Interview: Andrei Makine - Through the iron curtain to Paris

One of France's most celebrated writers is Russian. But Andrei Makine is far from admired in the motherland. By Natasha Fairweather

When I arrive at the Basil Hotel in Knightsbridge and ask for Andrei Makine, the Russian writer, there is some confusion. There is, they assure me, no Russian by that name in residence. But after a flurry of calls a "French gentleman" is brought to meet me. It is an understandable mistake. Andrei Makine, lanky, soft-spoken and with a neat beard drenched in after-shave, does not correspond to anyone's stereotype of a Russian. And it is not a coincidence that he should be taken for French. He was born, raised and educated in the Soviet Union. But he is arguably the finest, and unquestionably the most successful, French writer to have emerged this decade.

Since he emigrated to France in 1987, just as Mikhail Gorbachev was drawing back the Iron Curtain, Makine has joined an exclusive band of writers - he is lodged alphabetically between Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov - who have achieved both commercial and critical success by writing in a foreign language.

Makine arrived in Paris with little baggage other than his love of French and its literature. He applied for asylum and citizenship, and spent the next seven years living the romantic stereotype of an artist starving in a Parisian garret. As it happens, Makine himself never viewed it that way. Moving regularly from one lodging to the next, and even sleeping rough for a time, he cobbled together a living by teaching Russian and spent the rest of his time writing. Whenever he changed rooms, he had a bigger mountain of manuscripts, hand written on loose sheets of paper, to take with him, and a corresponding hillock of publisher's rejection letters.

Innocent as a librarian behind his little, wire-framed specs, Makine seems to shock even himself when he recounts how he was prepared to do almost anything to get published. He resubmitted novels under different titles and different names. He rewrote the opening pages and gummed together the middle ones to see if publishers read that far. In the end, concluding that French publishers were suspicious of a Russian writing in French, he even presented some of his novels as translations. The tactic backfired when a publisher suggested corrections to what she termed "poor translation".

Makine was growing desperate when his luck turned. A distinguished French publisher rang to say that she loved his fourth novel, Le Testament Francais. She published it, to positive reviews, in 1995. The book was showing all the signs of being a modestly successful novel by an unknown author when Makine was catapulted into a different league. He achieved the unprecedented feat of winning France's two most prestigious literary prizes - the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis - simultaneously. Suddenly, everyone wanted to read his book.

After a lunch with President Jacques Chirac, all the obstacles standing between Makine and French citizenship magically evaporated. Two suitcases full of fan mail, some letters stretching to 20 pages, testify to the fact that many of Makine's million French readers were sufficiently moved by his love song to French culture to want to communicate with him directly. And Le Testament Francais has not been successful only in France. Translated into 30 languages, the book has been well received all round the world. Shortly before Christmas, Makine came to London to attend the presentation of the TLS-Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize to his English translator, Geoffrey Strachan. The fact that Moncrieff, the original translator of Makine's beloved Marcel Proust, endowed the award simply added to the pleasure.

However, the one place where Makine's largely autobiographical novel about growing up in Russia has not travelled well is Russia itself. When news of Makine's French success reached Moscow, commentators, such as the lead critic of Commersant Daily, were inclined to damn it, sight unseen, as "cliched and sentimental". And the dismal quality of the subsequent translation, which - typically for the cash-starved Russian publishing industry - was undertaken by two different translators and not supervised by Makine, did not help.

But one does not have to penetrate too deeply into the novel to realise why the Russians have not embraced their errant literary prodigy. The novel holds up a brutally frank mirror to Soviet society, and few Russians will like what they see. It describes the Soviet life of his French grandmother Charlotte Lemonnier. A drab, grey, spiritually impoverished monotony is contrasted with the civilised pleasures of belle epoque France, where Charlotte grew up. In the course of her life in the Soviet Union, Charlotte endured rape by an Uzbek, terrible hunger, and the arrest of her husband. She walked half way across the country before washing up alone, with only her memories, in a tower block on the edge of the steppe. In the romanticised France of her memory, meanwhile, "whose rivers flowed like lines of verse, whose women wept in alexandrines and whose men quarrelled in broadsides," it is possible for the president himself to die in the arms of his mistress.

Russians are troubled not only by what Makine writes about his homeland, but also by his lack of loyalty to it. And the decision to write in the language of the pre-Revolutionary aristocracy and literary elite perhaps rankles with those raised in the Soviet Union. It was the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky who described exile as a kind of death, and Russians traditionally pine for the motherland when they travel. There is a special verb in Russian (toskovat) for feeling homesick, and talk of the motherland has inspired mawkish declarations of melancholy from many an expatriate Russian. Yet Makine shows no such nostalgia. "I didn't leave Russia, Russia left me," he says, a touch defensively, explaining how alienated he feels by the changes that have occurred since the break up of the Soviet Union. He can find little that he recognises and less to admire when he meets up with old friends from Russia. Yet it is not indifference to the fate of Russia that makes him reluctant to return. "For me, Russia is like an old lover. I have an image of her, of the way she used to be and what she used to mean to me, in my head and I am frightened of destroying my internal Russia, which I still need to draw on in my writing, by revisiting the country and replacing my precious old memories with new ones."

We switched between Russian and French: Makine seemed perfectly at ease in both languages. Certainly he has a trace of an accent, something curious about the way he tongues the "l" when he speaks French, his "grandmother tongue". But if ideas seem to crowd in faster in Russian, Makine insisted that this was not because he thinks in that language. "It depends; I think in both languages. I know that this always surprises people, but it really is not important to me which language I write in. I began by writing poetry in Russian and one day I may well write in Russian again, but for the moment I am addressing myself to a French audience and so I write in French. It's as simple as that."

I expressed surprise. Well, yes, he acknowledged, there is a certain frisson, a sense of adventure about writing in French. He learned the language through books and, for him, most French words ring with literary resonance which Russian, a much younger literary language, cannot rival. "Also, you have to understand that there are 26 different tenses in French, and the French can eat, walk and make love in these different dimensions of time. Whereas in Russian we only have the basic three - past, present and future, and this changes the way that we look at life."

Makine will not talk about his Soviet childhood or his reasons for leaving the country. And he is coy about the extent to which his books are autobiographical, feeling reluctant, as he puts it, "to stifle either of the Siamese twins that are me and my writing by defining too closely where one ends and the other begins". But the section that rings truest in Le Testament Francais records the innumerable little ways in which the adolescent narrator suffered for being different from his Soviet contemporaries. And Makine admitted that he was made anxious as a teenager by the schizophrenic aspects of having a dual identity. But with age - Makine is 41 - he has come to appreciate the great democratic possibilities of being bilingual. "Monolingualism produces a totalitarian vision of the world. This object is called a book and that's it. Whereas the bilingual child, faced with one object with two names, will have to grapple with abstract and philosophical ideas early on in life."

Certainly, Makine has taken great creative impetus from being a Russian in France, at home only in his little district of Montmartre. He returns obsessively in his work to the relationship between Russia and the West, as if he were a bridge between the two cultures. In Once Upon the River of Love, an early novel published in America this summer, he uses the medium of a Jean Paul Belmondo film to explore whether it is possible for a group of Siberians to understand the West. And he is working on a new novel examining what it means to belong to the last generation of Soviets.

In the end, the most Russian thing about Makine is his belief in the power of books. He has a Solzhenitsyn-like commitment to his writing. He is resolved never to marry or have children since "creation and procreation are mutually exclusive if you take the responsibilities of each task to heart". Makine's blue eyes sharpen with intensity when he talks about the vacuity of capitalist culture. He is not interested in money and is among the rare breed of authors who refuse to take advance payments for their books. He is writing because he believes "that a book," in the words of his boy narrator, "can remake the world with its beauty". Be warned, it may bring tears to your eyes.

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