Requiem for a Lost Empire

Requiem for a Lost Empire is the fifth novel to appear in English by Andrei Makine, a francophonic Russian emigre, and its author's reverence for sumptuous French is evident even in translation. The novel's unnamed narrator recounts a nomadic life spent in Aden, Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and other global trouble spots. Trained in medicine, he is saving lives in Yemen's civil war when recruited by a Soviet intelligence agent. Donning multiple new identities and teamed with a woman who becomes his lover, the narrator tracks down arms merchants who endanger Kremlin interests. As the Soviet Union disintegrates, he quits clandestine work and settles, alone, in France.

To recover the truth about himself, the narrator, who was raised in an orphanage, recalls stories that a family friend had recounted, in French, about his family origins. His grandfather, Nikolai, deserted the Red cavalry in 1920 to return to his native village, where he is eventually killed by invading Germans. After surviving ferocious combat throughout Europe, Nikolai's son Pavel bids farewell to arms, but the Caucasian forest in which he and his wife seclude themselves is not beyond the reach of a firing squad.

For all its sundry datelines, Requiem for a Lost Empire is a novel of Russia, "that great white void, with its wars, its cruelty, its beauty, its suffering." Makine and his world-weary narrator ponder a barbarous century that is "nothing more than a monstrous organism that digests gold, oil, politics, and wars, and secretes pleasure for some, death for others." The text is their attempt at redemption, at transmuting unspeakable horror into the magnificent complexities of (French) language.