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Madame Bovary C’est Moi: An Interview With Andreï Makine

By Gerry Feehily.

It’s said that on his death in 1982, Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, was so obese that his body fell through the bottom of the wooden coffin meant to contain him. Reassigned to a metal casket, a final indignity still awaited at his graveside by the Kremlin walls. The pallbearers lowering him down on ropes proved unable to cope with the weight. The coffin slipped, clunked off the grave’s edge, then disappeared into the hole with a loud crash.

The coffin fell, and so, as Soviet born writer, Andreï Makine, would have it, did the USSR. “You could have heard a gasp go through the length and breadth of the empire, a gasp that said, ‘It’s all over’.’” One might question the historical validity of his argument, but not the metaphor. After an hour of free-ranging conversation with Makine, covering anything from Martin Amis’s Russian-based novels (“Aren’t there enough Russians to write about in London?” he asks) to quoting chunks of Flaubert, one is struck by his novelist’s knack of coupling personal insight to literary and historical anecdote.

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Indeed, Makine’s life has something of a Promethean quality, one where life and literature constantly blur. Author of twelve novels, he has fashioned a new identity for himself in a France which, from his native Siberia, he dreamed of in the works of Balzac and Flaubert, and from tales told him by his French-born grandmother. “France is temperamentally at odds to the Russian mind,” he says. “But it’s the intellectual capital of the West, unlike America, its economic one.”

Granted asylum here in 1987, the rude existence of hard-up émigré provided him contrasts between dream and reality which have informed his fiction ever since. “I occasionally slept rough at the cemetery of Père Lachaise,” he says, “observing from my cover women lying out on the tomb of murdered French journalist, Victor Noir, a reputed cure for sterility.”

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Makine was at the same time enrolled at the Sorbonne, working on a doctorate on Russian Nobel prize winner, Ivan Bunin. While writing his first novels in a succession of cramped chambres de bonne, those seven-floor walk-ups under Paris’s peaked lead roofs, stifling in summer, freezing in winter, he eked out a living teaching Russian culture and language. “No-one wanted to publish me,” he says. “Editors didn’t believe a Russian could write French like this.”

Having persuaded a French friend to pose as his Russian translator, Makine’s first novel, A Hero’s Daughter, came in by the back door in 1990. Like its two successors, it sold a few hundred copies before sinking into the great book ocean with that plip most first-time authors fear. His fourth, 1995’s Dreams of My Russian Summers, was another matter.

Set between the doleful reality of “real socialism” in Russia, and a dreamed-of life in France, it managed to take with the public and critics, winning both the Prix Goncourt and the Medicis, a feat unique in French literary history. With fame came a number of pleasures and engagements. An avid traveler, Makine amusingly describes literary junkets and colloquiums. “It’s not always a good sensation to feel mummified in an academic paper. There are also one’s fellow writers, who are sometimes as stiff as sphinxes, all tremulous dignity. Beyond the hours of composition, however, I believe a writer owes it to himself to be frivolous.”

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Frivolous, however, is not how Makine appears. He is lean, with one of those rock-like Russian faces which wouldn’t look out of place as a monument to the glory of the USSR in, say, Berlin’s Treptow Park. This is reflected in his choice of the unostentatious, café populaire where we sit, at the foot of Montmartre. Having eschewed family life to pursue, with something of a monastic fervour, a literary calling, he lives, as he admits, “a spare life”.

Indeed, he lives in a former mental asylum where, notably, author Gérard de Nerval was treated. “A place which very much suits me,” he says, and spends part of the year in a rented house in the historically resonant Vendée in Western France, where counter-revolutionary Chouans fought and fell to the Jacobins, prototypes, one could argue, of those Soviet zealots of the revolution which, to judge by his novels, he seems to abhor.

Or perhaps not quite. The question of revolution and how it emancipates is the enigma central to his latest novel to be published in Britain, Human Love (translated by Geoffrey Strachan). Elias, an Angolan growing up as his country enters into a war of independence against its Portuguese colonial master in the sixties, is the son of a rebel, who has escaped to the Congo. Having seen his mother die from injuries sustained in a Portuguese jail, he is raised by a Portuguese priest. Attaining to the status of an assimilado (a native Angolan with certain privileges in the colony) he joins his father in neighbouring Congo, where he fights alongside Che Guevara in his unsuccessful 1965 expedition there.

His father killed by Belgian mercenaries, Elias travels to Cuba. Disappointed by what he has seen in Congo and Cuba of middle-class revolutionaries who could “sacrifice millions of lives at the altar of an idea, but who wept …(thinking of a)… blind dog,” he nevertheless pursues the cause in Moscow, where he is readied for service back in Africa. “Elias,” says Makine, “is a ‘total man,’ one of those men Musil believed could no longer exist in our parcelled, segmented, dispersed age. Totalitarianism, however inhuman, did produce such men, monoliths of dedication to the one cause.”

A cause, one might have imagined, difficult for Makine to sympathise with. “It was a real struggle for me to create this character,” he says. “If you grew up in the USSR, having propaganda drummed into you daily, the mere mention now even of Le Parti Socialiste is enough to make your heart sink. It’s a writer’s task, however, not to present a political position, but the world. How could the monarchist Balzac have described the capitalist society of the nineteenth century so copiously?”

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Makine’s point of entry is a crack in Elias’s monolithic persona — his capacity to love. As a young man in the Congo, witness to “breathless jiggling” between rebels and local women, he wonders why the “revolution had not yet taught…a different love…”. With Anna, a Siberian destined for life in diplomatic service, love provides a raison d’être to sustain him through the disenchantments of the seventies and eighties, as Africa becomes engulfed in proxy wars fought out by the Soviet Union and the United States.

A novel filled with horrors — Elias’s mother’s collar bone sticking out of her skin, a child soldier who walks around a rebel camp high on dope, wearing a gas mask — Human Love‘s rage is such that it would be too easy and too treacly to conclude that love will save us. It depicts a world where idealism is futile, but offers little comfort elsewhere. In Auden’s words: “History may say ‘Alas’, but cannot pardon”. “History is a nightmare,” says Makine. “A white man in Africa can push a fat steak aside and think of slimming, while a child fifty miles away is gnawing at the bark of a tree. Wouldn’t this drive us mad if we didn’t have art?”

The Africa where dictators’ wives fly to Paris to have their hair styled, while child soldiers butcher entire villages, has haunted Makine for decades. “I wrote Human Love in 2005, but carried it within me for nearly twenty years, waiting for that period of African history to resolve itself, so to speak. I myself have painful memories of Angola and Somalia, where we exported the Communist ideal, when it had been dead in the USSR for decades. It still persisted in Africa, this belief that the ‘other’ is not one’s enemy, and this imposture and lie was a terrible experience.”

This raises an intriguing question about Makine’s own past and political commitments. Championed by right-wing journals like Le Figaro, Makine, in a 2006 essay entitled “The France We Have Forgotten to Love”, railed against car burnings in Strasbourg’s North African banlieues, symptomatic, he feels, of a climate of political correctness which tolerates anti-social behaviour. Elsewhere, however, his scorn of Western materialism suggests he cannot be so easily co-opted. As to the identity of Human Love‘s unnamed narrator, a disillusioned Soviet intellectual sickened by a world which “turns humans into objects of commerce,” Makine says, “The narrator, c’est moi. Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”

So could it be safe to infer then that Makine, like the narrator, was once a prisoner of UNITA rebels in Angola, on a mission in 1977 with a group of other Soviet “instructors” to prop up the Marxist-Leninist MPLA government? As the interview closes, this part of Makine’s life will remain enigmatic. Flaubert, after all, was not really Bovary, or at least not quite. “If I gave you a three-minute summary of my life, you could write a novel about it, but then I would have to drop some polonium into your coffee,” he says.

“My past is the only one I have,” he continues. “Let’s say I was a teacher, and be content with this. A novelist must say only so much, otherwise his inspiration dries up. This is true of everyday life—- like the poet Mayakovsky, who at the cinema with his mistress, as she commented on the unusual clothes a group seated in front of them was wearing, told her, “save it for the novel”. The novel that is Makine’s life, the novels he has wrought from it.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Russian author Andreï Makine was born in Krasnoyarsk, Soviet Union, on September 10, 1957 and grew up in city of Penza, 440 miles south-east of Moscow. He obtained a doctorate at the State University of Moscow, having written a thesis on French literature. He then taught philosophy at the Novogrod Institute. In 1987, while on a teacher’s exchange in France, he sought and was granted political asylum. A period of penury followed, but he eventually became professor of Russian language and culture at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and wrote a thesis on the works of Russian Nobel Laureate Ivan Bunin while at the Sorbonne. His early novels, written in French, met with little success. However, his fourth novel — 1995′s Dreams of My Russian Summers — was critically and commercially acclaimed, and was awarded both the Prix Goncourt and Medicis. Since then he has gone on to write several other works, including Requiem for a Lost Empire (2001) and The Woman who Waited (2004), all of which are translated in English by Geoffrey Strachan. Human Love is published by Sceptre in the United Kingdom. Andreï Makine divides his time between Paris and a rented house in the Vendée, in the west of France.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Gerry Feehily was born in London and raised in Ireland. As a teenager in the eighties, he took to heart Phil Oakey of the Human League’s exhortation to “take time to see the wonders of the world” and has lived in Italy, Spain, Germany and Japan. Paris-based since the mid-nineties, he is the translator of Sniper, by Pavel Hak (Serpent’s Tail), and writes regularly on literature for Guardian Unlimited and The Independent. Fever, his first novel, was published by Parthian in 2007.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 1st, 2008.