The Siberian who preferred olives

This is my review of Le Testament Francais (Fiction, poetry & drama) by MAKINE.

Admiration for Makine's short novel "La Musique d'un vie" in English translation inspired me to embark on the much longer multiple prize-winning "Testament français" in French.

It describes a sensitive Russian boy who spends summers in Siberia with the half-French grandmother Charlotte who regales him with anecdotes of Paris in the years leading up to the First World War. She backs them up with memorabilia from a battered trunk which hold the allure of an Aladdin's Cave for the boy. Unsurprisingly, he grows up with a sense of being split between two cultures, the harsh "reality" of Communist Russia holding less appeal than nostalgic memories of a past France. As a teenager, tired of his peers' mockery of his eccentricity, the boy makes a brief effort to break free from Charlotte's influence, but comes to realise how much he values it. It is a moot point to what extent Charlotte is responsible for nourishing his artistic sense as a writer, or aggravating a degree of mental imbalance.

This novel has a clearly autobiographical basis: following the disappearance of Russian parents, presumed to have been deported, Makine was brought up in Siberia by his half-French grandmother, who filled him with the language and culture of France absorbed from her childhood visits to Paris. After seeking asylum in Paris in his thirties and living on the breadline as a struggling writer, Makine resorted to the pretence that his early novels had been translated from Russian, since publishers would not believe that he could have written with such fluency and feeling in French.

A great admirer of Proust, Makine has imitated his style in "Testament français", which is short on plot, more a series of impressions, feelings and incidents. Particularly in the early chapters, I found the prose pretentious, with a cloying sentimentality. It was hard to believe that a boy of nine or so would be so enthralled by state dinners to welcome the Tsar and his wife to Paris in the 1890s, events about which Charlotte herself must have learned second-hand. And would the boy really have been so entranced by the sycophantic verse of José Maria de Heredia of which eight stanzas are included in the text? I was by turns irritated and bored by the repetition and exaggeration of ordinary images – a faded photo on the back of a newspaper cutting from the early 1900s of three demure young ladies in dark discreet dresses, over which the now teenage boy almost faints with emotion from the experience of mentally insinuating himself into their world, captured by click of the camera's shutter.

The writing seems most real to me when the narrator focuses on his own direct experience without any attempt at imitative artifice. For instance, there is a striking description of a sudden but fleeting storm bursting over the Russian steppe, to be replaced quickly by calm sunshine. He is probably very accurate in describing male obsession with female physical sexuality, although in the process the narrator appears very male chauvinist, to add to his intense self-absorption. The passages describing the sense of wanting to be both Russian and French are often quite powerful, and there are flashes of wry humour and insight. Although most characters apart from Charlotte and the narrator are thinly drawn, there are some vivid portraits, as of his tough, coarse, pragmatic aunt, a typical product and survivor of the Stalin era, unchanged even twenty years after the dictator's death.

Makine is a talented writer, and I shall probably read more of his work, but found this one too much of a chore. There is an English translation entitled "Dreams of my Russian Summers" which loses the point of the original title as revealed at the end.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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