24 December 2007

Andreï Makine, A Life’s Music, 2001

Of the twenty cover quotes used to promote this book possibly the most apt is “as assured as a self-contained Chopin nocturne”, and a particularly sad one at that: Makine is Russian but writes in French, something that somehow heightens the sense of detachment for this tale of a promising life sent completely off-track. In a snowbound railway station in the present-day, far Siberian east, a stranded passenger comes across an old man playing the piano. He is Alexeï Berg, and we learn that he was once a young concert pianist who had grown up in pre-war Stalinist Moscow at a time when the Russian intelligentsia were being ‘disappeared’. He gets secret word that he is next in line for the re-education camps, and before his first solo concert he is forced to disappear himself, away from his pursuers and instead into the arms of the Russian military as it repels the German invasion before returning to the old totalitarianism which Berg, once again, falls foul of.

Infusing the book from start to finish is Makine’s adopted concept of homo sovieticus, encapsulating the kind of stoic and peculiarly Russian patience that is required to deal with life’s endless difficulties. A Life’s Music pushes the reader in different and unexpected directions that may seem too sudden when told in such a short space as a hundred pages, but it is the right length because too much sentimentality would, otherwise, dilute its stunningly good ending.   PY

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