Born in Russia in 1957, Andreï Makine went to France in 1987 as part of a teacher exchange program and ended up staying after being granted asylum. Writing in French, he like Conrad and Nabakov do not pen their works in their mother tongue. He currently has ten novels published in English translation. France’s Le Figaro claims “Makine without a doubt, is one of the greatest living writers.”
When asked , why he set Music of a Life in a railroad journey he replied:
“Our life is a journey that is both long and brief. The metaphor of the Odyssey, the endless road, the space engulfing us, is one that corresponds best to the ephemeral nature of our lives and the eternity of our souls.”
The work is framed with a nameless first-person narrator in the opening chapter who is on a winter journey traveling by train from a remote Siberian town to Moscow. Through his indifferent, disdainful view in the opening scene at the train depot where he embarks, we see the fellow passengers crowded and herded like cattle: the soldiers, the prostitute, women and children, the workers, he recalls a quote from a Munich philosopher who had coined phrase describing the country’s inhabitants as Homo Sovieticus.
In the train depot, he cannot fall asleep and he hears strains of a piano and follows the sounds through a cluttered passageway and encounters the piano player. He strikes up a conversation and finds they are both heading to Moscow. Boarding the train, they take a seat in the same cabin and the narrator notices in the pianist’s handbag are crumpled pages old sheet music. His curiosity gets the better of him and finally asks the pianist about them…fade to the story of Alexi Berg…
The narrative of Alexi’s life is some 25 years earlier, set in the war years of Stalin’s Moscow. Its telling is in the form of an embedded, nested novel told in third person omniscient, and in contrast to the first narrator, a warmer intimate voice. It paints a picture in stark contrasts of a family of artisans as they try to survive and still pursue passions, their music and the theater in Stalin’s ominous Moscow. Alexi’s parents are arrested before his first scheduled solo concert. The rest is an engaging story in Makine’s inimitable prose, a musical piece, where lines, images recur, emotional tones rise and fall and are built upon and are like phrases in a concerto. This is a Life’s Music , the struggle of a young musician as he searches for harmony, in a world of dissonance. The most striking symbol was the burning of the violin in Alexi’s parents flat and the sound emitted when they forgot to loosen its strings, the lament of the notes of its strings snapping in the fire.
It is a powerful, condensed work. An ‘epic’ in 109 pages. I had read his Prix Goncourt winning Dreams of My Russian Summers and was smitten by its lyrical prose. For me, it was the best novel I read in 2008. Music of Life was no let down. Geoffrey Strachan’s rendering into English is as good as it gets. Even translated its the best prose in English I have read this side of Hawkes and McCarthy. What is the poker expression, ‘read em’ and weep’…