Sceptre, £12.99, 250pp £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Life Of An Unknown Man, By Andreï Makine, trans. Geoffrey Strachan

Two truncated love stories – a quietly heroic, enduring passion that gives counterpoint to a desultory romantic failure – combine in Andreï Makine's eleventh novel. It reprises the Russian author's grand themes of personal dignity and integrity, passion and stoicism in the face of sweeping historical forces. Makine has a thing or two to say about exile and isolation, being Siberian by birth but having drafted his debut novel, Le Testament Francais, in French while homeless in Paris, where he sought asylum in 1987.

The romantic failure belongs to Ivan Shutov, a dissident Russian writer on the far side of middle age who is stuck in his Parisian garret with an unsaleable manuscript. Shutov's admiration for the perfection of form in Chekhov's short stories brings him to rail against the poverty of contemporary literature – which is championed by Shutov's young squeeze Léa, a provincial youngster whom he first met in the Gare de l'Est but whose curiosity is now drawing her to other men.

Insulted by Léa, Shutov heads back to St Petersberg to find the city gripped by the carnival burlesque of tercentenary festivities. Bewildered, he witnesses revellers charged with uproarious energy in a collective exorcism: "The frenzied search for a new logic to life after the highly logical madness of dictatorship". Dislocated in the city's glitzy modernity, Shutov feels like an actor who has missed his cue until he encounters a decrepit old survivor, Georgy Lvovich Volsky.

Recounted with the spare intensity of Conrad's Lord Jim, Volsky's volunteered memoir is the real meat of this slim novel. From famine in the siege of Leningrad to soldiering made carelessly lethal through lack of hope, from a reprieved love to gulags and purges, Volsky's epic confession maintains an intimate, fabular tone. Occasional hallucinatory passages amplify extremity of hardship or feeling. They augment the simple language of Makine's linear plot, which is studded with fleeting, jewelled descriptions in another of Geoffrey Strachan's lucid translations.

An idea of love that can transcend overwhelming brutality is Makine's golden thread. Human Love, his last novel, took a geographic sortie into Africa's indiscriminate carnage but continued his ferocious enquiry into the moral and emotional grounding of humanity. Previous potent novels of dogma and dissidence, all written in Makine's signature style of a well-honed lyricism, collectively probe a more Russian experience.

The Woman Who Waited (2004) was set in an austere landscape, emptied of men by the war; its enigmatic central figure possessed an unfathomable serenity akin to the nobility of endurance exhibited by Volsky. The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme (2003) again used the device of a writer recounting another's life, this time exploring an affair during the Battle of Stalingrad. Makine's impressive back-list majors on war-ravaged loss and the unreliable nature of history.

Shutov's other romantic failure is to call himself a Soviet, not a Russian – a political sentimentality exposed by Volsky's extraordinary testimony of the nightmarish violence of that period. One of Makine's great strengths lies in his delicate setting of intimate lives against the impersonal machinery of Soviet totalitarianism. Juxtaposing the solipsistic wretchedness of Shutov and the carnival froth of St Petersberg with the gravity of Volsky's experience gives a jolt of reconnection with a sense of history, and suggests the shallowness of modern culture's purchase on the blood-soaked soil of the recent past.

The Life of an Unknown Man may lack some of the fierce elegance of Makine's best work. But it reiterates the author's passionate attachment to Russia, and his determination to celebrate individual humanity while excoriating the oppressive politics that have shaped our present reality.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road