Dreams of My Russian Summers
by Andreï Makine, Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Arcade, 241 pp., $23.95
Russian literature may take pride in a strange success: Andreï Makine, a Russian of indeterminate French origin, was awarded two of the most prestigious literary prizes for a book written in French, in France, and about France—a book which is nonetheless quintessentially Russian. In our time, it seems, you have to be born Russian, spend thirty years of your life in Russia, a country where cruelty and reverie form a paradoxical unity (this, of course, is a cliché, but, like all clichés, it’s true) in order to hallucinate with such power and passion, in order to create a fabulous country—a nonexistent France—from words and dreams.
On first glance (but only on first) this France is the subject of Makine’s book. The author created a stir in 1995: he was the only French writer (and he wasn’t even French, for that matter!) to have ever been awarded the country’s two highest literary awards for one and the same book: the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis, as well as the “Lycée Goncourt,” which is awarded by students. How the prizes were awarded is a detective story in its own right: Makine’s books were rejected by French publishers; the writer lived in poverty, half-starving, slept at night in a cemetery crypt, wrote his books sitting on park benches. Finally, driven to despair, he passed off one of his original French-language books as a translation from the Russian—only then was any attention paid to it. Nonetheless, fame eluded him, and Makine came up against unexpected difficulties. For example, the publisher of his second book demanded to see the original Russian, which, of course, didn’t exist, and Makine was obliged to quickly translate his own work into Russian. Finally, the author’s third novel—the subject of this review—was noticed by Gallimard, published, and it collected all the honors imaginable. A foreigner! L’étranger!
Russian vanity is of course flattered by this very pleasant scandal.
Dreams of France are an old Russian tradition. A Frenchman doesn’t dream of France for obvious reasons: he lives there. Other foreigners, if they dream, are pragmatic: you can save your money and take a trip. The Russian, locked up for decades behind the iron curtain (in a country constructed from dozens of other countries and yet unified), in a country where not even all its cities are open to its own citizens, and sometimes are not even marked on the map, a country of secrets and taboos, locked doors and underground secret railways, a country of fences and suspicious glances—the Russian has developed a capacity for reverie unlike anyone else’s. The climate, regime, and the huge distances facilitate lethargy and dreams. There, beyond the horizon, beyond the undulating steppe or the forests of fir trees, beyond the endless snowy expanses, far, far away, there is, of course, the marvelous country of Paris: not so much France as Paris. There they have boulevards and fashion …