The callow 26-year-old narrator of Andreï Makine's latest novel is a nameless amateur dissident in Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Makine succinctly sketches in his background as a member of the "Wigwam", a loft of Leningrad intellectuals indulging in free love, terminal political poetry and subversive talk of Godard or the Guggenheim.
Our narrator struggles a bit with the free love when "his" girlfriend openly has sex with other artists. To soothe his squashed affections, he takes up a research project to catalogue local customs in the austere beauty of the far northern Archangel region.
In this poor, rural backwater, history has virtually ceased with the war that consumed all its men, leaving deserted hamlets of widows and wounded. The past is disappearing from villages like Mirnoe, because there remains nobody to pass the stories down to. Its inhabitants are "expatriates, elderly women driven from their homes by solitude, illness, the indifference of their families". Ministering to these few remaining crones is the strikingly attractive, saintly Vera: the woman who waited, who at 16 saw her fiancé off on the last conscript convoy of 1945 and has been chastely awaiting his return for 30 years. Smugly, the narrator tries to quantify, reduce and capture this beguiling woman.
The expectant atmosphere reminds me of Henri Alain-Fournier's charmed masterpiece Le Grand Meaulnes, which conjured up a secluded place lost in time and charged with expired promise. Makine builds a sensuousness around Vera's figure through the narrator's accidental glimpses, witnessing her hauling in fishing nets with an almost coital energy, or standing naked and steaming outside the bathhouse, blue in the moonlight.
There is much pleasure in Geoffrey Strachan's elegant translation, but the central conundrum of Vera's wait feels artificial, designed mostly to elicit the narrator's foibles.
Her serenity provides a foil for his selfish posturing, while defying his attempts to penetrate her mystique.
Born in Siberia, Makine wrote his debut novel in French while sleeping on the streets of Paris, where he sought asylum in 1987; so notions of translation, expatriation and isolation reasonably percolate into his short but powerful novels. Vera's admirer remains an urban émigré from Leningrad; his pursuit of self-knowledge is charming enough, but lacks the gravitational pull of Makine's earlier works.