The Crime of Olga Arbyelina

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The summer of '47. In the sleepy town of Villiers-la-Foret, roughly an hour from Paris, the peaceful radiance of the day is interrupted by the discovery that, along a nearby riverbank, the body of a man has washed up, a gaping wound in his skull. Beside him rests a beautiful, nearly bare-breasted woman, her dress soaked and in tatters. An accident or foul play? A crime of passion? Soon there are almost as many speculations and theories as there are townspeople.. "The woman, it turns out, is a Russian princess, ...
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1999 Hardcover New 1559704942. Hardcover; New York, New York; Arcade Pub; 1999; 8vo 8-9 tall; As New in As New dust jacket; BRAND NEW! ! No remainder mark. 246 pp.; 9.54 X 6.40 ... X 0.97 inches; 256 pages. Read more Show Less

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The Crime of Olga Arbyelina: A Novel

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Overview

The summer of '47. In the sleepy town of Villiers-la-Foret, roughly an hour from Paris, the peaceful radiance of the day is interrupted by the discovery that, along a nearby riverbank, the body of a man has washed up, a gaping wound in his skull. Beside him rests a beautiful, nearly bare-breasted woman, her dress soaked and in tatters. An accident or foul play? A crime of passion? Soon there are almost as many speculations and theories as there are townspeople.. "The woman, it turns out, is a Russian princess, Olga Arbyelina, a refugee from the Bolshevik revolution who in the 1930s had settled in town along with many of her compatriots. Rumor was that Olga's husband, a dashing prince given to gambling and revels, had deserted her some years after the couple's arrival in France, leaving her alone to care for their young son. About the victim, also a Russian refugee, little is known: many years Olga's elder, he was a taciturn, rather coarse, slightly ridiculous man named Sergei Golets, thought dismissively to be a former horse butcher. What on earth could have brought these two unlikely souls together?. "Moving back to early in the century, the author meticulously recreates Olga's past.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Tea and Sympathy

Andreï Makine's third novel begins with a scene lurid enough to headline a ten o'clock news show. On a hot July morning in the summer of 1947, two bodies wash up on a dust-caked riverbank in the provincial village of Villiers-La-Forêt. It is an unlikely pairing. The woman is the princess Olga Arbyelina, a Russian émigré of astonishing beauty. She is barely alive. The man, Sergei Golets, is a retired horse butcher -- ugly as she is gorgeous and very much dead. The sordid spectacle disrupts the tiny village's peacetime torpor and gives its denizens a tantalizing glimpse of the unimaginable. But the story does not end there. For in spite of her repeated confessions, Sergei Golets's death is not Olga Arbyelina's crime.

With Proustian relish, The Crime of Olga Arbyelina works backward in time, peeling away history like so many layers of onion skin to reveal Olga's true crime. Like Makine's celebrated previous novels, Dreams of My Russian Summer and Once, Upon a River Love, the events recounted here are seen through the gauzy film of memory. Olga is a casualty of history: Her father was killed in the Russo-Japanese war; her mother thereafter consumed by grief. Olga barely survives her teenage years and is brutally raped during the First World War. She emerges an adult, yet a cultural refugee. Despite a fortuitous marriage to a dashing prince and a new life in Paris, she will always feel that life is to "be a solemn and melancholy wake for the past." (Makine, who is Russian and now lives in France and writes in French, powerfully evokes what it means to be caught between two cultures.)

War strikes in 1939, and Olga, abandoned by her husband, flees Paris. She settles in Villies-La-Forêt, and gradually falls into a rhythm of daily rituals to salve the wounds of her past. She works at a local library and delights in "delicious idleness." She quells her nightmares with a special herbal tea. She becomes so lost in these rituals, though, that she neglects her son -- a hemophiliac remarkable, at the time, by surviving into his teenage years. He is her symbolic center, embodying both her receding past and a future that seems, like his imminent death, a foregone conclusion. One day, Olga realizes that he is no longer a boy but a young man. Looking up into her grim apartment she notices him standing over her cooling tea with the air of someone committing a crime. Gradually, Olga makes the connection between his gesturing and the druglike efficiency of the tisane. She conducts a vigil to learn the purpose of his curious behavior and winds up accomplice to a trespass no culture would allow.

At first, Olga is paralyzed by the strangeness of it all. After a few nights, however, she finds herself looking forward to his nocturnal visits and willingly plays along. She is lonely, and this is perhaps the last winter of her son's life. It could be his only chance for love, and with her beauty fading, perhaps hers as well. Each night she brushes the drug off her tea and awaits his shadow in the doorway, feigning sleep during his furtive lovemaking. The shame of it is crushing. "Criminal was the silence she had kept. Her acceptance. Her resignation." Through the long winter she enacts a role perversely analogous to that of the goddess Demeter's: "sleeping" away the winter so that her son can have the spring of his sexual awakening. When winter turns to spring, though, their stolen season is brought to light. Olga, terrified by the prospect of their secret spreading, submits to her blackmailing neighbor, Sergei Golets.

Were it not for Makine's delicate treatment of Olga's past or his masterful evocation of her reeling mind, this would be a tawdry tale. But Makine is an alchemist of memory and here distills the elements necessary to render this story potent. His lyricism, sumptuously rendered into English by Geoffrey Strachan, is never cloying or airy. It redeems. It makes Olga's unthinkable communion seem not only plausible, but inevitable, necessary. It is an act of grace.

—John Freeman

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The intricate thoughts and fears of a Russian migr mother take center stage in this elaborately haunting work from the author of Dreams of My Russian Summers. In 1947, in Villiers-la-For t, France, Sergei Golets, an unlicensed doctor and former officer in Russia's anticommunist White Army, drowns in a boating accident. His companion, Princess Olga Arbyelina, survives: she claims to have murdered Golets, though the police are sure his death was an accident. Why would the princess accuse herself of homicide? The answer emerges gradually amid Olga's lyrically tangled (and chronologically disarrayed) memories. Olga's husband, a swashbuckling poet, left her in 1939, when their hemophiliac son was seven. Since then Olga has lived with her frail son among the other Russian exiles in Villiers-la-For t. In 1946, Olga discovers she's pregnant, and travels to Paris for an abortion. Though she has a lover, the pregnancy puzzles her, since its timing doesn't match his visits. One day she spots her teenage son shaking something into the flower infusion she drinks before bedtime, and understanding floods her: he has been drugging her in order to enter her bed. Tormented by her fears for his future (he is sure to die young), and by dread of her own old age, she decides to let him continue his incestuous practice, pretending continued ignorance during the day, and feigning unconsciousness at night during his lovemaking. All is, if hardly well, consistently settled--until Golets, her son's doctor, confesses that he has spied on them. Abetted by Strachan's sinuous translation, Makine gives Olga such a rich interior life that other characters, including the nameless son, seem like shadows her psyche casts. But readers in tune with Makine's goals will not object. Olga's involuted, tormented consciousness becomes a sophisticated pleasure in its own right, and a metaphor for the displaced, disintegrating aristocracy. That same consciousness, and the events that destroy it, invoke larger mythic patterns--Cupid and Psyche, Beauty and the Beast. Makine's novel possesses the feverish beauty of a hothouse culture in its final efflorescence. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As this moody tale opens, Olga, a beautiful Russian emigr now estranged from her husband, Prince Arbyelin, and living in the little village of Villiers-la-For t, is acquitted of murdering a fellow emigr despite her protestations of guilt. The reader eventually discovers, however, that the real "crime" occupying Olga's mind is quite different. Over the past months, she has discovered a residue of sleeping powder in her nightly tea; her hemophiliac son, ever on the verge of death, has been drugging her so that he can engage in sexual exploration--something to which she finally consents, pretending to sleep. Of course, this being a novel by Makine (Dreams of My Russian Summers), this act of incest is nowhere near as baldly stated. Instead, in luminous, hypnotic prose that is a bit like a drug itself, he unfolds the delicate situation between mother and son, seen as if through half-closed eyes. These passages at times seem overlong and overwrought, but the description of Russia on the verge of revolution is gripping and the ending a melancholy shock well worth the wait.--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Atlantic Monthly
Brilliant.
Detroit Free Press
One of the year's most remarkable novels.
Inquirer Philadelphia
An expert no reader will soon forget.
New York Newsday
Marvelously voluptuous.
Kirkus Reviews
Another astonishingly beautiful story from Makine (Once Upon the River Love, 1998), this one unutterably sad, plumbing the depths of an émigré Russian mother's despair at the course of her son's sexual awakening during the bitter postwar winter of 1946 in rural France. Fittingly enough, Princess Arbyelina's tragedy is related over the course of a long night by the gatekeeper at the cemetery where she's buried. He starts by describing a summer scene of two wet bodies on a riverbank: one, Olga's, alive but clothed in tatters and unmoving; the other, a corpulent, suited ex-Russian officer, freshly dead. How they came to be there involves the previous winter, the worst in a century, and the émigré community settled in an abandoned brewery nearby. Olga, a refugee battered in her flight from the Bolsheviks and abandoned by her husband in Paris, arrived with her young son shortly before the war began, keeping largely to herself while running the community library. By 1946, she has a poet-lover in Paris who no longer excites her and a restless, brooding teenager whose youth has been transmuted through the crucible of hemophilia. With the onset of winter, Olga begins sleeping in a strange, leaden manner, which she slowly realizes is the result of her son drugging her nightly tea. This discovery leads to another even more unthinkable, and as she grapples with a knowledge that she can share with no one, she finds herself unable to alter what's going on. An end comes to it, finally—in the shape of a corpse on a riverbank—though for Olga that end brings the loss of what little grip on reality she has left. As chilling and finely charted a descent intomadness as has ever been imagined, with many extraordinary moments along the way: all imbued with a wrenching combination of love and despair, fire and ice.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559704946
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/15/1999
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


THOSE THAT COME FIRST LIE IN WAIT for his words like mere eavesdroppers. Those that follow seem to appreciate something more in them. And they can easily be identified: they are much rarer than the merely inquisitive ones and come alone. They dare to draw a little closer to the tall old man as he slowly patrols the labyrinth of avenues and they leave later than the first comers.

    The words the old man murmurs are swiftly dispersed by the wind in the icy light of a late afternoon in winter. He stops beside a slab, stoops to lift a heavy branch that lies like a fissure across the inscription carved in the porous stone. The inquisitive visitors cock their heads slightly toward his voice, while pretending to examine monuments nearby.... They have just overheard an account of the last hours of a writer who was well-known in his day but is now forgotten. He died at night. His wife, her fingers wet with tears, closed his eyelids and then lay down in bed beside him to wait for morning.... Now from the parallel avenue, where the dates on the gravestones are more recent, comes another tale: of a ballet dancer dead well before the onset of old age, who met his end repeating over and over, like a sacred formula, the Christian name of the young man, his lover, who had infected him.... Next they steal some words spoken beside a squat pedestal surmounted with a cross: the story of a couple in the early nineteen twenties whose lives were tortured by the impossible hope of getting a visa to go abroad. He, a famous poet who no longer had a single line in print, she, an actress, long since banned from thestage. Living reclusively in their flat in St. Petersburg, they could already picture themselves being condemned, imprisoned, perhaps executed. On the day when, miraculously, their authorization to leave the country arrived, the woman went out, while her husband remained behind in a daze of happiness. To do some shopping in preparation for the journey, he thought. She went down, crossed a square (the passengers on a streetcar saw her smiling), emerged onto the quayside, and hurled herself into the sea-green water of a canal....

    The visitors who have been listening out of pure curiosity are beginning to leave. A moment ago one of them crunched a fragment of flint beneath his heel. The old man drew himself up to his full gigantic height and fixed them with a somber gaze, as if angered at seeing them all there around him, frozen in their falsely preoccupied poses. Clumsily they make off, in single file at first, dodging between the tombstones; then forming a little group in the avenue that leads to the exit.... During those few moments of discomfiture facing the old man they felt the whole disturbing strangeness of their situation. There they were beneath the bare trees at that cold, clear day's end, in the midst of all those Orthodox crosses, a few feet away from this man in his unbelievable greatcoat, black and disproportionately long. A man who, as if talking to himself, summoned up these beings in their very swift, very individual transition from life to death ... It all felt pretty weird!

    The little group hastens to dilute this feeling with words. Their voices grow steadier with lighthearted bravado; they joke; they suspect that the old man's stories will give rise to a fascinating discussion on the journey home. One of them remembers a surprising detail: the dancer, an obsessive collector, already hugely rich, used to buy up antiques and pictures at prices one malicious tongue called "obscene" and explained, half in earnest, half hamming it up, that he needed "to make provision for my old age." The debate is launched. They speak of the vanity of material things and the little caprices of great minds. Of the weakness of the flesh and of depravity. ("Let's face it, he was a genius killed by that nonentity of a gigolo," exclaims one.) And of how there was no perversion in it because love redeems all. "Love?!" A theatrically indignant voice reminds them that the wife whose fingers caressed the eyelids of the newly dead writer (yes, that faithful wife now at rest beneath the same stone as he) had been forced to tolerate a ménage à trois. The writer, already an old man, had needed the physical presence of a young woman for his inspiration.... The arguments come thick and fast: the sense of sacrifice; art justifying everything; men's visceral selfishness....

    The car taking them back toward the capital is filled with flashes of wit, laughter, and disillusioned sighs that accompany the occasional sanctimonious observation. They are happy to have succeeded in curbing the dread that recently held them in its grip. Dread has become an anecdote. And the old man, "a kind of enormous half-crazed priest, dressed in a surplice at least a hundred years old." Even the capricious drowned woman of St. Petersburg simply serves to illustrate the irrational nature of her fellow countrymen. Yes, that soul so given to excess, and so often described, with which, thanks to their Sunday outing, they have become better acquainted. They mention the names of various writers and a few long novels in which, if you looked carefully, you might well come across the drowned woman and the dancer, and the old man himself.... After experiencing disorientation in a remote spot amid a drab, chilly landscape, it is an almost physical pleasure for them to find themselves once more in the familiar twisting streets, to recognize this café and that crossroads in their very characteristic Parisian look and with all the lights making it seem like night already.... And when, a year later, or perhaps more, depending on the rhythm of their busy lives, a dinner party brings them together again, not one of the four visitors will dare to speak of those few moments of dread beneath the wintry sky. And this fear of admitting to it will greatly enhance the pleasure of their evening.

    Their retreat has not deflected the old man from his regular round. You can see him now lifting a long tree trunk uprooted by last night's storm. The cross on one of the tombs has been turned into a kind of prop, bowed under the weight of the toppled tree. This task accomplished, the man remains motionless for a moment. Then nods his head several times and pours out his words once more, to melt in the cold transparency of the evening. The visitor now listening to him remains mesmerized by the power and appearance of the hands thrusting out from the sleeves of the greatcoat and grasping the tree's damp bark. Hands that themselves resemble powerful, knotty roots; marked with scars; lined with violet veins. This spectator would like to have been the only one gathering up the words scattered by the wind. To his annoyance a young woman with an indifferent and willful expression stops on the neighboring pathway, attempting to decipher upside down—or pretending to—the inscription on the tombstone that the old man has just liberated; then she begins listening as well.... The dead person, whose name she has just mentally spelled out, a certain Count Khodorsky, was a cheerful adventurer. He arrived in Paris after the revolution and spent a terrible year reduced to begging; painting his toenails with India ink to camouflage the holes in his shoes; and a prey at night to the hallucinations of a starving man. His only fortune consisted of the deeds to several estates long since confiscated by the new regime. To his great surprise he found a buyer one day, someone who believed that a return to the old order in Russia was quite likely. So Khodorsky began seeking out from his compatriots deeds that were at once worthless and valuable. The purchasers, impressed by the imperial two-headed eagles and attracted by the derisory prices, easily allowed themselves to be persuaded. The count secured several years of riotous living for himself. But in time as the rich seam became exhausted, one day he had to put up for sale a very modest country house, the family home where he had spent his childhood. The purchaser, suspicious, examined the papers for a long time, asked for more details. Khodorsky, with a painfully forced smile, praised the lands that surrounded the house, the little river with its white sand, the orchard where nightingales sang. He even showed a photograph, the only snapshot left to him from his youth. In it you could see a farm cart near the front steps, and a child holding out a wisp of hay to the horse, while gazing fixedly at the photographer.... This snapshot seemed to be the deciding factor. As was his habit, Khodorsky celebrated his temporary enrichment in a restaurant in the Passy district. His guests found him true to himself: brilliant, extravagant, able to take part in several conversations at the same time. The next day toward noon, one of them who called on the count discovered him lying in his best apparel, his head stuck to a pillow heavy with blood....

    The two visitors seem to pay little attention to the vicissitudes of these tales of broken lives. As if, without knowing the facts, they have already foreseen their endings, each as logical as it was absurd. Only certain details arouse their interest; it is hard to know why. They have just looked quickly at each other; both were struck by the presence on the suicide's nightstand of the photograph of the wooden house, the horse and cart, and the child—that mysterious being, almost frightening in his ignorance of the future. Yes, their glances almost met, then at once turned away impersonally, seeking no one's eye. They are watching more than listening. The sky is cut in two—to the west the cold crimson of the setting sun and in the other half a low, gray canopy of cloud, gradually spreading and spilling out sparkling hail, whose needle points sting the cheeks and fill the dead leaves with a dry whispering in the paths between the tombstones. And when this dark canopy furls back, the vivid coppery light gilds the brown earth and the tree roots and glints on the puddles—mirrors half buried here and there in the thickets of the shrubbery. A gust of wind, as cutting as a steel wire, assails the eyes with fragments of tears. The old man leans forward, picks up a ceramic urn that holds a long, dry chrysanthemum stem, and puts it back on the gravestone.

    His voice begins again, calm and detached; a voice, it seems to the two tardy visitors, that seeks neither to persuade nor to prove. A voice quite different from the incessant hubbub of words that fills their minds; words that, in their daily lives, assault them, solicit them, and demand their allegiance, in an everlasting verbal hash made up of snatches from newspapers and items intoned by newscasters. Words that kill the rare moments of silence within them.

    Moreover, the old keeper's tales are barely sketched in. It is in the visitors' minds that the words tell a story, become theater. "A certain adventurer used to sell noble estates" is what he said. "Yes, houses of cards.... One day it was the turn of his boyhood home. And in the small hours, he blew his brains out...." Before the next slab exactly the same tone of voice. "You see this mistake here. It withstands time well. `Cavallry officer'. With two `l's. It's a good thing not everyone can read Cyrillic script. Cavalry officer.... Very talkative, always getting carried away. And always the same stories of fighting; decapitating reds with his saber. And the more he told his tales the better he got at imitating that short hiss when the blade slices into the neck and breaks the bones. `S-s-shlim!' he would hiss. You could really see a head rolling in the grass ....When he grew old his face was paralyzed and he couldn't talk anymore. The only thing he could still get out was that `s-s-shlim!' He died in the spring. It was a warm night, they opened the window. Just before the end he pulled himself up on one elbow, took a breath with all the strength of his trembling lungs, and whispered, very distinctly, `Lilac ...'"

    The young woman listening to the old man could well be one of those women of whom people say, as they approach forty: She's made it. A woman who finds herself one Sunday in winter confronting emptiness and despair so great that death suddenly seems like an invitation secretly longed for.... That morning she had begun to leaf through her address book. Her fingers slid over the pages, as if on ice, without being able to get a grip. A whole crowd and at the same time no one. Then finally a name that reminded her of a promise made at least ten years before: "You'll see, it's not like a cemetery at all; it's a real garden, run a little wild; where you get the feeling right away that they have quite a different concept of death from us ..." In all of ten years she has not had a single moment free to go there.

    The other visitor, the man in a dark blue overcoat with the collar turned up, showing the gleam of his shirt and the knot in his tie, this man, too, has heard of "the garden where you discover a different view of death." He has the look of someone who, half an hour before the family lunch, a gathering of a dozen relatives, gets up, dresses in haste as if he were on the run, and slips out without telling a soul, something he has never done before. The vision he is running away from is of the eyes, the mouths, the faces about to surround him, making the same grimaces, uttering the same remarks as last time, chewing, swallowing. He would have had to reply to them, smile. And, above all, to accept that he was happy because other people considered he had every reason to be happy: the blonde, sleek serenity of his wife; the feline grace of his two daughters, about whom the family banter would be repeated once more—"two beautiful girls, ready to be wed"; and the laden table, facing a bay window, through which, from this sixteenth story, you can study the topography of Paris, as if on a map; and his office located in the same apartment building, which will, by tradition, prompt a gruff observation from one relative ("some people have all the luck; they only have to cross the landing to go to work!").... This man has pictured all the small blessings whose sum total is supposed to make him happy. A great panic has overtaken him. He has seized his coat, closed the door behind him, trying to avoid slamming it, and rushed toward the staircase, dreading that he might encounter the first of the guests outside the elevator....

    The old man picks up an armful of dead branches and adds it to a pile of leaves and dry stalks at the foot of a tree. The man and the woman listen to his slow footsteps on the gravel, louder on account of the cold and the silence. So all of this has always been here, they think. This life so different from theirs, a life filled with this calm, with actions that leave them time to notice the imperceptible fading of the light—coppery, pink, now mauve—and to watch it as their own musings ripple past. To let one's gaze roam amid the etched branches against the frozen sky, to sense, without really understanding it, that these moments are mysteriously significant and that even a distracted glance at the little tuft of grass between the stones of the old wall is a necessary part of this day's end, of its light, of its sky, of its unique life. And so intense is the sensation of already belonging to this life that they both resolve, in their own way, to engage in conversation with the keeper at the end of his tale. Indeed his voice seems slightly changed, less impersonal, taking account of their presence before this tombstone.

    "The reds called this form of execution `the hydra of counterrevolution.' They roped ten officers together in a closely packed group. Shoulder to shoulder, back to back. And they pushed them off the deck of a barge or from the top of a jetty. Some would struggle, others went rigid, trying to play dead even before dying. Still others wept, weakened by their wounds.... This one here managed to break free underwater, his feet already trapped in the mud. He forced the wire off his wrists and reached the surface hidden behind a block of granite from the jetty. It was only later that the faces of the others began to haunt him. Especially the eyes of the man whose body he pushed down brutally in order to escape from the water."

    The old man looks at them as if he were awaiting a question, a response. And his look is no longer that of a strange genius of the place, "a kind of half-crazed priest and at least a hundred years old," but of a fellow human being. His words cut through several periods of history they have never known. So very human is his attitude that their prepared questions stick in their throats. All at once they notice dusk has fallen; only a narrow strip of the setting sun now casts its cloudy red light over this place bristling with crosses. They suddenly feel themselves to be face to face with some dizzying intuition, an insight that cuts into their lives with a blinding thrust.... The visitor in the dark blue overcoat notices that the woman has begun to walk down the avenue at a pace that is carefully restrained, so as not to seem hurried. Conversely, she sees him moving away discreetly, escaping by skirting the tombs. They arrive at the exit at the same moment, but avoid looking at each other, as people do who have witnessed an assault taking place but did not intervene.... Outside the wall there is still a little light, pink and watery. The man turns, sees the woman looking for her car key, her hand thrust into a little leather rucksack. For a moment he feels as if he were going back into the silent life that brought the two of them together beneath the trees in the cemetery. The woman's face seems intensely familiar to him. He is convinced he knows the timbre of her voice, without ever having heard it; that he has a deep understanding of the atmosphere of every one of her days and of today's unhappiness. As she opens the car door she looks up for a second. The man, some yards from her, smiles, takes a step in her direction. "It's the first time you've come here?" He smiles, draws closer. "It's the first time ..." Smiles, takes another step toward her....

    No, their cars have already driven off a moment ago, edging their way rapidly into the hissing stream of the freeway. It is only as he drives along, musing, that the man goes over in his mind the scene that never took place. He walks up to her, smiles: "You know, this is the first time I've come here and ..." Lost amid the hurtling thrusts of the headlights, on routes that diverge farther and farther, each of them recalls the account that brought them to such a remote spot, on this freezing day: "You'll see, it's a real garden, well, more like virgin forest, there are so many trees, plants, and flowers. And each cross has a kind of tiny window with a night-light in it." They are telling themselves they should have come in summer or autumn to see the garden; now is too late. Should I go back there one day? the man ponders. Next Sunday? Take another look at those deserted avenues, those dark branches against the evening sky, that woman who ... He shakes himself. Too late. The city swallows him into its dark, shifting complexity, streaked with red and yellow. Before racking his brains for a pretext to justify his escapade in the eyes of his loved ones, he thinks about the woman who, at this very moment, is herself somewhere being sucked down into the mighty flood of streets and lights. "To see her again would be as impossible as resurrecting the dead invoked by that old madman," he tells himself, summoning a grain of melancholy cynicism so as to regain a firm foothold in reality....

    The old man accompanies them with his stare as far as the gate, then looks down at the name shown on the tombstone where the engraved letters stand out in the almost horizontal rays of sunlight. In the distance the sound of an engine dwindles and fades, like the trickle of sand in an hourglass.

    Apart from the keeper only a tall figure remains; he seems to be vainly searching for a way out of the maze of intersecting paths and avenues. He is the very last of the visitors, quite a young man who has been coming here daily for the past three or four days. Despite the cold he is wearing a simple corduroy jacket which, with its narrow, elongated cut, recalls the dress of students in the old days. A white muffler, coarsely knitted, forms a kind of frilly ruff on his chest. He has the pale face of someone who, though chilled to the marrow, no longer feels any pain, his body having become as cold as the icy air.

    He was the one just now, as he watched the visitors, who imagined their feelings, pictured their lives. First, the gawking group, then the two solitary ones who were on the brink of talking to one another and now will never meet again. He spends his own life guessing at other people's lives.... A moment ago he noticed that this birch tree with two trunks had been split by yesterday's storm just at the point of the fork and that there was a risk that at any minute now the wind might enlarge the deep gash and bring down the twin trunk in a rending crash of timber. He tells himself that all the silence of the day hangs upon that mute cry. Taking a notebook out of a big satchel like a postman's, he writes in it: "The silence whose depths are plumbed by this suspended crash."

    The man in the student's jacket is one of those invisible Russian exiles, increasingly isolated and shy with advancing years, who pursue a fantasy of writing and end their days in attics piled high with books, almost buried beneath the pyramids of pages that no one will have the courage to decipher. He has known several like this but tells himself that such a fate only befalls other people. In his own pyramids there will be the story of the reckless count who sold his childhood home, and that of the dancer who, as he died, called out the name of his lover, his murderer....

    The old keeper lights the little night-light in the cross surmounting the grave where his evening round always concludes. It is the grave of the condemned man who wrenched himself free of "the hydra of counterrevolution." The man in the corduroy jacket heard this story yesterday, alone face to face with the old man. One detail intrigued him: the name marked on the tombstone is that of a woman. He has not dared to ask for an explanation.... Now he sees a match flame shielded in the hollow of the keeper's hands, lighting them up from inside, then flaring on the wick of the night-light at the heart of the cross. The tiny glazed door closes, the sinuous flame flickers, steadies itself. The light and the sheltered warmth remind the young man so much of a long remembered room that he shivers. He is only a few steps away from the old man.

    "Could you tell me about this woman?"

    The old man's gaze seems to travel across long stretches of darkness, nocturnal towns long since peopled by ghosts. He is clearly trying to size up who he is dealing with: one of the inquisitive ones who come to collect two or three anecdotes? A fugitive who has escaped a family lunch and taken refuge here to gain a breathing space? Or perhaps the one whose coming he had given up hoping for?

    He begins talking as he makes his way slowly toward the entrance gate that should have been locked at least an hour ago. His words are permeated by great weariness.

    "Everyone would have it they were lovers. And that the death of that dubious character was murder."

    It is the usual style of his stories: blunt, clear-cut, flat. All the man in the student's jacket expects is just one more anecdote. He is longing to get away, to drink a glass of warm wine, to go to bed.... Suddenly the old man, as if he had sensed this desire to escape, cries out in urgent tones that can be heard almost as a plea and an apology for not knowing how to tell stories in any other way, "You're the first person I have ever told about her!"

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Reading Group Guide

THE CRIME OF OLGA ARBYELINA
by Andrei Makine

 

INTRODUCTION

Set in the small French town of Villiers-la-Foret in 1947, The Crime of Olga Arbyelina appears at first to be a murder mystery. After the eerie, Poe-like prologue, the novel begins with the discovery of a dead body stretched out beside the apparent murderer on the bank of a river. The inhabitants of Villiers-la-Foret immediately begin to shape a story around the scene:

"Fascinated, abnormally perceptive, the townspeople held forth about the crime, invented new theories about it, and were critical of the inquiry that was making no headway." (p. 14)

The man with his head bashed in and the woman with disheveled hair and bare breasts suggest to them a love affair gone bad, however improbable such a relationship might seem between a beautiful princess and a former horse-butcher.

We expect the rest of the novel to unravel this shocking and incongruous scene, as in a conventional murder mystery. For, like the townspeople, we as readers have also begun to invent theories about what has happened. But there has been no murder, no love affair, no crime—in the conventional sense of the term—to solve. The dead man, Golets, hardly figures in the story until he attempts to use his knowledge of Olga's secret to seduce her. The real story of The Crime of Olga Arbyelina is far more complex—and far more unsettling and surprising—than the stock narratives townspeople and readers alike use to explain the predicaments of others.

In revealing how Olga ends up on that riverbank, Andrei Makine takes us inside the mind of his heroine and explores, with startling and vivid precision, her long, strange descent into madness. And it is this exploration that makes the novel a triumph. Like Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich, which describes the process of dying so convincingly one wonders how Tolstoy could have done it without having died himself, The Crime of Olga Arbyelina is a tour de force of imaginative empathy, showing us with harrowing exactitude what the world looks and feels like to a woman who is losing her mind. By telling the story from Olga's point of view, Makine is able to recreate the claustrophobic, disoriented, shimmering intensity of insanity:

"Tilting her head back, she plunged in among the stars for a long time. A silent, unflagging wind descended from these nocturnal depths. She staggered, suddenly exalted, her eyes looked around for support. The shadow of the wood, the dark reflection of the water, the dim fields on the opposite bank. The sky from which spilled the powerful and constant wind. All this lived, breathed, and seemed to see her, to be focusing some kind of infinite gaze upon her. A gaze that understood everything but did not judge."(p. 195)

As Olga loses contact with ordinary consciousness and the boundaries of the self dissolve, she experiences moments of transcendent rapture with nature. But she also experiences delusions, piercingly vivid sensations, painful memories. And in her unstable mental state, she allows herself to be drugged and sexually violated by her hemophiliac son. These scenes would be shocking in any narrative mode, but their unsettling force is heightened by seeing them only through Olga's eyes—the opening door, the overcoat, the faint white nakedness of her son's body, the uncertainty of what is happening, and then the terrifying moment when the word forces itself upon her: "incest." We never learn what the son is thinking or what has driven him to such a violation. That Olga acquiesces and continues to feel a protective tenderness for him, even after she is fully aware of their incestuous relationship, not only subverts our expectations but adds a disturbing complexity to the emotional texture of the novel.

Certainly no one standing on the riverbank when Olga and Golets are found would have guessed at the nature of her relationship with her son. Nor would any reader have surmised it. And that is the true mystery that Makine uncovers: the secret life no one sees, the disintegrating mind slowly detaching itself from the real world, all the hidden forces that can make a life come unhinged. At the end of the novel, Makine places us back at the beginning. But unlike the townspeople staring at the couple they imagine to have been lovers, we are now better equipped to interpret what has happened and, perhaps, to offer a gaze that "understands but does not judge."

 

ABOUT ANDREI MAKINE

Andrei Makine was born in 1958 in the Soviet Union. He emigrated to France ten years ago. His novels include Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer, Once Upon the River Love, The Crime of Olga Aryelina and Dreams of My Russian Summers, which won both the Goncourt and Medicis prizes, France's two top literary awards, and was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH ANDREI MAKINE

The Crime of Olga Arbyelina is preceded by epigraphs from Dostoyevsky and Proust, and in terms of dark subject matter and impressionistic style they would seem to be major influences on your work. Is this true? What other writers have been especially important to you?

I have always been impressed by the dialectic of crime versus innocence in Dostoyevsky's work. Olga's life can be perceived as an ecstatic transcendence of that duality. Raskolnikoff, though a criminal, does not escape any of the bonds society imposes on us: a faithful friend, a family full of generosity, a well-meaning and intelligent judge...Olga remains in total solitude and can hold out no hope of being pardoned for her crime. There is no one to reach out and help her. For me, discovering Proust has to do above all with the discovery of his poetic vision of time. Regarding time, he seems to me as close to the great Russian poet and novelist, Ivan Bunin, who is unfortunately too little known in the West.

Few writers—one thinks of Conrad and Nabokov—have written successfully in a language other than their mother tongue. Why have you chosen to write in French rather than in Russian? How has this choice changed your writing? Do you feel any special affinity with Nabokov?

I live and publish in France: the choice of writing in French is therefore quite logical. This said, the real language of literary creation for me is poetic language, one that can modulate itself into any national dialect, whether it be French, Russian, English, or Chinese. It is not so much the aesthete or the stylist that I admire in Nabokov; rather it is his innate sense of style.

The Crime of Olga Arbyelina is filled with descriptions of nature—of landscape, sky, weather—that are both precise and artfully evocative, particularly in the many winter scenes. Did living in Siberia give you a heightened sensitivity to the elements? In what other ways has it affected your writing?

In this novel, one might well speak of real "poetics of snow." And in that, my Russian experience has been enormously valuable.

Your novel has been called "as chilling and finely charted a descent into madness as has ever been imagined." What compelled you to create the character of Olga? How were you able to present her mental and emotional disintegration so convincingly?

I can say without exaggeration that in creating Olga's madness, I came within a hair of real alienation, linked to profound pain. Holderlin describes wonderfully well this conscious and creative "game" with insanity: a carefully controlled slipping to the edge of the abyss. More than in any of my other novels, I felt myself turning into this woman and living her life. I gave her mine in return. Ultimately, Olga's life became much more real and intense for me than that of most women I have known and loved.

Why did you choose to tell this story strictly from Olga's point of view?

Olga, whose name I slightly modified here, really did exist. When they confided in me, those who had actually known her had a great deal of trouble recreating the profound mystery of her story. They all seemed overwhelmed not only by the taboo of incest, the secret of her solitude, but also by the extreme complexity of this woman's psychological trajectory. To them, her story was unspeakable, unapproachable, and could only be the stuff of literary fiction.

Like Olga, you emigrated from Russia to France, with obviously more successful results. Has it been an easy transition? Are there ways in which the novel expresses a personal sense of displacement?

"Leaving is a little like dying," say the French. That applies even more to my own journey, for the country I left behind no longer exists. The one I live in—France—corresponds only modestly to the subjective and bookish image I had of it as I was growing up.

Many readers would expect to be wholly repulsed by the incest scenes in the novel. While they are deeply disturbing, they are also touched with a poignancy and surprising tenderness. Why did you decide to develop the mother/son relationship in this way?

I believe that literature has an obligation to address themes other disciplines shy away from, or cannot deal with. Very often, writers develop political, historical, moral, ideological theses that perhaps should have been left to specialists to address in their various disciplines, be it politics, history, philosophy, or what have you. But Olga's life and that of her son are inaccessible to the disciplines mentioned above. A psychologist could obviously interpret this "psychological case." A historian could no doubt evoke a historical framework in which it is set. But it is only through poetic creation that one can ultimately seize and understand the lives of those two (mother and son) in their integral whole, one related to cosmic forces, to the moment, to death, to God. And to the imperceptible vibration of a branch covered with frost.

Do you have any special writing routines or rituals? How much do you revise? How long did you work on The Crime of Olga Arbyelina

"The new is the old sufficiently forgotten." And I am in constant admiration of Musset's ever so modern The Confession of a Child of the Century, which is as fresh and new as the day it was written. That novel, aside from a sprinkling of historical references, remains both classic and modern, and could just as well have appeared in 1920, or 1930, or even in 1950. Japanese poetry of the Middle Period hasn't aged a bit. And Lawrence Stern has contributed more to modernizing narrative games than all the Robbe-Grillets of this world. The major questions of man are timeless: the present and eternity, war and peace, to be or not to be, crime and punishment, the old man and the sea, remembrances of things past, and time recovered. Everything else, no matter what verbal acrobatics revolutionary writers come up with, is simply showing off.

Much recent American fiction is characterized by minimalism and a kind of post-modern ironic self-consciousness. Your prose is lush and lyrical and expansive by comparison, and seems closer to the high modernist strategies of Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf . Have you deliberately set yourself against current trends in fiction? Are there any contemporary American writers you especially admire?

Among the contemporary writers I most enjoy are the Frenchmen Le Clezio and the later works of Francois Nourissier. Also, I was much taken in—and thrown by—Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Bert Meyers's poetry, especially the wonderful four lines that go:

And my obsession's
A line I can't revise
To be a gardener
In paradise.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. The Crime of Olga Arbyelina begins and ends with the framing device of a storyteller within the novel, the gatekeeper of a cemetery who tells Olga's story to a silent auditor. His voice is "calm and detached" and seeks "neither to persuade or to prove." Why do you think Makine has chosen to structure his novel in this way? Why this particular narrator?
     
  2. How would you explain Olga's mental and emotional unraveling? What are the pivotal experiences leading up to her breakdown? To what extent is her incestuous relationship with her son a cause or a result of her madness?
     
  3. What does the "crime" in the novel's title refer to? Has Olga committed a crime? Why does she confess to the murder of Golets even though she is innocent? In what sense have crimes been committed against her?
     
  4. The relationship between Olga and her son is profoundly unsettling, and yet Olga herself thinks: "If what they were living through could be called love, then it was an absolute love, for it was fashioned from a prohibition inviolable yet violated, a love visible only in the sight of God, because monstrously inconceivable to mankind ..." (p. 198). How do you regard this relationship and Olga's understanding of it? Why do you think Olga acquiesces to her son's nightly visits?
     
  5. Olga has been driven from her homeland by the Bolsheviks, raped by a soldier, abandoned by her husband, treated with indifference by her lover, drugged, sexually violated, and impregnated by her son. Does the novel lay the blame for Olga's fate on the shoulders of the men in her world? Would you?
     
  6. After Olga realizes that she is mad, she has a vision of "the whole earth, the globe, the world peopled by men. Yes, all those men talking, smiling, weeping, embracing one another, praying to their gods, killing millions of their fellows, and, just as if nothing had happened, continuing to love one another, pray, and hope before crossing through the fine layer of earth that separated all that ferment from the immobility of the dead" (p. 174). She concludes that "they are the ones living in compete madness." Is she right? What experiences, historical and personal, would lead her to such a view?
     
  7. When Olga arrives in the town Villiers-la-Foret, the other Russian émigrés expect to play a part in the melodrama of the Exiled Princess; and when they find her in tatters on the riverbank next to the dead Golets, they immediately imagine a love affair and a murder. In what ways does the novel warn against such misreadings? In what ways does it show us the far more complex reality that lies underneath the stories we try to fit other people into?
     
  8. Olga hopes that one day that all she has lived through can be admitted, that she will find someone who will understand and not judge her. Is the novel asking you, as a reader, to fill that role? Does the book succeed in eliciting compassion rather than judgment? Can you infer what the narrator's or the author's view might be?
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