A beautifully observed and moving account of love and the human spirit in the Soviet era
In Soviet Russia the desire for freedom is also a desire for the freedom to love. Lovers live as outlaws, traitors to the collective spirit, and love is more intense when it feels like an act of resistance. Now entering middle age, an orphan recalls the fleeting moments that have never left him-a scorching day in a blossoming orchard with a woman who loves another; a furtive, desperate affair in a Black Sea resort; the bunch of snowdrops a crippled childhood friend gave him to give to his lover. As the dreary Brezhnev era gives way to perestroika and the fall of Communism, the orphan uncovers the truth behind the life of Dmitri Ress, whose tragic fate embodies the unbreakable bond between love and freedom.
"Makine has been compared to Stendhal, Tolstoy and Proust; our best historians of the Soviet era queue up to pronounce him one of the finest living writers on the period; and he is regularly tipped to be among the contenders for the next Nobel in literature." -The Daily Telegraph
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Brief Loves That Live Forever
By Andreï Makine, Geoffrey Strachan
GRAYWOLF PRESSCopyright © 2011 Éditions du Seuil
All rights reserved.
The Tiny Minority
From my youth onward the memory of that chance encounter returns, at once insistent and elusive, like a riddle one never gives up hope of solving.
These are the facts. One day in spring I am walking home with a friend, a man in poor health. Suddenly he proposes that we go through the center of the city, lengthening our journey by a diversion that is especially puzzling, since he can have no love for this city in northern Russia, where every street reminds him of his tormented life. He stops close to a park fence, overcome by a fit of coughing, and turns aside, one hand clamped over his mouth, the other gripping an iron railing. At this very moment a woman steps out of a car a few yards away from where we have halted. She is holding the hand of a little boy, who glances at us with alarmed curiosity. In his eyes we look like a couple of drunkards about to throw up. The unease I feel does not banish a vaguer notion, more difficult to pinpoint in my mind. Obscurely I sense that our detour was not a matter of chance, nor was the appearance of this beautiful stranger ... She walks past, leaving us with a swift tremor of perfume, bitter and chill, and at once the entrance opens to one of the apartment buildings that surround the park, and the caretaker admits the woman and child. My friend straightens up, we continue on our way. This chance encounter — its fleeting strangeness — leaves its mark on me at the time and returns throughout my life, long remaining an unsolved mystery.
There must be barely half a dozen people in the world today who remember Dmitri Ress. In my own memory just two very ill-matched fragments are preserved. Two pieces from a mosaic, which, if one did not know Ress, might be thought unconnected.
The first, this ruefully clumsy remark made by someone who knew him well: "He loved her ... in a way one cannot be loved ... other than far away from this earth."
The second fragment — his activity as a dissident — was generally spoken of with the same puzzled hesitation. This was not a case of indifference toward a forgotten hero on the part of those who survived him. It was more a simple inability to grasp the logic underlying the struggle Ress waged until his death. For some, a quixotic battle, for others an act of suicide that continued over twenty years.
When first I met him, at the age of forty-four, bald, toothless, and ravaged by cancer, he looked like a sickly octogenarian. Taken together, his three successive criminal convictions amounted to a total of fifteen years and some few months spent behind barbed wire. The harshness of the sentences related to the originality of his beliefs: a philosopher by training, he criticized not the specific defects of the regime that held sway in the Russia of those days but the servility with which all men in all ages renounce intelligence to follow the herd.
"But why, in that case, do you direct your fury against our country?" he would be asked under interrogation. "Because it's my native land," he would reply. "And I find it particularly intolerable to see my compatriots dozing around a hog wallow."
The upholders of the law perceived this as subversiveness of the worst kind. They preferred dealing with "classic" dissidents, who allowed themselves to be deported to the West, where the sharpest of pens were quickly blunted by well-sated indifference.
It was at the age of twenty-two that Dmitri Ress committed his first offense. On the eve of the traditional parade to mark the anniversary of the October revolution, he put up a poster on the wall of an administrative building, executed with a real draftsman's talent: the grandstand to which the Party dignitaries ascended, the sea of red flags, the banners covered in slogans glorifying communism, the two lines of soldiers forming a conduit for the forward progress of the patriotic demonstrators. Totally realistic. Except that the notables standing upright on the platform, the solid silhouettes topped off with soft felt hats, were shown as pigs. Little contemptuous eyes, snouts bloated with fat. And as the "popular masses" reached the foot of the grandstand they, too, were undergoing the start of this metamorphosis. The poster was captioned "Long Live the Great October Pork Harvest!"
This was a serious offense, but its perpetrator's youth might have inspired clemency. All the more so because his zoological conceit was not new, all dissident literature made use of such devices, Solzhenitsyn himself compared one of the members of the nomenklatura to a brutal and lecherous boar. It would have been possible to plead a foolish error, the malign influence of things he had read ... Unfortunately the young man proved to be arrogant, claiming he had painted what he saw, determined to denounce the whole animal pack. An indefensible attitude.
Nevertheless the judges showed some indulgence: three years in an ordinary penal colony.
Instead of making him compliant, the camp made him stubborn. As soon as he was released, he offended again. Drawings and pamphlets that now fell into a more grievous category: anti-soviet propaganda. In short, he made matters worse for himself. Which caused a judge, exasperated by so much inflexibility, to resort to a Russian expression that means, more or less, "Never crawl into the neck of a bottle."
If only he had followed the logic of those dissidents who sounded off against the Kremlin and idolized the west. But no, he stuck to his guns: his graphic and literary output targeted the whole of humanity and his native land was merely one instance among others. He took a five-year sentence in his stride. Another, the last, in a camp "with a strict regime," broke him physically but confirmed the flinty solidity of his convictions. what is more, he looked like a long shard of flint and on occasion his eyes flashed with glints of fire, flying sparks from an unconquered mind in a broken body.
All I learned about that bruised life was limited to this tally of three convictions and a few rare details of his daily life as prisoner ... And also the nickname "Poet," which his fellow prisoners had given him, though I did not know if its implication was disparaging or approving. That was all. Ress made it a point of honor not to talk about his sufferings.
The only long conversation we had took place in a city in northern Russia six hundred miles from Moscow, the place of residence assigned to him during the last six months of his life.
It was May Day. I was walking home with him and we had to wait for a while at the entrance to a bridge, closed off on account of the parade taking place on the main square. Leaning on the rail, we could see the procession advancing past an immense building, the local Party headquarters. On the grandstand's terraces stood rows of black overcoats and felt hats.
The day was sunny but icy and windy. Bursts of military marches were borne on the breeze, snatches of slogans flung out by the loudspeakers, the dull roar from the columns of participants as they repeated these official watchwords at the tops of their voices.
"Just picture it! The very same spectacle all the way from the Far East to the Polish frontier," Ress murmured, in the dreamy tones one adopts when conjuring up a fabled land. "And from the Arctic ocean to the deserts of central Asia. The same grandstands, the same pigs in felt hats, the same crowd stupefied by this charade. The same parade stretching for thousands and thousands of miles ..."
The notion was striking, I had never thought about this human tide, sweeping in relays from one time zone to the next (eleven in all!) across the vast territory of the country. Yes, in every town, in every latitude, the same collectivist religious celebration.
Sensing my perplexity, he hastened to add, "And, believe me, it's the same in the camps! The top-ranking camp guards lined up on a platform, a band made up of musical ex-convicts, red banners: 'Glory,' 'Long Live,' 'Forward!' everywhere, I tell you. One day they'll fly those grandstands up to the moon ..."
Echoing his words, a gust of wind spat out, "Long live the heroic vanguard of the working class! ..." Ress gave a tight-lipped smile over a toothless mouth.
"Oh those grandstands! ... In the West they've written critical commentaries by the ton to explain this society of ours, the hierarchy, the mental enslavement undergone by the populace ... And they still don't get it! While if you're here, all you have to do is open your eyes. You can see the chief apparatchik from here, at the center of the platform, a black hat and that face, flat as a pancake. Around him, with meticulous concern for the ranking order, his henchmen. The farther they are from him, the less important they are. Logical. The supreme example is the official platform in red square. A few soldiers, so the people know what power upholds the Party's authority. And most interesting of all: the enclosures that divide the platform into sectors. In the one on the right are the heads of state enterprises, the river port administration, a few high-ranking trade unionists, and, lest the proletarians be forgotten, three or four shock workers. In a nutshell, the cream of the forces of production. And as for the less productive forces, but ones still useful to the regime, they put them on the left. Heads of universities, editors of local newspapers, bigwigs from the world of medicine, a couple of scribblers, in a word, the intelligentsia. And immediately beneath the central podium, the family enclosure where the wives and children are deposited ..."
He was overcome by a fit of coughing, leaned forward, and a thick blue vein swelled on his temple, very prominent beneath the transparent skin of his cranium. I sought to steer the conversation in another direction.
"Fine. But, you know, the people don't really care about those grandstands ..."
He stood up straight and his eyes burned into me.
"Wrong! The people do care about them. They need them! This pyramid of pigs' heads is essential to them as the coherent expression of the world's architecture. The way the enclosures are arranged reassures them. It's their lay religion. And that idiot bellowing slogans into the loudspeaker is the precise equivalent of a priest preaching his sermon ..."
He managed to hold in check another coughing fit, his neck trembled, his face turned purple. His voice came out in bursts, wary of the spasms clutching at his throat.
"We shouldn't generalize ... They're not all the same ... these demonstrators. You could say there are ... three groups. The first, the overwhelming majority, are a docile mass who like the comfort of the herd. The second category is made up of cynics, mainly from the intelligentsia: they chorus the slogans, but when they chant it's all a game, it's a joke. They wave their flags in ironic frenzy. They brandish the leaders' portraits on their poles as if they were heads held aloft on pikes. The third and last category is that of the rebels, naive enough to hope they can disrupt this grotesque parade. They write pamphlets, make posters, and ... and ..."
He began coughing again, one hand covering his mouth, the other seizing the parapet of the bridge. His thin body's bent shape, clad in an old raincoat, was reminiscent of a broken branch ... The path had just been reopened, the parade was coming to an end, the crowd could be seen dispersing into the neighboring streets.
We continued our walk, but instead of going toward his home, Ress led me into a residential quarter of the Stalin era: a park surrounded by a rectangle of apartment buildings where lived the notables we had just seen on the grandstand. He stopped beside the cast-iron fence to catch his breath, watching the demonstrators on their way home, glad to be finished with the chore of compulsory participation. A young man carrying the portrait of a member of the Politburo over his shoulder. Three adolescent girls, each with a rolled-up banner tucked under her arm. A group of schoolboys ...
And suddenly, stepping out of a black official car, an attractive woman in her forties, dressed in a pale coat, holding a little boy's hand. The child stared at us in astonishment, the presence of these two men, so unalike, must have appeared strange to him. The mother tugged at his hand, and they passed within a few yards of us before going into one of the "Stalinesque" apartment buildings. I caught a trace of perfume, subtly bitter, in harmony with that cool, luminous day. Ress turned away, coughing again, but without choking. For a moment it even seemed as if he were trying to spare the child the spectacle of his discomfort ...
We set off again without my understanding why he had wanted to go via the park. Perhaps, simply, so as to emerge onto the main square, now almost empty ... He nodded his head slightly in the direction of the grandstand. His voice now had a joyful ring.
"A science fiction scenario. Tomorrow this rotten regime falls apart. We find ourselves in the capitalist paradise and the people who step up onto this grandstand are millionaires, film stars, suntanned politicians ... And in the intellectuals' enclosure, let's say, Jean-Paul Sartre ... No, he's just died. Well, they'll find someone. And do you know what the funniest part of it is? The crowd will parade past just the same. You see, they don't care who fills the grandstand. What matters is for it to be filled. That's what gives meaning to the lives of our human ant heap. Yes, instead of the statue of Lenin, you'd have to picture a playboy in a tuxedo. It'll happen one day. And once again there'll be those three categories in the parade: placid sleepwalkers, very much in the majority, some cynics, and a few marginal rebels ..."
He was already coughing a little as he spoke, but the real onslaught came as we began walking again. Barking and choking, which gave him the pitiful appearance of an old dog emptying its lungs of the last of its rages. I stood there helplessly, not knowing how to come to his aid, nor what to say, embarrassed and ashamed, as one always is when confronted by a person taken ill out in the street.
We had stopped on a badly paved slope, flanked by old wooden houses. At the bottom of the incline, beyond the luminous tracery of willow groves, the river could be seen glittering. Slabs of ice still clung to the banks. From time to time a cloud hid the sun and then the landscape was reminiscent of the start of winter ...
For a moment Ress managed to control his coughing, raised his head, and, with what looked to me like a blind stare, took in the slope, the riverbank, the willows. His words came in feverish gasps.
"Yes, they'll always ... be there ... those three categories ... dozing swine ... cynics ... and sourpusses with ruined lungs ... like me ..."
The cough started again and suddenly the hand he pressed to his lips was filled with red. With clumsy urgency he took out a handkerchief and I saw the fabric was already spotted with blood. A fresh spasm in his chest caused a dark clot to erupt from his mouth, then another. I hastened to offer him my handkerchief ...
A telling detail: that silk square had been given to me by a girlfriend. such a gift would seem incongruous today, but was evidently not unusual in the Russia of those years, and this brings home to me the almost cosmic gap that separates us from that period. But that day, as I watched Ress wiping his lips, it was the man's own past that I was speculating on: "He's not had many chances to be loved ..." Long spells of hard labor, the painful slowness with which a prisoner's life is then rebuilt, and already another arrest, and very soon health too ravaged for any hope of a new lease on life, born of some fresh encounter, a new dream, a love affair.
He was still bent double, overcome by the lashing of the cough, the handkerchief crushed against his mouth. With the ugly stance of a drunkard overcome by nausea. Disconcerted, I would from time to time stammer a useless reassurance: "It'll calm down soon ... You just need a glass of cold water ..." With an intensity I had never before experienced, I sensed the atrocious injustice of life, or History, or perhaps God, at all events the cruelty of this world's indifference toward a man spitting out his blood into a silk handkerchief. A man who had never had the time to be in love.
Excerpted from Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine, Geoffrey Strachan. Copyright © 2011 Éditions du Seuil. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.