Monday 16 December 2013

'Brief Loves that Live Forever' by Andreï Makine (Review)

This year I've been lucky enough to receive lots of books for review from the wonderful MacLehose Press, many of which I've managed to get to, and some of which I... well, haven't :(  The one book I repeatedly thought about trying (and never did) came highly recommended, both by those who had tried work by the author (Andreï Makine) before and those who started with this book.  Well, as you may have guessed, I did finally get around to trying it, and you know, the old saying really is true - all good things come to he who waits ;)

Brief Loves that Live Forever (translated by Geoffrey Strachan) is a beautiful little book which looks at love in a cold climate (Russia...), in particular the way that we tend to overlook our shorter moments of happiness.  Makine, through his narrator, argues that in our quest for permanent, everlasting love, we ignore the fact that a single moment of happiness can actually provide us with a lifetime of warmth, and his book takes us through several of these moments in the narrator's life.

We begin with memories of a walk through a bleak, provincial Russian city, where the narrator accompanies an acquaintance, a chronically-ill dissident, on a stroll through the windy streets.  As they stop, unexpectedly, outside a block of luxury flats, they see a beautiful, wealthy woman hurry out of an official car and into the building.  As the old man stops and stares at the woman, the narrator thinks:
"With an intensity I had never before experienced, I sensed the atrocious injustice of life, or History, or perhaps God, at all events the cruelty of this world's indifference towards a man spitting out his blood into a silk handkerchief.  A man who had never had the time to be in love."
p.21 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
The look on the elder man's face comes back to the narrator decades on and causes his mind to turn towards the past, and his own brief loves...

What follows are half-a-dozen episodes from the narrator's life, in chronological order, each describing a short moment of happiness from the past.  From the image of a beautiful crying woman encountered in his childhood, a moment which first taught him of the existence of real women, to a platonic friendship with a young woman in a drab town; from a brief, passionate summer affair by the sea (and under a political hoarding...) to a stroll through an orchard with an old friend.  Each of the moments marks an important landmark in the narrator's life, and while none of them lasted for long, all of them have made a deep impression.

It's all about now, being happy in the moment.  Striving for lasting happiness is futile, and working towards a kind of utopia (as the young narrator naively does) is foolish.  When he clumsily attempts to explain his views to one of his loves, she replies, bewildered:
"I don't understand.  All these people you want to bring happiness to in the future.  What's to stop them being happy now?  Not hating other people, not being greedy, like you said.  Not punching other people in the face, at any rate..." (p.83)
Carpe diem, indeed.  It's a very good question, and not one I can answer in a few words.  If anyone has any ideas...

What makes Brief Loves that Live Forever more than a simple tale of lost loves though is the fact that there is a parallel story running through the novel.  Makine may be telling the reader about his character's lovelife, but it's about more than that - a lot more.  Each of the stories is set against the backdrop of the political events of the time, giving us several snapshots of the Soviet society and regime.

In the first story, the young narrator sees the beautiful woman (a widow mourning her lost husband) after escaping from the 'cages' of a dismantled grandstand used for official ceremonies.  Later, forced outside by the Soviet attitude towards illicit trysts, he shelters from a storm with his summer lover - under a giant hoarding showing the frowning face of Brezhnev.  His final tale takes place in a gigantic orchard, a symbol of Communist might and planning, a mass of trees which takes four hours to walk through...

However, the regime which was meant to last forever is shown to be sluggish and unmoving, doomed to disappear.  Near the beginning of the novel, the writer talks of the symbolism of propaganda:
"Yes, existential tranquillisers, meta-physical antidepressants." (p.27)
However, as shown by the brief stay in cardboard Brezhnev's shadow, it doesn't always work.  The gigantic message across the roof of a factory complex, a symbol of eternal socialism, has crumbled into dust by the time the narrator returns to visit his friend, vanished into oblivion.  And the apple orchard?  Useless, sterile.  No bee will fly five miles to pollinate a tree...

Wait - there's more...  What really makes the book worth reading is the writing, a beautiful prose style wonderfully rendered into English by Strachan, which flows effortlessly along.  It's simple, but elegant, a joy to read, and it all makes for a book to enjoy in pieces - slowly, if possible:
"Even more than the bittersweet interrupted continuity of our brief separation, however, what intoxicates me is the floating lightness of it, the weightlessness of a misty May morning, the softly tinted transparency of the first still pale foliage." (p.118)
It's the kind of writing I enjoy, and there's a lot more of this in the novel.

I've already seen a couple of mentions of Makine's book in the various end-of-year lists, and it's very possible that it might appear on mine (although I am having a good December...).  Watch out for this one when IFFP time rolls around next year as there's a fair chance that it could make the longlist (always presuming that it's been submitted...).  The moral of the story?  Nothing lasts forever, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - enjoy the moments while you can...

...oh, and (of course) check your shelves for old books which you keep meaning to read ;)