To read the first page of this novel is to feel an odd and not altogether pleasant sensation of voyeurism. The scene is a house beside the railway tracks in central Russia, on the eve of the great battle of Stalingrad. A man and a woman are alone together, but they cannot quite shut out the rest of the world:
“The wall facing the bed does not exist, only gaps in the charred timbers, the havoc wrought by the fire of two weeks ago. Beyond this space, the purple, resinous flesh of the stormy sky swells heavily. The first and last May storm of their shared life.”
As the novel progresses, the feeling that one is disturbing the characters, eavesdropping on their private dramas, doesn’t diminish. In part, this is the story of the couple in the first scene: a French pilot, Jacques Dorme, who somehow wound up flying planes for the Soviet air force, and a Russified Frenchwoman, Sasha, who somehow got stuck in the Russian interior and could not leave. But it is also the story of the narrator, a child of parents murdered by Stalin. After their deaths, he lived in a Russian orphanage but was occasionally allowed out to visit the elderly Sasha, a friend of his parents, who taught him to speak and read French. The plot revolves around the narrator’s trip back to Russia as an adult, and his search for the site in northern Siberia where Jacques Dorme’s plane finally crashed.
All of these places — whether the interior of a storage closet at the orphanage long ago, the muddy fairgrounds of a provincial city in post-communist Russia, or the primitive lives of the pilots in the far north — are evoked with an unusual precision. Indeed, because the narrator is, like the real Andrei Makine, the author of a first novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers, which was hugely successful in France, I kept assuming that the “narrator” was an autobiographical character. Only when I put the book down did I remember that I had no idea whether Makine really was an orphan at all.
Makine did grow up in Russia, however, although he writes in French. Not surprisingly, one of the book’s themes is language, and in particular what one can know in a foreign language that one cannot know in one’s native tongue. He describes, for example, one evening in the narrator’s childhood, when Sasha read to him from an old-fashioned French book by a forgotten author, a “collection of short tales, interesting only for their elegant construction.” In the story, a man’s cruel fiancee demands that he bring her his mother’s heart. While running to deliver it, he stumbles and falls, and the heart of his murdered mother speaks to him: “You’re not hurt, are you, my son.” The orphan boy listening to the story runs from the room. Makine describes this scene, and then reflects:
“Many years later, the difference between one’s mother tongue and an acquired language was to become a fashionable topic. I would often hear it said that only the former could evoke the deepest and most subtle — the most untranslatable — ties that bind our souls. Then I would think of maternal love, which I had first discovered and experienced in French, in a very simple little book, its pages tarnished by the fire.”
Makine’s other theme is the war itself, or more precisely the vanishing memory of the war. His narrator’s search for the remains of Jacques Dorme leads him to Siberia, but it also leads him to a rundown French suburb, where Dorme’s brother, “the Captain,” still lives. By accident, he first glimpses the Captain inside a car that is being attacked by young hoodlums, outside a cemetery whose tombstones are covered in graffiti. Later, while drinking tea in the man’s formal, old-fashioned sitting room, he proposes to bring his brother’s body back to France for burial. The Captain shouts at him: “What for? To bury him in that cemetery that’s become a garbage dump? In this town where people don’t dare leave their homes anymore?” Not only is the memory of the war disappearing, the narrator realizes, but so is a certain kind of France, a certain era of French culture: “This house, surrounded by bare trees and the foliage of a few yew bushes, dark green, almost black, is evocative of the last rock of a submerged archipelago.”
It’s not by accident that I’m using so many direct quotations: Simply retelling the plot or reciting the author’s biography would reveal nothing of what it is actually like to read The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme. Nor is there anything to which this novel can be easily compared: This isn’t a book that will remind you of any other book. Its charm lies precisely in its originality, in Makine’s unexpected metaphors, and in his unusual prose, which — even in English translation — beautifully illuminates his deep, intuitive knowledge of two very different, very ancient, very damaged cultures.