers that his former lover has lost her mystery as he sees her as part and parcel of the increasingly vacuous present.
Shutov himself realises that he belongs nowhere, but somehow still believes in meaning.
“He will remain to the end in an increasingly despised and indeed increasingly unknown past,” Makine writes. “A period he knows to be indefensible, yet one in which some being lived whom must, at all costs, be rescued from oblivion.” 
Makine plays this novel like music, conjuring up mirages that stab at the impossible gulf between the past and the present.

Jeanette Rehnstrom

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