Once upon the River Love

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Overview

In the Immense Virgin Pine Forests of Siberia, where the snows of winter are vast and endless, sits the little village of Svetlaya. In the early years of the century the village had been larger, more prosperous, but time and the pendulum of history had reduced it by the 1970s to no more than a cluster of izbas. But for three young men - the handsome young Alyosha, the crippled Utkin, and the older, dashing Samurai - little is needed to construct their own special universe. Despite the harshness of the environment...
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Overview

In the Immense Virgin Pine Forests of Siberia, where the snows of winter are vast and endless, sits the little village of Svetlaya. In the early years of the century the village had been larger, more prosperous, but time and the pendulum of history had reduced it by the 1970s to no more than a cluster of izbas. But for three young men - the handsome young Alyosha, the crippled Utkin, and the older, dashing Samurai - little is needed to construct their own special universe. Despite the harshness of the environment and their meager resources, the three adolescents form a tight band of friendship and dream of another life, a world of passion and love. The warm lights of the Transsiberian train passing through give them fleeting glimpses of that other world. And when they learn one day that a Western film is being shown at the Red October Theatre in the closest real city, Nerlug, twenty miles away on the mighty Amur River, they trek for hours on snow shoes to see it. Through that film, starring the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and replete with gorgeous women whom he succeeds in seducing one after the other with consummate ease, the boys' lives are changed forever. Over the next several months they travel seventeen times to see their hero. And when that film is replaced by another that is equally daring and seductive, their obsession only grows. Written from the perspective of twenty years after these youthful events, Once Upon the River Love follows the destinies of these three young idealists up to the present day, to the boardwalks of Brighton Beach and the jungles of Central America.
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Editorial Reviews

Musgrove
How we choose the paths that guide our lives and how a silly movie can change our lives more than "serious" art are the lessons of this beautiful, sensual novel. Once Upon the River Love is one of the great books of this year. -- Washington Post
New Yorker
Can a whole novel be about adolescent boys watching Jean-Paul Belmondo movies through a Siberian winter? Resoundingly, yes. One of the boys has been lamed by ice floes, and another is nearly raped, rendering him permanently pugilistic. The third is our narrator, seeking beauty in the taiga amind the coarseness of Soviet life, and finding it in friendship and French movies. His tale is suffused with the longing of an exile -- less because the narrator has left Russian than because every adult is an exile from his youth.
William Boyd
This is how art truly transforms, Makine's novel seems to be telling us -- it holds out the prospect of fulfilling our dreams, gives those dreams potency and provides the drabbest of lives with some distant sort of meaning. -- New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
The second book by Makine to be released here in as many years, this delicate, beautifully rendered little work reads like a precursor to the magisterial Dreams of My Russian Summers. Once again, French culture is the key, opening the door to the larger world for three teenaged boys living in the depths of Siberia near the river Amur, which 'bears the same name as the god of love.' It is not, however, the haute monde of turn-of-the-century France but a Jean Paul Belmondo movie that does the trick. Utkin, Samurai, and narrator Alyosha must trek 20 miles to the town where the movie is playing, but they undergo the journey dozens of times because, like everyone else in the area, they are fired up by the possibilities that Belmondo presents.

The boys are already talking feverishly of love, and Aloysha finally takes the plunge, visiting a prostitute in a passage that is both poignant and hilarious even as he dreams of a mysterious Western woman he imagines traveling on the transcontinental train that roars past the town. The prose is somewhat overheated and the plotting somewhat episodic, but while this novel doesn't measure up to Dreams -- it couldn't -- it is nonetheless delightful on its own terms. -- Barbara Hoffert
--Stephanie Papa, Baltimore County Circuit Court Law Library, Towson, MD

Kirkus Reviews
A 1994 novel by the Russian-born author whose Dreams of My Russian Summers was rapturously reviewed when it appeared here in translation last year. The adolescence of three friends who grow up together in the village of Svetlaya in eastern Siberia is recalled by one of them: Dmitri, an ineffably romantic youth who will leave Svetlaya for the Leningrad College of Cinema. His boyhood companions are Samurai, a burly pragmatist who narrowly escaped sexual assault when he was 10 and became thereafter 'obsessed by strength,' and Utkin, a quiet boy crippled by a shifting ice floe on the nearby Amur River, the name of which evokes that of the Roman god of love, and which accordingly looms, symbolically as well as literally, as a powerful sensual presence surrounding the friends.

For this is a novel drenched in sensuality: Dmitri's initiation by a 'red-haired prostitute' in a neighboring town haunts his tentative approach toward manhood and independence, just as the glamour of 'the Western World' beckons the three comrades, who travel many miles on skis to the Red October Theatre for repeated viewings of movies starring their idol Jean-Paul Belmondo ('He embodied this whole complex repertoire of adventures, colors, passionate embraces, roars, leaps, kisses, breaking waves, musky scents, brushes with death'). If some elements of the story—such as the presence of an old woman named Olga who tells stories of her youth decades before in Paris—too closely recall Dreams of My Russian Summers, it is nevertheless notable for its deeply empathic portrayal of youth as a time of herculean hungers and unlimited possibilities, and for a rich profusion of arrestingimages: the Trans-Siberian Express swiftly passing through Svetlaya; the body of a man found frozen in the crotch of a tree; the imprints of two naked bodies preserved in the snow. Marginally less wonderful than Dreams, but that's quibbling. Let's have Makine's other fiction in English as soon as possible, please.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780736642552
  • Publisher: Books on Tape, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/25/1998
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 5 Cassettes

First Chapter


Chapter One

1

    HER BODY IS A softened, glowing crystal on a glassblower's pipe..

    Can you hear me clearly, Utkin? Under your fevered pen, the woman I'm telling you about in our transatlantic conversation tonight will flower. Her body, this glass with the hot brilliance of a ruby, will become a softer color. Her breasts will become firmer, turning a milky pink. Her thighs will bear a swarm of beauty spots -- the hallmarks of your impatient fingers....

    Speak of her, Utkin!

The closeness of the sea can be guessed at from the light on the ceiling. It is still too hot to go down to the beach. Everything is drowsing in this great house lost amid the greenery: a broad-brimmed straw hat, glowing in the sunlight on the terrace; in the garden, twisted cherry trees with motionless branches and trunks oozing resin. And then this newspaper, several weeks old, with its columns that carry news of the ending of our distant empire. And the sea, a turquoise incrustation between the branches of the cherry trees ... I am stretched out in a room that seems to be tilting across the great glassy bay with its sparkling expanse of sea. All is white, all is sunlight. Apart from the great black stain of the piano, a refugee from rainy evenings. And in an armchair: she. Still a little distant -- we have known each other only two weeks. A few swims together in the foam; a few evening strolls in the fragrant shade of the cypress trees. A few kisses. She's a princess of the blood -- just imagine, Utkin! Even if she is royally indifferent to the fact. I am her bear, her barbarian, all the way from the land of everlasting snows. An ogre! This amuses her....

    At this moment she is bored with the long wait of the afternoon. She gets up, crosses to the piano, opens the lid. The slow notes stir as if unwillingly, quiver like butterflies whose wings are weighed down with pollen, and sink into the sun-drenched silence of the empty building....

    I stand up in my turn. With the litheness of a wild animal. I am quite naked. Does she sense me drawing close? She does not even turn her head when I embrace her hips. She continues to plunge her long, lazy notes into the air liquefied by the heat.

    She pauses and cries out only when she suddenly feels me inside her. And seeking to recover her balance, overtaken by a joyful delirium, she leans on the piano, no longer looking at the keys. With both hands. Her fingers fanned out. A thunderous drunken major chord erupts. And the wild sounds coincide with her first moans. As I penetrate her, I push her, I lift her, I take her weight. Her only point of support is her hands, moving on the keyboard once more.... A chord noisier and still more insistent. She is all curved now, her head thrown back, the lower part of her body abandoned to me. Yes, trembling, rippling, like a red-hot mass on a glassblower's pipe. The beads of sweat make this oval of flesh swaying beneath my fingers quite transparent....

    And the chords follow one another, more and more staccato, breathless. And her cries answer them in a deafening symphony of pleasure: sunlight, the clangor of the chords, the loud outbursts of her voice, mingling happy sobs with cries of fury. And when she feels me exploding inside her, the symphony breaks up into a stream of shrill and feverish notes, bursting forth beneath her fingers. Her hands drum furiously as she clings to the smooth keys. As if they were clinging to the invisible edge of the pleasure that is already slipping away from her body...

    And in this silence, still throbbing with a thousand echoes, I can see her glowing transparent form slowly suffused with the bronzed opacity of repose....

Utkin calls that "raw material." One day he telephoned me from New York and asked me, in a slightly bashful voice, to tell him in a letter about one of my adventures. "Don't polish it" he warned me. "In any case I'll change everything around.... What interests me is the raw material."

    Utkin writes. He has always dreamed of writing. Even when we were boys in the depths of eastern Siberia. But he lacks subject matter. With his lame leg and his shoulder that sticks up at an acute angle, he has never had any luck in love. This tragic paradox has tortured him since his childhood: why was he the one to be catapulted under blocks of ice in the frenzied breakup of a great river, which crushed his body and then spewed it out, irremediably mutilated? While the other one, myself ... And I would murmur the name of the river -- Amur -- that bears the same name as the god of love, and enter into its cool resonance, as if into the body of a woman in a dream, one created from similar matter, supple, soft, and misty.

    All that is long ago now. Utkin writes. He asks me not to polish. I understand him; he wants to be the sole architect. He wants to outwit blind fate. And as for the sea's turquoise incrustations between the branches of the cherry trees -- it is he who will add them to my story. I do not make refinements. I present him with my mass of red-hot glass just as it is. I do not engrave it with the point of my chisel or inflate it with my breath. Just as it is: a young woman with a bronzed back, a woman crying out, sobbing with pleasure and beating the clusters of her fingers against the keys of the piano...


Chapter Two

2

    BEAUTY WAS THE least of our preoccupations in the land where we were born, Utkin, me, and the others. You could spend your whole life there and never discover whether you were ugly or beautiful, never seek out the secrets of the mosaic of the human face or the mystery of the sensual topography of the human body.

    Love, too, did not easily take root in this austere country. Love for love's sake had, I think, simply been forgotten -- had atrophied in the bloodbath of the war, been garroted by the barbedwire entanglements of the nearby camp, frozen by the breath of the Arctic. And if love survived, it took only one form, that of love-as-sin. Always more or less fictitious, it brightened up the routine of harsh winter days. Women muffled up in several shawls would stop in the middle of the village and pass on the exciting news. They believed they were whispering, but because of their shawls they were obliged to shout. And our young ears would pick up the secret being divulged. On this occasion the headmistress of the school had apparently been seen in the cabin of a refrigerator truck.... Yes, you know, those broad cabins with a little berth behind them. And the truck had been parked just by the Devil's Bend, yes, the very place where a truck overturns at least once a year. It was impossible to imagine the headmistress, a curt woman of an improbable age, who wore a whole carapace of flannelette-lined garments, romping in the arms of a truckdriver who smelled of cedar resin, tobacco, and gasoline. Especially at the Devil's Bend. But this fantasy of copulation in a cabin with frosted-up windows released little fizzing bubbles into the icy air of the village. The parade of indignation warmed their chilled hearts. And people almost resented the headmistress for not being seen scrambling up into every truck carrying the trunks of huge pine trees through the taiga.... The stir aroused by this latest piece of tittle-tattle quickly faded away, as if congealed under the icy wind of endless nights. In our eyes the headmistress became once more as everyone knew her: a woman irremediably alone and resigned to her misery. And the trucks roared by as usual, obsessed with transporting the number of cubic meters of load specified in the plan. The taiga closed in on the brilliance of their headlights. The white breath of the women's voices dissolved in the biting wind. And the village, sobered up from its erotic fantasies, huddled up and settled into the eternity known as "winter."

    From the time of its birth, the village was not conceived as a haven for love. The czar's cossacks, who had founded it three centuries earlier, never even thought about it. They were a handful of men overwhelmed with fatigue from their crazy trek into the depths of the endless taiga. The haughty stares of the wolves followed them even into their turbulent dreams. The cold was quite different from that in Russia. It seemed to know no limits. Covered with thick hoarfrost, their beards stood out like ax blades. And if you closed your eyes for a moment, your lashes would not come unstuck. The cossacks cursed in vexation and despair. And their spit tinkled as it fell in little lumps of ice on the dark surface of a motionless river.

    Of course, they too experienced love on occasion. There were these women with slanting eyes and impassive faces that seemed as if haunted by mysterious smiles. The cossacks made love to them on bearskins in the smoky darkness of yurts, beside the glowing embers. But the bodies of these taciturn lovers were passing strange. Anointed with reindeer fat, their bodies slipped from your grasp. To hold on to them, you had to twist their long glistening tresses, as black and coarse as a horse's mane, around your fist. Their breasts were fiat and round, like the domes of the oldest churches in Kiev, and their hips were firm and resistant. But once tamed by the hand holding back their manes, their bodies no longer slipped away. Their eyes blazed like the cutting edges of sabers, their lips grew rounded, ready to bite. And the scent of their skin, tanned by the fire and the cold, became more and more pungent, intoxicating. And this intoxication did not fade away.... The cossack would wind the tresses around his fist a second time. And in the narrow eyes of the woman there flashed a spark of mischief. Has he not drunk a draft of that viscous, brownish infusion -- the blood of the Kharg root -- which floods your veins with the power of all your ancestors?

    Breaking the spell, the cossack would go back to his companions, and for several more days he would be impervious to the bite of the cold. The Kharg root was singing in his veins.

    Their goal was always that improbable Far East with its thrilling promise of the land's end: the great misty void, so dear to their souls, that detested constraints, limits, frontiers. In the west, when it had conclusively driven back barbarian Muscovy, Europe had established a line that could not be crossed. And so they had gone headlong toward the east. Hoping to reach the Western World from the other end? The ruse Of a neglected admirer? The ploy of a banished lover?

    Most of all, though, they were venturers into the misty void. To stop at the land's end in the warm spring dusk and to let their gaze soar up from that ultimate brink toward the shy pallor of the first stars...

    After several months, their numbers much reduced since the start, they finally halted, on this extremity of their native Eurasia. There, where the earth, the sky, and the ocean are one ... And in a smoke-filled yurt, in the heart of the taiga, where winter still reigned, a woman, whose snake body was horribly distorted, writhed as she expelled an extraordinarily large infant onto a bearskin. He had slanting eyes like his mother, and prominent cheekbones like all his kinsmen. But his damp hair glistened. A flash of dark gold.

    And the people thronged around the young mother in silent contemplation of this new Siberian.

What had come down to us of this mythical past was but a remote legend. An echo muted by the confused hubbub of the centuries. In our imaginations the cossacks had still not finished hacking a route for themselves through the virgin taiga. And a young Yakut girl, clad in a short sable coat, was forever rummaging in the tangle of stems and branches in search of the famous Kharg root.... It was surely no coincidence if the power that dreams, songs, and legends had over our barbarian hearts was irresistible. Our own life was turning into a dream!

    And yet in our day all that was left of this memory of the centuries was a heap of worm-eaten wood on top of granite blocks covered in lichen. The ruins of the church built by the descendants of the cossacks and dynamited during the Revolution. Or elsewhere rusty nails, as thick as a man's thumb, driven into the trunks of huge cedar trees. Even the old people of the village retained only a very vague memory of these: sometimes it was the Whites who had brutally executed a group of partisans by having them hanged from these nails; sometimes it was the Reds who had meted out revolutionary justice.... The nails, and the bits of rotted rope, had risen, over long years, to twice a man's height, in accordance with the slow and stately growth of the cedars. To our marveling eyes the Reds and the Whites, who had gone in for these cruel hangings, had the stature of giants....

    The village had not contrived to preserve anything of its past. From the start of the century, history, like a titanic pendulum, had begun to sweep fearsomely to and fro across the empire. The men went away; the women dressed in black. The pendulum kept the measure of passing time: the war against Japan; the war against Germany; the Revolution; the civil war.... And then once again, but in reverse order: the war against the Germans; the war against the Japanese. And the men went away, now crossing the twelve thousand leagues of the empire to fill the trenches in the west, now disappearing into the misty void of the ocean to the east. The pendulum swung westward, and the Whites drove the Reds back beyond the Urals, beyond the Volga. Its weight returned, sweeping across Siberia: now the Reds drove the Whites back toward the Far East. They hammered nails into the trunks of cedar trees and dynamited churches -- as if all the better to assist the pendulum in wiping out every trace of the past.

    One day the mighty swing even catapulted men from our own village toward that fabled Western World that had long since marked itself off from barbaric Muscovy. From the Volga they traveled as far as Berlin, paving the route with their corpses. There in Berlin the crazy clock stopped for an instant -- a short moment of victory. Then the survivors returned toward the east: now accounts had to be settled with Japan....

    Ever since our childhood, however, the pendulum seemed to have stuck. It was as if its immense weight had become entangled in the innumerable lines of barbed-wire fencing stretched across its path. Indeed, there was a camp about a dozen miles from our village. There was a place on the road leading to the town where the taiga opened up and in the cold glitter of the fog you could see the silhouettes of the watchtowers. How many of these snares strewn across the empire did the pendulum encounter as it swung? God alone knows.

    The village, depopulated, did not amount to more than a score of izbas. There, close by that pent-up mass of human lives, it seemed to be asleep. The camp, a black speck amid the endless snows...

A child needs very little in order to construct its personal universe: a few natural landmarks whose harmony it can readily uncover and which it arranges into a coherent world. It was thus that the microcosm of our young years organized itself. We knew the place in a deep thicket in the taiga where a stream arose, emerging from the dark mirror of an underground wellspring. This stream -- the Brook as everyone called it -- circled the village and flowed into the river near the abandoned bathhouse: a river that wound its way between two dark walls of the taiga, wide and deep. It had a proper name, Olyei, and figured in a broader geographical role, since the direction in which it flowed marked the north-south line, and a long way from the village it met up with a mighty river: the river Amur. This was marked on the dusty globe that our old geography teacher occasionally showed to us. In our primitive microcosm, the human habitations were also arranged according to this hierarchy of three levels: our village, Svetlaya; then, six miles from the village, farther downstream on the Olyei, Kazhdai, a district center; and finally, on the great river itself, the only real city, Nerlug, which had a store where you could even buy lemonade in bottles....

The upheavals caused by the pendulum had made the population of the village very motley, despite the primitive simplicity of its existence. Among us there was a former "kulak," exiled here during the collectivization of the Ukraine in the thirties; a family of old believers, the Klestovs, who lived in fierce isolation, hardly talking to anyone else; and a ferryman, Verbin, who had only one arm and who always told the same story to his passengers. He was one of the first to have inscribed his name on the walls of the conquered Reichstag; and it was at that ecstatic moment of victory that a stray shell splinter had severed his right arm -- when he was only halfway through his name!

    The pendulum had also crushed families. There were hardly any complete ones apart from that of the old believers. My friend Utkin lived with his mother, alone. As long as he was a child and could not understand, she would tell him that his father had been a pilot in the war and that he had perished in a kamikaze attack, hurling his blazing plane at a column of German tanks. But one day Utkin had realized that since he was born twelve years after the war, it was physically impossible for him to have had such a father. Mortified, he said this to his mother. She explained, blushing, that it had been the Korean War.... Fortunately, there was no shortage of wars.

    As for myself, I had only my aunt.... The pendulum in its flight must have scraped the frozen soil of our land and uncovered rivers with golden sand. Or perhaps some of the gilding on its heavy disk had rubbed off on the rough earth.... My aunt had no need to invent aeronautical exploits. My father, a geologist, had followed the pendulum's gilded trail. He must secretly have hoped to discover some new gold-bearing terrain for the day of my birth. His body was never found. And my mother died in labor....

    As for Samurai, who was fifteen at this time, neither Utkin nor I could ever properly understand who the hook-nosed old woman was in whose izba he lived. His mother? His grandmother? He always called her by her first name and cut short all our attempts to learn anything more about her.

    The pendulum stopped swinging. And the life of the village was gradually reduced to three essential matters: timber, gold, and the chill shadow of the camp. It was beyond us to imagine our futures unfolding outside these three prime elements. One day, we thought, we would have to join the men who disappeared into the taiga with their toothed chain saws. Some of these loggers had come to our icy hell in pursuit of the "northern bonus" the premium that doubled their meager wages. Others -- prisoners on parole on condition of good work and exemplary conduct -- counted not rubles but days.... Or perhaps we would be among those gold prospectors we sometimes saw coming into the workers' canteen: huge fox-fur shapkas; short fur coats, held in with broad belts; gigantic boots lined with smooth, glistening fur. It was said that among them were some who "stole gold from the state." Yes, they washed sand on unknown terrains and disposed of their nuggets on a mysterious "black market." As children, we were certainly much tempted by such a future.

    There was one more choice open to us: to freeze there in the chill shadow, aiming an automatic rifle from the top of a watchtower at the ranks of prisoners drawn up beside their huts. Or ourselves disappear into the seething humanity of those barrack huts...

All the latest news in Svetlaya revolved around those three elements: taiga, gold, shadow. We would learn that once again a gang of loggers had disturbed a bear in its lair and escaped by piling, all six of them, into the cabin of their tractor. There was talk of the record weight of a gold nugget "as big as your fist." And there were whispers of yet another escapee.... Then came the season of violent snowstorms, and even this thin trickle of information was interrupted. Now the talk was of strictly local news: an electric cable that had snapped, traces of wolves found near the barn. Finally, one day, the village did not wake up....

    The villagers got up, prepared breakfast. And suddenly they surprised a strange silence reigning around their izbas. No crunch of footsteps in the snow, no wind whistling around the roof edges, no dogs barking. Nothing. A cotton-wool silence, opaque, absolute. This deaf outside world filtered out all the household sounds that normally went unnoticed. You could hear the sighing of a kettle on the stove, the slight, regular hiss of a lightbulb. We listened, my aunt and I, to the unfathomable depth of this silence. We looked at the clock with its weights. Normally the day should have dawned by then. With our foreheads pressed against the windowpane, we peered into the darkness. The window was completely blocked by snow. Then we rushed to the entrance hall and, already anticipating the unimaginable, which recurred almost every winter, we opened the door....

    A wall of snow rose on the threshold of our izba. The village was entirely buried.

    With a yell of wild joy, I seized hold of a shovel. No school! No homework! A day of happy chaos awaited us.

    I began by digging out a narrow section; then, by packing down the light and feathery snow, I fashioned steps. From time to time my aunt sprinkled the depths of my cavern with hot water from the kettle to ease my task. I was climbing up slowly, compelled at times to proceed almost horizontally. My aunt encouraged me from the threshold of the izba, begging me not to go too fast. I was beginning to be short of breath, I experienced a strange giddiness, my bare hands were burning, my pulse was throbbing heavily in my temples. The light of the dim bulb coming from the izba now scarcely reached the corner where I was hacking away. Dripping with sweat, despite the snow that surrounded me, I felt as if I were within warm and protective entrails. My body seemed to have memories of prenatal darkness. My brain, dulled by the lack of air, feebly suggested to me that it might have been sensible to go back down into the izba to recover my breath....

    It was at that moment that my head pierced the crusty surface of the snow! I closed my eyes; the light was blinding.

    Infinite calm reigned over the sun-drenched plain: the serenity of nature at rest after the turmoil of the night. Now the blue distances of the taiga were clearly revealed: it seemed to be asleep in the sweet air. And above the glittering expanse, white columns of smoke arose from invisible chimneys.

    The first men appeared, emerging from the snow, and stood up. With dazed looks they took in the glittering desert now spread out where the village had been. Laughing, we hugged one another, pointing at the smoke -- it was really comic to picture somebody cooking a meal under six feet of snow! A dog bounded out of the tunnel and seemed to be equally bemused by the unaccustomed spectacle.... I saw Klestov, the old believer, appearing. He turned toward the east, crossed himself slowly, then greeted everyone with an air of exaggerated dignity.

    Little by little the village rediscovered its familiar sounds. The few men of Svetlaya, helped by all the rest of us, began to dig corridors linking the izbas with one another and opened up the path to the well.

    We knew that this abundance of snow in our country of dry cold had been brought by winds that blew from the misty void of the ocean. We also knew that the storm had been the very first sign of spring. The sunlight of this mild spell would soon beat down the snow, would reduce it to heavy piles below our windows. And the cold weather would begin again, even more extreme, as if to take revenge on this brief interval of light abandon. But spring would come! We were sure of it now. A spring as brilliant and sudden as the light that had blinded us as we emerged from our tunnels.

And spring did come: one fine day the village broke its moorings. Our river began to move. Vast acres of ice began their stately procession. Their progress grew faster; the glittering layers of water dazzled us. The raw smell of the ice mingled with the wind from the steppes. And the earth slipped away under our feet. And it was our village, with its izbas, its worm-eaten fences, its sails of multicolored linen on the lines, it was Svetlaya that was embarking on a joyful cruise.

    The eternity of winter was coming to an end.

    The voyage did not last long. A few weeks later the river returned to its bed and the village landed on the shores of a fleeting Siberian summer. And during this brief interlude the sun spilled out the warm scent of cedar resin. We talked of nothing now but the taiga.

It was in the course of one of our expeditions into the heart of the taiga that Utkin discovered the Kharg root....

    With his lame leg, he always lagged behind us. From time to time he would call out to Samurai and me: "Hey, wait up!" Understandingly we would slacken our pace.

    This time instead of his usual "Wait up!" he gave a long whistle of surprise. We turned back.

    How could he have unearthed it, this root that only the expert eyes of the Yakut women could manage to detect in the soft layer of the humus? Maybe thanks to his leg. His left foot, which he dragged along like a rake, dug up extraordinary things, often without his being aware of it....

    We looked closely at the Kharg root. Without admitting it to ourselves, we sensed that there was something feminine about its shape. It was, in fact, a kind of plump, dark-hued pear, with a skin like suede, slightly cracked, the underside was covered in purplish down. From top to bottom the root was divided by a groove that resembled the line of a vertebral column.

    The Kharg was very pleasant to touch. Its velvety skin seemed to respond to contact with the fingers. This bulb with its sensual contours hinted at a strange life that animated its mysterious interior.

    Intrigued by its secret, I made a scratch on its chubby surface with my thumbnail. A blood-red liquid poured into the scratch mark. We exchanged puzzled looks. "Let me see," demanded Samurai, taking the Kharg from my hands.

    He produced his knife and cut into the bulb of the root of love, following the groove. Then, thrusting his thumbs into the down at the base of the fleshy oval, he pulled them apart smartly.

    We heard a kind of brief creak -- like the sound of a door frozen fast with ice when it finally yields under pressure.

    We all bent forward to get a better view. Within a pinkish fleshy lap we saw a long, pale leaf. It was cuffed up with that moving delicacy often encountered in nature. And it inspired mixed feelings in us: to destroy, to smash this useless harmony, or... We really did not know what should be done with it. And thus for several moments we gazed at the leaf; it was reminiscent of the transparency and fragility of the wings of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

    Even Samurai seemed vaguely embarrassed, faced with this unexpected and disconcerting beauty.

    Finally, with a brisk movement, he stuck the two halves of the Kharg together and thrust the root into a pocket of his knapsack.

    "I'll ask Olga," he called out to us as he moved off. "She must have heard of it...."

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
Once Upon the River Love

In the remotest reaches of eastern Siberia, three boys dream of a world beyond the ridge of immense, snow-buried forest that surrounds their village. Twenty years later, Dmitri (Mitya) narrates a time in their youth when dreams were as tangible as reality. The three friends grow up in Svetlaya, once a thriving town now reduced by wars and revolution to a mere cluster of izbas. Six miles away, the district center, Kazhdai, the nearest stop of the Transsiberian train, serves as intermittent, fleeting proof to the boys that another world lies west of the pine forest. Twenty miles from their forgotten village, on the banks of the Amur river, sits Nerlug, the only real city the boys have ever known, and home of the Red October Theater, where the boys will soon encounter intoxicating images and sounds imported from the West.

Svetlaya is thousands of miles from Moscow and marked by political and cultural isolation. The gulag on the outskirts of the village and newsreel footage of old generals pinning medals on each other are the only tangible signs of Soviet rule in Svetlaya. The village life that Mitya recalls is also marked by harsh weather. Every winter villagers expect to awaken one morning entombed in their izbas by snow. Human intervention with nature, however, even more powerfully impinges upon the boys' aspirations as they face adulthood: "the life of the village was gradually reduced to three essential matters: timber, gold, and the chill shadow of the camp. It was beyond us to imagine our futures unfolding outside these three prime elements."

Regularly visiting his aunt at her switch operator's station on a desolate section of the Transsiberian railroad, Mitya expectantly awaits the nightly passing of the train, savoring the image of a glamorous Western woman riding in one of its compartments. One night, however, he peremptorily leaves his aunt before the train's appearance and shuffles through the snow to Kazhdai, to a darkened waiting room in the train station, where a red-haired woman comes to wait each day for a passenger who never arrives. Mitya shows her the five rubles in his pocket and accompanies her to a dilapidated izba on the outskirts of town. There he hopes to fuse the fragments of his desire and imagination.

Following a disillusioning night with the "Redhead," Mitya runs into his two friends, who are on an eight-hour trek to the Red October movie theater in Nerlug. The theater, sandwiched between the local office for the Communist militia and the Communard factory for barbed wire, usually shows standard Soviet fare in which a robust tractor driver crows about crop yields to a pretty young revolutionary. On this occasion, however, they view a fantastical French film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo-mania soon breaks out, and neither the city nor the boys' lives will be the same again. A new horizon of possibilities emerges and even time is altered as the showtime of 6:30 begins to adjust the monotony of Soviet existence. Hereafter Mitya will refer to this period as Year One of Belmondo. On subsequent viewings, Mitya comes to understand that Belmondo serves as a different archetype for each of the boys. For Samurai, preoccupied with bolstering his strength ever since a harrowing experience at age ten, Belmondo is the Warrior. For Utkin, who turned to writing after being disfigured by a shifting ice floe at age eleven, he is the Poet. And for the handsome Mitya, the film star is the Lover. Seventeen times during the movie's run the boys return to luxuriate in its glorious silliness, which subverts the ideologically freighted newsreels that precede each showing. Although neither the initial Belmondo movies the boys see nor the ones that follow at the Red October are named in the novel, How to Destroy the Reputation of the Greatest Secret Agent is a likely candidate, and Makine has mentioned The Magnificent One as one of his favorites.

Increasingly convinced that he must choose between staying in the East and fleeing to the West, Mitya returns to the "Redheads"' izba, hoping to gain closure through their sexual encounter. Before reaching her door, however, the sound of her singing a simple song stops him short. He is enchanted: "the more I became impregnated with this secret harmony, the more insignificant my febrile fantasies seemed to me." Mitya leaves, never hearing of her again until Year Two of the new chronology when he learns of her tragic fate. Yet he has learned that "beyond this human clay doomed to disintegration, there is something else! There is that song that arose from the depths of the snow and poured out into the dark-purple April sky."

Soon thereafter Mitya says goodbye to Svetlaya, Asia, and the East, as he heads west to Leningrad to begin film school. Samurai and Utkin feel betrayed, yet both soon follow their respective courses out of the snowbound village; out of the empire altogether. Twenty years later, Mitya reunites with one of them at a Russian bistro in Brighton Beach and learns the fate of the other. The two Russian expatriats recall a "moment of beauty and silence" that happened Once Upon the River Love.


ABOUT ANDREÏ MAKINE

Born in the Soviet Union in 1957, Makine grew up in Penza, an isolated town about 200 miles from Moscow. Acquiring familiarity with France and its language from his French-born grandmother, he wrote poems in both French and his native Russian as a boy.

In 1987, he was granted political asylum and moved to France, determined to make a living as a writer—in French. However, Makine had to present his first manuscripts as translations from the Russian to overcome publishers' skepticism that a newly arrived exile could write so fluently in a second language. After disappointing reactions to his first two novels, it took eight months to find a publisher for his third, Le testament français. Finally published in 1995 in France, the novel became the first in history to win both of France's most prestigious book awards, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. Published in the United States in 1997 as Dreams of My Russian Summers, the novel garnered enthusiastic book reviews and a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Once Upon the River Love, which was originally published a year before Dreams of My Russian Summers, has met with similar acclaim, including as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 1998. Makine's latest novel, The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, will be published in the fall of 1999.


AUTHOR INTERVIEW
A Conversation with Andreï Makine

The films of Belmondo and later the French novels read by Olga expand the myopic vision of Mitya, Samurai, and Utkin. What Western works were you exposed to in your Russian youth, and how did they transform your vision of art, life, the West?

Among many others, The Song of Roland, de Musset's The Confession of a Child of the Century, and all of Proust.

In both Dreams of My Russian Summers and this novel, there is a central juxtaposition between poetic language (film, novel, song) and the language of fact. In what ways have other Russian novels that are preoccupied with questions of language, such as Gogol's, influenced your perception of language?

I was influenced in my perception of language by Gogol, especially his poetic, oneiric side. Also by the entire opus of Ivan Bunin.

The Cossacks figure in the legend of Svetlaya's founding. Often serving as a model for flight, the Cossacks customarily typify a border or threshold existence. Can you say more about the Cossacks' unique role in Russian history and their significance for the novel's characterization of far eastern Siberia?

For me the Cossacks represent, or symbolize, freedom, absence of restriction, and literally, absence of frontier. In contrast to the European conquest of the American continent, which in essence eliminated the entire Native American population, the Cossacks "conquered" Siberia without bloodshed by integrating themselves into the indigenous population.

How did you come to choose Jean-Paul Belmondo as the novel's figure of the West?

Partly by chance, but also because Belmondo's films were widely shown in Russia. When I was growing up, Russian films all had their propagandistic tendencies. What was so striking for us about Belmondo was that he seemed totally free, operating beyond or above the political. He was very worldly, very seductive, very apolitical—for us he transcended the Cold War.

The bad guy in the first Belmondo film is a publisher, an "evil man" who "preyed on the noblest human gift, the capacity to dream." Have you had better luck?

Publishing is a difficult and tricky business, especially today. I recognize that publishers are obliged to juggle commerce and culture, constantly on a kind of tightrope. What a writer has to hope for is the one publisher in a hundred who is perceptive and willing to take a risk. It took a while, but I had that good fortune.

You are the latest in a line of distinguished writers—Conrad, Beckett, Nabokov, Kundera—to have earned great acclaim for works written in a second language. What advantages and disadvantages are there to composing fiction in a language other than one's native tongue?

When you move from your first language to a second, you forcibly become an exile, which can be very positive. For example, you leave all your native clichés behind, linguistically you enter virgin territory. It's a kind of rebirth. Sometimes, however, an author writing in a new tongue can be attacked for stylistic quirks that he dons knowingly but that critics view as aberrations or idiosyncratic use of the language.

In both Dreams of My Russian Summers and this novel, tales and images of Parisian life enchant young Russian villagers. How did Paris come to you in your Russian youth and influence your imagination? When was your first encounter with the city and how did the reality correspond to your image of it?

Paris came to me in my youth solely through literature. Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust. To this day, I have a kind of double vision of Paris—its daily reality and its literary reality. Each country—each city—has its constants: language, literature, architecture, which are its essence.

Concerning the East versus the West, Belmondo neglects to inform the boys that "you cannot be here and there at the same time." Mitya must choose, and so he heads west. Did you sense a discontinuity so drastic at the time of your emigration? And do you think it remains as stark today?

When I emigrated, I, of course, had a great sense of disconti-nuity. As with Chateaubriand's Memoirs, it's, in a sense, an afterlife, like being between two worlds, or rather a new world that one creates. In my dreams, my references are still all Russian. As in dreams, writing by definition engenders a distance from daily reality.

The title of the English translation of your next novel, The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, is a departure from the halcyon titles given the translations of your previous two novels. Can we expect a departure in content as well?

Definitely yes. In The Crime of Olga Arbyelina I've attempted to deal with the subject of how, like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, one who has committed an unacceptable crime can reintegrate him-or herself into society—or can one? What happens afterward?


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. How does Mitya's initial story of a sexual encounter serve as an introduction to the novel and to the characters of Mitya and Utkin? How do you reinterpret the opening chapter when you discover at the conclusion that Mitya's tale is largely fabricated?
  2. Topography and weather function as virtual characters in the novel, influencing thought, imagination, and action. How have the stark, harsh conditions of the Siberian taiga formed the boys and their way of life?
  3. Enumerate the several images of burial and rebirth. What does each occasion signify?
  4. Mitya speaks of leaving his body during the plunge in the snow after the bathhouse and again during his encounter with the "Redhead." Contrast the two episodes and the respective lessons gained by the disembodiments.
  5. There is a tension between aesthetics and utility throughout the novel. If Belmondo is the ultimate example of art for art's sake, identify other manifestations of the aesthetic versus the utilitarian way of life. What are the respective merits and demerits of each mode?
  6. Each of the three main characters seeks to transform their reality: Mitya through love, Utkin through the imagination, and Samurai through strength. Over the course of the novel, which way seems most successful in effecting this change?
  7. Why is the story of the boys' magical year narrated by Mitya and not by Utkin, who is, after all, the Poet?
  8. Does Mitya's late admission that his opening anecdote is substantially false throw doubt on other aspects of his story? Is he a reliable narrator?
  9. Although Mitya always assumed that he was the only one to have contact with the "Redhead," he learns by the end that Samurai and Utkin have as well. How so, and how do each of the three respective encounters typify each of the three boys?
  10. Explain the "Redheads"' reaction to Mitya when the lights suddenly come back on? Is there a recognition?
  11. After Belmondo leaves the Red October Theater for good, Mitya proclaims, "Nothing would ever be as it had been before." In what ways did Belmondo alter individuals and society? In what ways did Belmondomania endure? What remained impervious to Belmondo's magic?
  12. This retrospective tale is told by an older Mitya living out a compromised, perhaps debased, reality in the West. Would the novel have been as effective without this frame? How do the fates of the adult Mitya, Utkin, and Samurai inform the story of their adolescent Year of Belmondo?
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  • Posted October 14, 2013

    Makine is one of my favorite contemporary authors, someone whose

    Makine is one of my favorite contemporary authors, someone whose writing is so close to my soul and my heart. This is my second time reading this one, and I love it even more than the first time. I love the way he describes the setting (such fantastic imagery); the dreams, yearnings and desires of the boys. The language is so poetic and, aside from a couple of places, it doesn't go over the top. Of course, this story is written from the point of looking twenty years back by our narrator, and it's no wonder that there is such harmony of themes and motifs, such tenderness in description of even the ugliest parts of life in that forsaken Eastern Siberian town. It is a meditation of youth, on East and West, and on dreaming.

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    Posted September 6, 2012

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