Tim Martin speaks to Andrei Makine, a Russian novelist who has been compared to Stendhal, Tolstoy and Proust.
So classical in form and so precise in execution are Andreï Makine’s novels of Russia that one half-expects their author to be a kind of glittering book-world fossil, as old as the 20th century, wizened from a lifetime of unpacking the tragic ironies of Communism in gorgeously intricate prose miniatures. Makine has been compared to Stendhal, Tolstoy and Proust; our best historians of the Soviet era queue up to pronounce him one of the finest living writers on the period; and he is regularly tipped to be among the contenders for the next Nobel in literature.
So can the trim, courteous man in his mid-50s with the look of a Bergman monk, who pads downstairs from his hotel room and greets me in a perfect French bass with a discreet Russian roll on the R, really be him? I feel like asking for ID.
Makine’s own life, it turns out, has been almost as extraordinary as any one might invent for him. Born in Siberia in 1957 and raised partly in an orphanage and partly by his French-speaking grandmother, he served with the Russian military in Angola and Afghanistan, where he was blown up in a jeep and spent three weeks in a coma. Back in Russia, he studied to be a teacher.
“But my tongue was too long. I started talking about the things I’d seen in Afghanistan, and I soon realised I’d have to choose between being behind the Urals” – in a camp – “or on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I had the chance to escape and I escaped.”
He came to Paris, where he began to write novels in French. In 1997 a lean first period, in which he was forced to pretend that his books were translations from Russian originals before French publishers would agree to put them out, came to an end when his second novel, Le testament français, won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis.
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