It is 1941, and Alexeï, a budding concert pianist, is returning to his Moscow apartment two days before his first public recital when a neighbor warns him off: his parents are being arrested. Knowing that he will be sent to the Gulag, too, Alexeï flees to the home of relatives in the countryside. Then the Germans invade, decimating his family's village but providing a plethora of bodies from which he can pillage an identity. With "the pitiless mania life has for playing at paradoxes," his decision to impersonate a dead soldier allows him to survive the war but never afterward to be himself, and the fate he was eluding finds him anyway. Makine's dreamlike prose works beautifully when combined with a strong plot, as it was in his first novel, "Dreams of My Russian Summers," and as it is here. Stalin's atrocities are made visceral in this wisp of a book.
Makine is a Russian novelist living in France who has published five books in English, including Dreams of My Russian Summers, a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In Music of a Life, Makine works Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn territory. Alexeï Berg, twenty-one years old in 1941, is a pianist forced to flee Moscow by Stalin's police. Hiding in the Ukraine during the German invasion, Alexeï takes the identity of a dead Russian soldier, fights for the government that would imprison him, is wounded twice, becomes a general's driver, falls for the general's young daughter, is exposed as an impostor and is imprisoned. All this in a little over 100 pages, which seem more like a movie treatment than a novel: lots of action, little characterization, and let the director choose the scenery. Supposedly about "homo sovieticus," Music of a Life is as diminished as the Russian empire.
Makine (Dreams of My Russian Summers) is a Russian migr who writes in the language of his adopted France, but retains a poetic intensity of vision that seems peculiarly Russian. His latest is an extraordinarily compressed brief novel, but it is a novel not a novella in scope nonetheless. It begins as the narrator, waiting for a train to Moscow somewhere in the wilds of Siberia, meets a mysterious musician, Alexe Berg, and is told his somber life story. Berg, a son of the intelligentsia growing up in the Stalin-shadowed '30s, is about to make his debut as a concert pianist, in 1940, when his parents are arrested, and he barely escapes, taking refuge with relatives in the Ukraine. When the Germans invade, Berg takes on the identity of a dead soldier, fights heroically throughout the war, becomes the prot g of a general and briefly imagines himself in love with the officer's daughter. Then the question of his real identity arises once more, and he realizes he can never live the kind of life he had once hoped for. It's a simple story, but Makine's lovely lyric writing excellently translated in which the scenes are imagined with a sharply cinematic focus, gives it considerable depth and emotion; the quiet ending, back in the present time, is wrenching. (Aug.) Forecast: Summers was a well-deserved bestseller, and Makine has secured fine reviews for several books since; this brief novel is a splendid introduction to the work of a major talent. 25,000 first printing. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Alexe Berg's time has finally come; in two days, he is scheduled to give his first piano recital. But as he heads toward his Moscow apartment, a neighbor furtively signals to him not to return home. His parents, suspect intellectuals who were harassed throughout the 1930s, are being arrested. Alexe flees, hiding out with relatives in the country, and attempts to survive undetected by taking on the identity of a dead peasant soldier and joining the battle against Hitler's invading forces. His deception almost succeeds, but in the end he betrays himself because at a crucial moment he cannot resist playing the piano. This act, of course, is a perfect metaphor for Makine's elegant, heart-rending little gem of a work and for his entire oeuvre: art wills out, ultimately sustaining life and helping to topple dictatorships. This is a brief book, but it is big on ideas, ably carrying on its fragile spine the weight of recent Russian history and a subtle if sharp-tongued mocking of homo sovieticus. Makine here continues the affecting work begun in Dreams of My Russian Summers, and though it resonates with the same themes as that work and others published since, this new novel feels entirely fresh and necessary. Highly recommended. - Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
With matchless delicacy and economy, Makine (Requiem for a Lost Empire, 2001, etc.) chronicles a talented musician's victimization by the Stalinist purges of the WWII years. Russian-born Makine's unnamed narrator is introduced to us "stranded" in a railway station awaiting a delayed train, where he overhears faint strains of music, eavesdrops on an apparently elderly man who's playing a grand piano in a distant room, and weeping-and then is told the latter's life story. The stranger is Alexeï Berg, a former musical prodigy who had fled Moscow in 1941-on the eve of his first concert appearance-when his parents, a prominent playwright and a celebrated opera singer, were designated enemies of the state and arrested. In scarcely 70 pages, Makine presents a movingly detailed history of survival, adaptation, and bitter disillusionment, as Alexeï hides from Soviet authorities in an underground room at his uncle's farm in Ukraine, appropriates the uniform and identity of a young soldier (Sergeï Maltsev) whose body he finds on a battlefield, serves as a general's driver and becomes the latter's beneficiary following the war. Then, in a stunning succession of ironies, "Sergeï" grows dangerously close to the general's teenaged daughter, who urges him to "learn" to play the piano, which she's studying-with revelatory, and life-altering, consequences. Music of a Life is thin, but perfectly conceived and controlled. Its graceful narrative skillfully blends summarized action with powerfully evocative images-plague survivors wearing long-nosed masks; "the swift arpeggio of the strings snapping in the fire," in which a prized violin is burned; a woman dragging through a forest a sled which carries a smallcoffin-charged with strong understated emotion. A masterly dramatization of "the disconcerting simplicity with which broken lives are lived."