Monday, January 29, 2007

Andreï Makine's "L’amour humain"

Ray Taras, whose reviews for the blog have covered Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog, and Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide, turns now to Andreï Makine's L’amour humain (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2006):
Ever since his first novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers (the French title is Le testament francais), was published just over a decade ago, a debate has been conducted among his readers about whether Makine is a French or Russian writer. Born and educated in Siberia, he arrived in Paris in 1987 at the age of thirty having few material possessions or even a support network. The sans papiers immigrant is familiar to contemporary French society but Makine was unusual. He brought with him an extraordinary talent for writing prose…in French. The best known story told about this story teller is that he had quickly to compose a Russian-language draft of his first novel after he had submitted his original French-language manuscript to publishers so that his Russian credentials could be established.

His debut on the Parisian literary scene was spectacular. He achieved the unprecedented honor of winning two of France’s top literary awards (Prix Goncourt and Prix Médicis) in the same year (1995). Back in Russia, however, the literary establishment, slow to shed its rigid hierarchical mentality after the disappearance of the Soviet Writers’ Union, refused to accept Makine as a Russian novelist in exile. “He writes about us but does not speak to us” was the most grudging recognition he could expect in his native country.

All of his novels and a book of essays have dealt with Russian and French identities. He is a romantic and a lyricist about both these countries, though his critiques of the Stalin years are merciless. Coming from a man born in 1957, the year after Khrushchev had denounced Stalin’s cult of personality, the realism of the gulags and purges as depicted in his novels does not stand up to Solzhenitsyn’s. But we cannot hold that against Makine.

He is a prolific writer. L’amour humain is his tenth novel. But for the first time, the main setting is not Russia or France but Africa. The principal character, Elias, is an idealistic Angolan freedom fighter engaged in the bitter struggle to drive the Portuguese colonialists out. He is an assimilado “which signifies, he learns pretty quickly, that he, a black hardly different from an ape, could one day gain entrance into the world of the whites” (p. 60).

Training in a military camp, Elias is charmed by the long-haired Spanish-speaking commandante named Ernesto who appears for a few days to teach guerrilla warfare, then just as quickly vanishes, on his way to tutor rebel movements elsewhere. It all forms part of the Soviet-sponsored worldwide anti-imperialist movement, for Makine, itself an imperialist movement.

The narrator is a decades-long friend of Elias who recounts the twists and turns in Elias’ life. But the narrator has occasion along the way to indict the smug bourgeois globalized societies of the post Cold War era. Makine’s evocations of the sexual act have often been overwrought but he reaches a new plateau in depicting new-style Western exploitation. A French woman attends a literary conference in Africa and lands in bed with a trophy African male--a naïve native artist. Engaging in lovemaking does not deter her from simultaneously talking on the phone with her husband back in France. Makine’s narrator overhears the goings-on in the next bedroom and debates whether to march in on the couple and moralize to the woman: “In this world there is a child who is six years old, this Delphinette, your daughter, who you will kiss, Madame, with those same lips that are sucking this erect black member” (p. 29).

Later the author more skillfully captures the civilizational rather than racial divide of today’s world. He attributes to the West “This arrogant will to transform the life of the other into an ‘experience’, into an experimental laboratory for its ideas. And if this human matter resists, to abandon it, to go and find more malleable matter” (p. 92). This is a brutal encapsulation of the cynicism of the West’s democracy promotion and human rights imperialism, as it is sometimes called in the developing world.

The West’s liberal rhetoric irritates Makine. A 1960s’ gauchiste turned TV pundit warns that “if the French don’t get back to work it will be the developing countries that will teach them liberalism” (p. 217). Globalization is a pathology that unleashes “the energy of thousands of men who crash into each other, plot with each other, who sell unfanthomable riches, stow billions away in secret accounts, flatter their rivals and devour their partners, drag their countries into long years of war, starve entire regions, pay hordes of penpushers to eulogize their policies” (p. 227). He takes a shot at the concept of “The end of history proclaimed by a Nipponese luminary who the whole world takes seriously, for the moment” (p. 247).

The novel lashes out at Western culture. It depicts an American eating a 16-ounce steak and links this to U.S. foreign policy. The narrator inveighs that “America uses all of its power to protect the right of this man to eat such a quantity of meat” (p. 119). While Makine’s novels usually say little about the United States, they consistently hint at it being an “uncouth nation.”

A Makine novel is incomplete without a denunciation of Soviet society. This time the author exposes the deep-seated racism of that system. On spotting the Angolan on a street in Moscow where he has come for political training, a Russian hooligan remarks to friends: “I told you, fuck, they forgot to lock the cages at the zoo” (p. 133). Elias is beaten by “Men for whom he was nothing but a monkey… their hatred, in a country that was promising a world without hate” (p. 140).

Poor Elias. I am reminded of the group of American students, one of whom was black, that I took to Siberia in the early 1980s. In a gloomy corner store in the godforsaken town of Ulan Ude--not far from the Mongolian border--the shop assistant stared at the young African-American, then turned to me and asked: “Is that a real Negro? I’ve only seen them on television.” Makine finds viciousness in such naiveté: “Look, a monkey, right in the middle of the street” (p. 144).

After the “enormous farce” of the Cold War era (p. 228), after decades of unceasing political struggle, Elias is left with no illusions. Bipolarity was an ideological construct--“This world neatly carved into two does not exist” (p. 202). A long-winded speech by Castro heralding the society of the future makes no mention of the possibility that “it might include love between two human beings” (p. 109). What really count, then, are human lives, deaths, ambitions, and abysses.

So this novel, in common with Makine’s earlier ones, is about love, as its simple title suggests. It is intended as a corrective to the loveless politics pursued by the Cold War’s adversaries. It narrates a touching love story about Elias, maligned while visiting the Soviet Union, and Anna, his only source of comfort on that first visit. Love is symbolized by the orchid blooming in the snow outside a remote Siberian village where Elias and Anna briefly find happiness.

akine is driven to the conclusion that a person’s life begins when “History, having exhausted its atrocities and promises, leaves us bare under the sky, to experience only the look of the one he loves” (p. 236). As is invariably the case with one of his novels, we are left with a beautiful thought that raises our spirits and makes the debate about Frenchness or Russianness irrelevant. It is this: “the sovereign truth of life--the certainty that the passing of a man who has loved does not mean the disappearance of the love that he carried within himself” (p. 295).

Many thanks to Ray for the brilliant review.

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program for the past three years.

--Marshal Zeringue