When the IFFP longlist was announced in early March, I was excited to see this novel amongst the contenders. While I haven’t read any of Andreï Makine’s previous books, I know Stu (at Winstonsdad’s blog) rates this author very highly, so I was eager to get to this one.
Brief Loves That Live Forever comprises of a series of eight episodes set within the context of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union; each of these vignettes could be considered a short story in itself, yet they are connected by the same narrator looking back on particular moments in his life.
The book opens as our unnamed narrator recalls walking home with a friend, a dissident by the name of Dmitri Ress. Ress, a dying man in his mid-forties, has experienced a sequence of imprisonments primarily for attacking the totalitarian regime and railing against the charade of National parades. During the walk Ress seems keen to steer our narrator towards a particular route; by so doing they encounter a woman and a young boy as they emerge from an official car. Ress turns away and it seems as if there may be some connection between him and the couple. As our narrator recalls this encounter with Ress it seems to spark memories of other times in his youth — moments of tenderness, fleeting glimpses of beauty and love — and it is these transient moments that endure and resonate most strongly in his life:
What remains is the pale patch of a dress, on the front steps of a little wooden house. The gesture of a hand waving me goodbye. I walk on, drawing further away, turning back after every five paces, and the hand is still visible in the mauve, luminous spring light.
What remains is a fleeting paradise that lives on for all time, having no need of doctrines. (p. 91)
From here onwards Makine uses this theme to lead us through a series of experiences in the narrator’s life, all of which touch upon brief snatches of love, compassion or grace. We see a young girl desperately searching for a grandmother whom she has never met; a grief-stricken young woman mourning the passing of her husband; an elderly couple of seeking shelter from a storm; a lover immersing her face in a bouquet of flowers. Here’s our narrator recalling this moment in their affair:
She comes in, kisses me, sees the bouquet. And asks no questions. She quite simply leans forward, buries her face in the subtly scented halo of flowers, closes her eyes. And when she stands up, her eyes are misty with tears. “They smell of winter,” she says. “We met in December, didn’t we…”
That night there is an unaccustomed gentleness in the way we make love, as if we had found one another again after a very long separation, having suffered greatly and grown old. (p. 131-132)
These moments also offer glimmers of light in our protagonist’s world, forming the greatest defence against the grim reality and hollow emptiness of the Soviet system. The encounters are played out against the backdrop of the political development of The Soviet Union from the 1960s to the 1980s and representations of the totalitarian regime are never very far away. Early in the novel we see our narrator when, as a young boy, he becomes trapped within the imposing entrails of a grandstand used for parades:
Sunk in the torpor of a condemned man, I saw I was in a vast spider’s web spun from iron. This three-dimensional trellis was everywhere…My terror was so profound that, within this prison-like captivity, I must have glimpsed a more immense reality concerning the country I lived in, whose political character I was just beginning to grasp, thanks to snatches of conversation here and there… (p.36)
There are other symbols of the Brezhnev-era regime too; the leader’s ‘imposing face, an authoritarian gaze beneath bushy eyebrows’ on a vast hoarding on the facade on a railway station (p. 98) and an enormous sterile apple orchard, ‘an example of a Potemkin village, Soviet style’ (p. 139).
Brief Loves That Live Forever is a wonderful novel studded with beautifully haunting images, many of which are almost certainly set to drift through my mind in the days to come. Stu, in his review, likened the experience of reading this book to looking through a collection of old sepia-tinged photographs and how these can evoke memories of the past…and that’s very much how it feels for me, too. While each episode could work as a short story in its own right, they build and come together to form a more powerful, more resonant whole. And at the end of the book we come full circle and return to our narrator’s memories of Dmitri Ress, where we learn a little more about his past, causing us to reflect on our impressions of events and themes introduced in the first chapter.
There’s a melancholy, almost meditative quality to Makine’s writing, and in this respect I think it shares something with Javier Marías’s The Infatuations (also longlisted for the IFFP). Such elegant writing, too; everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Makine’s prose through to Geoffrey Strachan’s sensitive translation from the French. (Siberian-born Makine now lives in France and writes in French.)
Brief Loves That Live Forever is one of my favourite books longlisted for this year’s IFFP. I’m delighted to see it on our shadow group’s shortlist, if not the official one.
Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this book: Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Stu’s blog (17th March 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.
Brief Loves That Live Forever is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: personal copy.