The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme
The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme is the final installment of Andreï Makine’s ambitious World War II trilogy which follows the events in the life of Jacques Dorme. The trilogy begins with Le Testament français (1995; Dreams of My Russian Summers, 1997) which is followed by Requiem pour l’Est (2000; Requiem for a Lost Empire, 2001). The novels follow the lives and brief love affair between two French expatriates living in Russia during World War II. This last novel takes place decades after the war has ended and is narrated by an unnamed orphan who, like so many others, is a product of the war. Upon learning of Jacques Dorme, the narrator seeks out all information about the mysterious pilot, fulfilling his longing for a sense of belonging and familial heritage.
Jumping from Stalingrad in 1942 to the Russian steppes in 1966 to Paris in the year 2000, Makine is able in the third volume to weave three stories seamlessly together in an experimental nonlinear fashion. Here the narrator befriends Alexandria, who claims to have been friends with his parents and now serves as a part-time “mother” for him. As such, the boy is allowed to leave the orphanage once a week to visit her. It is during these visits that he learns of Alexandria’s past, and she teaches him her native language, French. She tells the boy that the only treasure she has to give to him is that of her mother tongue. He feels French is a covert code which only they share, and their secret language provides the sort of familial bond he has been yearning for his entire existence. The orphan absorbs the language and discovers under Alexandria’s staircase a hidden library of Russian books translated into French. He surreptitiously reads them, absorbing their treasured vocabulary and history, and enjoys the feeling of belonging and security the language and the books offer, “the feeling of being home at last mingled imperceptibly with this foreign language [he] was learning.”
These visits also provide a source of hope for the young boy, who is raised in a Russian orphanage under deplorable conditions. Most of the other children in the home are war orphans, too, and they dream of their heroic fathers bursting into the classrooms or dormitories to rescue them from their miserable circumstances. Makine creates blatant parallels between the orphanage conditions and those of World War II prisoner of war camps. The orphaned children are forced to perform hard labor when not in the classroom or act as stand-ins to fill stadiums for countless ceremonies and war monument unveilings, serving as good citizens who are appreciative of the Soviet Republic. It is at one such ceremony that the protagonist becomes transfixed while witnessing a speech by General Charles de Gaulle presented in French, a language the boy presumed was dead and that only he and Alexandria still spoke. He is left in a state of awe with curiosity and hope.
During one of these outings, the children also learn that their orphanage is closing in the autumn, and they will be forced into the real world from which they have been relatively sheltered. Several make attempts to assimilate into the surrounding town, and a few run away. The narrator makes a failed attempt to blend into the townspeople by drinking at a local tavern. He witnesses a girl he knew from the orphanage being mistreated by a man twice her age. Filled with dread and a sense of failure, he returns to the orphanage afraid of what his future will offer. The narrator and other orphans continue to visit the town and during one outing are attacked by street hoodlums. During the attack, the narrator’s only true friend from the orphanage, Village, is stabbed to death while trying to protect the others. The narrator realizes at Village’s funeral that there is no one in the world to inform of Village’s murder. He is once again filled with feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and dread. Alone and scared, the young narrator is allowed to stay with Alexandria...
(The entire section is 1644 words.)