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Books: Atlantis sur Seine

LE TESTAMENT FRANCAIS by Andrei Makine trs Geoffrey Strachan, Sceptre pounds 16.99

Once in a while there comes a book that captivates critics and public alike. Andrei Makine's autobiographical novel, Le Testament Francais, is such a book. Published in 1995, it won both the Goncourt and the Medicis prizes - a unique distinction - as well as the Goncourt of the Lyceens. It has been translated into 22 languages and has sold nearly a million copies so far. Yet it was at first rejected by all the major publishers. Finally, Simone Gallimard, a senior member of the great publishing family, decided to take it. Alas, she had terminal cancer and did not live to enjoy its success.

At the heart of Le Testament Francais is Charlotte Lomonnier, a French woman and the narrator's grandmother. Born in Paris in 1903, she is 10 when her idealistic father decides to emigrate to Russia with his family and work as a doctor in Siberia. She is back in Paris when the revolution breaks out. Her father has died and, to rescue her mother, she volunteers as a nurse and returns to Russia. She travels across the country on "trains, farm carts, on foot ... walking the distance from Moscow to Paris", witnessing the devastation of the country by the revolution and the civil war - "riderless horses, men hanging from trees, crowds pulling down cupolas of churches", entire towns and villages burnt down and deserted. Starved and gang-raped by bandits, she finally reaches Siberia and finds her mother in a freezing hut.

"It is easy to come in, but you never get out of Russia," Charlotte's mother predicts. The district commissar confiscates the young woman's papers and threatens to shoot her for espionage. So she stays and eventually marries a Russian, a "People's Judge". The couple settle in a village on the edge of the vast expanse of land that stretches from the Black Sea to Mongolia, "where every road disappears out into the steppe"; here her grandson, the narrator, spends his summer holidays.

All that remains of Charlotte's life of exile is a small suitcase containing a few relics - a silk fan, a bundle of old photographs and press cuttings, a picture of the Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina on their official visit to Paris in 1896, the menu of the 12-course dinner at the Elysee Palace that evening. Sitting on her balcony, Charlotte tells her grandson about Paris in the Belle Epoque - the ease and elegance of life, the courtesans and the cafes and gardens, the Pere Lachaise cemetery where so many famous artists and writers are buried - until a whole city is conjured out of the steppe "like a misty Atlantis emerging from the sea".

The key to this Atlantis is the French language, as Charlotte speaks and recites Baudelaire, Nerval, Victor Hugo - "a whole new world was opened to me". "La vraie vie est ailleurs," said Rimbaud, and "to live along side this grandmother was already to feel you were elsewhere ... the strange elsewhere she carried within her", preserved by the loneliness of the steppe.

Back at school in the autumn, the narrator learns every lesson from the Bolshevik perspective and is envious of his classmates "who are lucky to have only one view of life". The French grandmother and her language, the poetry and literature she transmits to him, increase his sense of "otherness", of alienation: "It was in Russia that I felt in exile."

Alongside his adolescent dreams of ailleurs is the reality of Soviet life in the myriad "little Gulags" where memory is obliterated and history begins in Year Zero. Charlotte tells him about that too - about Beria, Stalin's security chief, curb-crawling at nightfall in his limousine through the streets of Moscow until he finds a woman whom he fancies and abducts, and who is never seen again; the narrator's mother arrested when her "crime" (having a French mother) is discovered at university; his grandfather and uncle sent to Siberia for years.

In 1987, when glasnost makes it possible for Russians to travel abroad, the narrator gives up a promising academic career at the age of 30 and leaves for France, determined to become a French writer. The last, and perhaps the most interesting, part of the book is the narrator's life of voluntary exile in Paris. How different the Atlantis of his imagination from the awesome megalopolis he finds. Not in its beauty and charm, but in its ruthless indifference, its frightening freedom. In Russia, the state controlled every aspect of an individual's life; in the West everyone has to fend for himself. No wonder people seem to him cold and constrained.

He teaches Russian, writes sitting on park benches and sleeps rough, taking refuge in the Pere Lachaise amid the graves of the poets and writers he read all those years ago. The reaction to his first novel is not encouraging, so the narrator - as Makine himself did - pretends that his manuscript is the translation of a Russian book. When the publisher asks for the original, he spends three weeks translating his own French text into Russian - whereupon it is accepted for the "quality of the translation". Finally, he is able to send for his grandmother, but French bureaucracy, though nothing like as horrific as its Russian counterpart, still delays the necessary papers until it is too late.

Le Testament Francais is seamlessly composed. Its subtle blend of memory and imagination is reminiscent of Proust, whose ghosts haunts the novel. The "sad-eyed dandy" first appears with a quotation concerning the use of real names in the narrative. Later he is seen by Charlotte playing tennis in Neuilly in 1910, and again sitting at the Cafe des Anglais on the Boulevard des Capucines, ordering a glass of water and a bunch of grapes.

In French, "testament" means both a will and a heritage, and the publishers are right to have kept the title. Geoffrey Strachan's fluid translation conveys the freshness and rueful humour of the original. But in its broad sweep and mystical vision, Le Testament Francais belongs to the tradition of the 19th-century Russian novelists. Only a Russian would write with such unselfconscious, lyrical elan, at times teetering dangerously on the brink of sentimentality. Only a Russian would exhibit such intensity of emotion, make Dostoyevsky's profession of faith his own, that "beauty will save the world", and create minor characters that linger in the mind - like Pashka, the school dunce and loner from a poor home, who "climbs the trees to watch the stars".