There are parts of the first part of the novel that feel formulaic, even self-indulgent. Shutov, an older man, an under-appreciated writer, living in Paris with a younger woman. Her departure leads him to return to Russia, in search of a woman from his past. He finds her, her son, and the unknown man. And, having been left in charge of the unknown man, by Vlad (the son mentioned above who is also a publisher of sorts), he begins to learn the life of the unknown man. This is where the story – impressive but familiar – really takes off.
The unknown man tells Shutov his story – his life as an actor, a soldier, a citizen, and finally a teacher. The life he shared with Mila, a remarkable woman herself. It is here where Makine’s purpose becomes clear. Russia, the new Russia, represented by the ceremony taking place, by Vlad, by the new freedoms and money, has changed. But Makine is not romanticizing the past by telling us the story of the unknown man. There is no beauty in the war, the blockade, the purges, the cruelty. There is only beauty in the gestures of love – of saving a small portion of bread for your spouse, for teaching a young child to sing.
Makine’s prose, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, is wonderful. The scenes are vivid. An intersection covered by ice. A cemetery. A small portion of bread.