The Russian-born, Paris-based Makine vaulted into prominence with his fourth novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers, which won France's two most prestigious literary prizes. Since then, along with newer novels (most recently Music of a Life), a steady stream of his earlier work has appeared in English. Here, in his first published book, he provides an early glimpse at one of his recurring themes: the way the Soviet system prostituted-literally, in some cases-its most promising citizens. Ivan Demidov is an official Hero of the Soviet Union, a distinction he earned in the bloody defense of Moscow during WWII. Since then, he has worn the Hero's Gold Star, which earns him the respect of other citizens and the very practical right to extra rations at understocked grocery stores. For a while, he is celebrated in propagandistic television programs and asked to make patriotic speeches at elementary schools, until newer Heroes-from the fighting in Afghanistan-take his place. His talented daughter, Olya, is trained as an interpreter but sent to work at the governmental International Trade Center, where educated, attractive Russians "entertain" foreigners on whom the KGB wishes to spy. There are signs of inexperience here: Ivan and Olya are less fully realized characters than walking metaphors for Soviet exploitation. But present in this ably translated work are the seeds of the powerful social criticism that flowers in Makine's more mature novels. (Aug.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Before the magisterial Dreams of My Russian Summers, before the stream of fine novels ranging from Once Upon the River Love to Music of a Life, Makine wrote this work, which nicely foreshadows his future successes in both style and content. He opens with a scene at once brutal and dreamy of a Russian soldier lying apparently dead in the mud and cold of a World War II battlefield. Rescued by a nurse he later marries, Ivan Dimitrovich Davidov eventually fights at the battle of Stalingrad-though he never gets near the city-and hence is made a Hero of the Soviet Union. But he and wife Tatyana nearly starve after the war, and their only daughter, by profession an interpreter, is caught in an indiscretion by the KGB and compelled to do far dirtier work. At first reading, this novel, however poignant and well knit, doesn't seem to pack the punch of Makine's subsequent works. But afterward one reflects on the importance of any Russian writer's attempting to undo the ironclad mythology surrounding war heroes and indeed the supposed glories of life under communism. Buy where Makine is popular.-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Makine (Music of a Life, 2002, etc.) offers a ploddingly conventional yet captivating tale of glory eroding into depravity in the USSR between WWII and perestroika. When a young field nurse named Tatyana finds him among others on a WWII battlefield, Ivan Demidov appears dead-but Tatyana, holding a bit of mirror to his mouth, proves otherwise. For his valor in the earlier battle for St. Petersburg, Ivan has already been declared a Hero of the Soviet Union, impressive indeed to Tatyana. After his recuperation, and war's end, the two marry-although by then Tatyana has also been wounded: shrapnel lodged near her heart could kill her at any moment, making childbirth, for example, a great risk. Still-after they lose one child to starvation and themselves barely survive the 1946 drought-the young couple move to a town near Moscow, where Ivan drives a truck (and once a year, on May 9, is celebrated as a state hero, invited to address local schoolchildren) and the two raise a daughter named Olya, intelligent, beautiful, and promising as a student. By the time her mother dies, Olya has already studied languages in Moscow and has had the luck to land a job with-well, the KGB, as a "translator" who accompanies and "cares" for foreign "businessmen" when they visit Moscow. Her life as a glorified prostitute brings her a sufficiency of means but little contentedness of heart-and even less when her father learns, from another old war veteran, the truth of what she does. The squalor, meanness, and depravity of daily life in the USSR are made wholly vivid by Makine, as also are the pathos of Ivan's gradual disillusionment, bitterness, and descent into alcoholism. When the one-time hero dies, Olya alone-inher own poor way-is left to mourn him. Undistinguished in method, yet a telling chronicle of hypocrisy, cynicism, exploitation, and decline in a once-great power.