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Human Love, By Andreï Makinetrs Geoffrey Strachan

There is little to celebrate about human nature in this novel about disillusionment and war

Andreï Makine's 10th novel is nothing if not ambitious in scope. Set mostly in war-torn Angola, one of the crucibles of hard-line Marxism to emerge from the bloody collapse of colonial rule, Human Love sifts through the indiscriminate carnage of decades of factional warfare for any gesture that might redeem an otherwise unremittingly bleak vision of humanity. Narrated by a nameless Russian writer, the novel is a piecemeal recollection of the life of Elias Almeida, a professional revolutionary soldier, and how his actions and aspirations espoused some sort of nobility of nature despite the barbaric cruelty and loveless violence of his environment.

Horrified by the casually brutal exploitation and death of his mother, 15-year-old Elias flees his mission school to find his father, a communist insurgent fighting against Angola's Portuguese occupiers from Congo's remote eastern villages. His idealism swiftly turns to disillusion: initially with his father's effete, theatrical posturing, then with the rebel troops' intoxicated, lawless orgy of rape and slaughter following a minor (and swiftly overturned) skirmishing victory.

Elias makes his way to Havana where he refreshes his Marxist principles, but scorns the "revolutionary tourists" that he finds clambering on Castro's rhetorical barricades. After training as a spy in Moscow, he is sent back to Africa's communist battlegrounds, enduring torture and imprisonment for his politics. In one grim cell he meets the narrator, a young man who came to Angola to help the "weak and poor" in a class struggle. For decades the two continue to run into each other, allowing the writer to piece together Elias's story – very implausibly – from snatched conversations.

Makine has used the scaffold of a writer relaying another's life before, and more succinctly, in The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme, his 2003 novel of a French pilot's fleeting but passionate affair with an expatriate French woman during the battle of Stalingrad. Makine made himself an exile, seeking asylum in Paris in 1987, where he began writing his novels in French. This distanced perspective has produced many clear-sighted, delicately nuanced novels that set intimate lives against impersonal Soviet totalitarianism. Both Jacques Dorme and A Hero's Daughter (Makine's trenchant 1990 debut about a fraudulent Soviet hero and his blackmailed daughter, published in Geoffrey Strachan's lucid English translation in 2004) suggest a passionate attachment to Russia – in particular, to Makine's native Siberia – combined with harsh criticism of the regime's corrupt and oppressive politics.

Driven by the memory of his mother's fate, Elias progresses through variously harrowing scenarios, pursuing an idea of love that can transcend such overwhelming, inhumane violence. His unfulfilled affair with Anna, a Siberian who rescues him from Moscow thugs, is cherished as a bond that ransoms the horror – he would go through torture again for their selfless love – and is enshrined in his memory as the ephemeral fragrance of snow that clings to her dress on a Siberian train.

This presents the central difficulty with Makine's otherwise substantial, occasionally gruelling novel. Makine's literary strength is this lyric quality. His last novel, The Woman Who Waited, in which a callow dissident becomes infatuated with a woman chastely awaiting the return of her soldier fiancé, is written with a sensuousness that imbues its sparsely beautiful Archangel landscape with an expectant, almost spiritual atmosphere. Glimpses of Anna's exalted love, by contrast, are all but lost amidst the congested ideology and general pain of Elias's experience. Human love selfless enough to counter man's natural domain of sordid sex, colossal greed and ruthless violence, Makine rather bleakly seems to conclude, may well be an aspirational elixir, but is hard to find, and all but impossible to keep.

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