Andreï Makine Critical Essays

Introduction

Andreï Makine 1957-

(Also transliterated as Andrei Makine) Russian-born French novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Makine's career through 2003.

Makine has been characterized as a writer caught between two cultures and two languages, and the search for cultural identity is a major theme in his novels. His novels span multiple generations and cross borders between different historical periods in both Russia and France. While Russian is Makine's first language, he writes in a lyrical French. As a non-Frenchman, however, he had trouble gaining acceptance in the sometimes insular circle of French literature until the critical and popular success of Le testament français (1995; Dreams of My Russian Summers).

Biographical Information

Makine was born in Siberia and attended school in Moscow. He taught philology in Novgorod. In 1987 Makine moved to Paris to seek political asylum. He spent his early period there sleeping in a cemetery crypt while he wrote his first book, La fille d'un héros de l'Union soviétique (1990). The novel was turned down by several publishing houses until he asserted that he actually wrote in Russian and that his work was subsequently translated into French. When the publishers asked to see a copy of the Russian original, he had to quickly translate his French novel into Russian. He was turned down for French citizenship several times until Dreams of My Russian Summers garnered him critical honors. Makine was the first non-Frenchman to win the Prix Goncourt and the first writer to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis. This novel also won the Prix Goncourt des lycéens, given out by French students. Makine has become an outspoken social, cultural, and literary commentator and has continued to write novels in French.

Major Works

Confession d'un porte-drapeau déchu (1992; Confessions of a Lapsed Standard-Bearer) focuses on Alyosha and his friend, Arkady, two youths growing up in a town outside Leningrad during the 1960s. The narrative touches on their parents' experiences during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, and takes the form of a letter written by Alyosha to Arkady. A nostalgic look at a communist youth camp where the boys march, parade, and embrace the propaganda of the party, the novel turns when they begin to learn of the suffering their parents endured in the war. Au temps du fleuve Amour (1994; Once upon the River Love) centers on three teenage boys living in Siberia who become enamored of the West through watching French films starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. The boys see the West as an escape from the rigid dogmatism of Russia. Dreams of My Russian Summers is a celebration of French life as seen through the eyes of a Russian adolescent growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Alyosha spends summers with his French-born grandmother in southern Russia. She tells him stories about France and shares her treasures from her former life in Paris. The novel is a blend of history and memoir and spans cultural and geographical borders between France and Russia. Le crime d'Olga Arbélina (1998; The Crime of Olga Arbyelina) features Olga, a Russian expatriate living in Paris. She is estranged from her husband and lives alone with her son, who suffers from hemophilia. Olga's son drugs her at night in order to pursue an incestuous affair with her—which she discovers—and the novel explores Olga's complicity and pleasure in their forbidden relationship. Requiem pour l'Est (2000; Requiem for the East) presents the events of twentieth-century Russia through the eyes of a former Soviet secret agent. The narrator relates his own story, and that of his father and grandfather, to portray the violence and chaos of this period in history. La musique d'une vie (2001; Music of a Life) portrays the life of Andrei Berg, a piano player whose career is cut short when the Nazis invade the Ukraine in the 1940s. His parents are arrested, and he takes on the identity of a dead Soviet soldier. In the end his identity is revealed when a young woman tries to teach him to play piano, and he is unable to hide his talent. In La terre et le ciel de Jacques Dorme (2003; The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme) the narrator, an orphaned Soviet teen, is nurtured by an older French woman. He becomes interested in the story of a missing aviator—a figure likely based on René Dorme, a French pilot killed during World War I. This novel treats similar themes from Dreams of My Russian Summers and Requiem for the East, including a quest for personal identity and the conflict between two cultural and linguistic heritages.

Critical Reception

Some reviewers have noted the influence of Marcel Proust and Ivan Bunin on Makine's work. Others have found Makine's writing similar to that of Anton Chekhov. Critics have praised Makine's lyrical style and his superb command of the French language. Reviewers have discussed the way Makine interweaves present action with reminiscences or memories of the past. For example, Sam Phipps asserted, “One of Makine's most distinctive tricks is the way he strips away layers of the past, freezing a fine detail or image in time and then returning to it again and again from a different angle, each reprise conjuring a fresh nuance or revelation as the main narrative drives forward. The effect is cumulative, powerful and somehow meditative.” Most reviewers note how deftly Makine recreates the struggle for cultural identity in many of his novels, but especially in Dreams of My Russian Summers. There is some disagreement among critics about whether Makine sought to make a judgement about the relative superiority of Russian or French culture in this work, but most agree that he successfully portrays the tension felt by a person caught between two cultures. One recurring criticism of Makine's writing is of his reliance on plot contrivances to move the story along, but most reviewers agree that this does not mar the overall quality of his novels. Francis King asserted, “when I describe Andreï Makine as a great writer, this is no journalistic exaggeration but my wholly sincere estimate of a man of prodigious gifts. In his combination of clarity, concision, tenderness and elegiac lyricism, he is the heir to Ivan Bunin, the first Russian ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.”