Lost in France

Le Testament Francais by Andrei Makine, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, Sceptre, pounds 15.99; Carole Angier acclaims the magical debut by a Russian Proust
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When the young Russian narrator of Le Testament Francais is about 14, he forms a strange friendship with the other pariah of his class, the dunce Pashka. He watches him fish through the ice of the Volga; afterwards, by their fire on the snowy bank, he tells tales of knights and battles. One day he retells a poem instead, about a young boy determined to die in a Parisian uprising. Incredibly, Pashka leaps barefoot into the snow, trying to hide his tears. This, the narrator says, was the happiest day of his youth, which gave him his image of true literature: Pashka's blue legs thrust into a snowdrift, and the reflections of the flames in his moist eyes.

This novel is about such images and moments, and consists of them. It is about the true literature glimpsed that day; which, the narrator later discovers, is dead in France now. In fact it is dead in most times and places, since it is great literature, necessary and profound. Andrei Makine aims at such literature himself. And - in a leap as incredible as Pashka's - he achieves it. Le Testament Francais is the first book ever to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, and it deserves them.

We first meet the narrator when he is a child. We never learn his name, or what he looks like; but we inhabit his mind more intensely than any boy's mind since Marcel's in A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust's themes of time, literature and loss are Makine's; Proust's search for the eternal in the evanescent is his search; Proust's division between art and life, Swann's way and the Guermantes' way, is his division; and Proust's images - the twin spires, the madeleine, the phrase of music - inspire Makine's relived moments.

The boy we meet is Russian, but has a French grandmother. In the winter he speaks Russian in a Siberian city which has abolished the past, and is out of bounds to foreigners. But every summer he and his sister visit the grandmother, Charlotte, in a dusty town on the edge of the steppe. Here they speak French; they explore Charlotte's suitcase of French newspapers; they sit on her narrow, flower-covered balcony and listen to her memories of France.

This doubleness splits the boy in two. He becomes an observer, a visionary. France becomes his Lost Domain and, later, it becomes Eros to him. Only in French can he say, he "died in the arms of his mistress", or imagine "the rhythmic stirring of the water" when a master lifts a shivering maid from her bath. The intensity of his despair as he contemplates all the lost moments in lost lives, and of his joy when he relives such moments - these lift us up, shivering, too. We float with him on the little balcony above the steppe, watching his rich visions.

Still later, in adolescence, he briefly succumbs to the need to belong, to live in "real life" without other times and places. But if, for a short time, the story becomes more ordinary, the writing doesn't. As the boy gives up France and becomes "Russian", he is also becoming a man; and the passages in which he recognises in himself the possibility of raping and even killing a woman, and beats himself mercilessly for it, are among the most astounding in this astounding book.

What we have been following, of course, is the growth of a writer. His agonised and ecstatic pursuit of the past has also been the pursuit of a "new language" in which to express its recovery, a novelist's "language of amazement". And when we remeet him in the last part, he has become a novelist. As he was once a French outsider in Russia, now he is a Russian outsider in France. He survives this poverty and humiliation by dreaming of bringing Charlotte back to France, and by working on a book called Charlotte Lemonnier: Biographical Notes.

You do not want to know (but perhaps can guess) whether Charlotte ever returns. But the testament Francais is hers, and instead of leaving the narrator an inheritance, it takes away the one he thought he had. That is the last meaning of Le Testament Francais: that this book, like all great books, was written not because something was possessed - a home, a history - but because it has been lost, and must be reimagined.