The Questions Raised in ‘The Life of an Unknown Man’ Linger Long After One has Finished Reading

The Life of an Unknown Man is a profound meditation on the topic of happiness, that maddeningly elusive tonic which, like a glass of water in a dream of the desert, evaporates whenever we reach for it.

This brief and chillingly brilliant novel by Andreï Makine opens most unpromisingly — but for a very good reason we will understand retrospectively, and in a spirit of surpassing gratitude — with the story of a pompous and irritable Russian émigré living (as Makine himself does) in France. The émigré’s family name is Shutov, the derivation of which means “buffoon”. This we learn from Shutov’s nubile and much-younger girlfriend Léa, who has just left him, hurling this epithet in her wake.

Shutov, a semi-successful writer, former Soviet dissident and veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, is beyond bereft. His memories of their happy times “tear at his guts. No, at his eyelids, rather (make a note: the pain rips away your eyelids, making it impossible to banish the vision of the woman who has left you.)” This notwithstanding that the happiness he remembers with Léa was too often diluted because he had “wasted so many days (miraculous days, days made for love) proclaiming the poet’s sacred mission, railing against the intellectual establishment.”

During their relationship, Shutov had treated Léa like an air-headed student, even though her judgment on the likes of Chekhov was, Makine suggests, much more acute than his. Once she begins to exhibit signs that she is prepared to move on, Shutov belatedly idealizes her, moons after her, and flailingly grasps at her until, at the end, he is left with only a bitter admiration of “the dexterity with which Léa had transformed their relationship into a vague camaraderie… an old friend, well disposed, devoid of passion. Asexual.”

It’s at this point that Shutov determines to escape his pathetic situation by returning to Russia, specifically to Saint Petersburg, and ostensibly to visit a long-ago girlfriend named Yana.

These occurrences occupy the first 41 pages (in the Graywolf Press paperback edition of the novel, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan) and there is something so irritatingly trifling, dunderheaded and self-centered about Shutov that it’s a bit of a drag to get that far. Not the least of the frustration the reader is likely to feel is the niggling sense that Makine means to suggest that triviality and self-centeredness is the common condition of our era.

Once at the apartment of Yana, who soon disappears and plays hardly any part in the ensuing story, Shutov meets a very old, bedridden and evidently mute man named Volsky, a temporary boarder in Yana’s communal apartment who is about to be relocated to an old people’s home to live out his last days. Volsky, on a whim, pushes Yana’s gargantuan flat-screen TV into the old man’s bedroom, and together they watch a program about luxury estates being constructed near Saint Petersburg for the fabulously wealthy denizens of the new Russia.

It’s at this point that the novel simultaneously descends and ascends into bestiality and brilliance.

Volsky, it turns out, is mute only in front of Yana, her son, and their friends. For Shutov, however, Volsky opens up. A World War II veteran, a survivor of the siege of Leningrad and of the Gulag, and a recipient of a pension that is “equal to the tip Yana’s friends leave the waiter in a nightclub,” Volsky tells Shutov the story of his war in the only way he can: as a personal history that just he experienced and just he can understand, but that someone else (not the bustling Yana, perhaps, nor the newly wealthy, nor the new class of near-dictators that rule Russia now, but rather Shutov, Makine and the reader) must hear.

His story starts with the merest swallow before the war begins:

“On June 21, 1941, at the Nord Café, which was very popular with the people of Leningrad, Volsky lived through the last hours of his old life, the last day of peace, without knowing it. A moment of bliss, epitomized by the taste of a cup of hot chocolate. A young woman with dark-brown hair had joined this group of friends who, like him, were students at the Conservatory. She was eating a pastry, a trace of cream remained on her lips, a mustache that made everyone laugh… Volsky spoke to her, their conversation became detached from the hubbub in the room.”

Thus begins one of the most moving love stories in our recent literature. Volsky and this young brunette, Mila, both music students, become trapped in Leningrad during the horrific siege, a time when people “lived” on one slice of bread a day and, when even that disappeared, on library paste, on tree bark, and on the flesh of their fellow humans.

Volsky, like Mila, begins “exploring the very last zone that precedes extinction. He had always pictured hunger as a relentless, gut-wrenching torment. And so it was, for as long as one had the strength to feel it. The torment came to an end for want of a victim, the latter having become a shadow for whom a mouthful of water already represented a painful effort of digestion. The cold, too, caused suffering to those who still clung to life but deadened the pain of those who were utterly exhausted and waiting for the end…”

It’s in this condition that Volsky and Mila, along with some other still-living corpses, put on performances of an operetta version of The Three Musketeers for their fellow wraiths, by candlelight, in the sub-zero cold and interrupted by air-raid sirens, bombing raids and the silent dropping to the floor of their fellow actors, who are rapidly replaced.

When, eventually, the Germans are defeated and the siege lifted, more horrors in the person of Stalin await. Volsky and Mila cling together, are separated, Mila is forced to prostitute herself for stale bread and, in a brief interregnum before the Gulag, they discover an old log cabin left undamaged among the ruins, an “izba”, where they live in unutterable happiness.

They informally adopt some of the innumerable war orphans who straggle past their izba, and Makine’s description of the joys these raggedy children, still cold and starving, experience is all the more moving because it isn’t “joyful” merely in contrast to their recent agonies, though of course there is some of that.

Instead, it just is.

Among the orphans is a little boy nicknamed Mandarin, who teaches his fellow orphans to “…eat sunshine. The ravenous children would sit in a row facing the window embellished with hoarfrost, open their mouths and bite into the light illuminating their pale faces, pretending to chew, to swallow.”

Volsky himself stares with adoration at Mila, this woman “who was smiling with half-closed eyes through the slow swirl of the petals (of a wild cherry tree.) A strange being: a woman whom this world had so many times tried to destroy, a body that, only recently, had been worn away by hunger, then a face that could no longer mimic the bone structure of a skull, a woman violated… this astonishing being who goes infinitely beyond what she has lived through, and is living now… Recognize and love this invisible element in a woman at this very moment, beneath the petals’ slow descent, this bruised body whose tenderness is still intact, these eyes whose brightness makes me alive.”

Astonishingly, even after Mila is taken away from him again, Volsky retains this happiness, because he, and she, in whichever labor camp she presumably is being held, are able to simultaneously gaze at the very same sky, the shared vision of which is the one thing that no one can take away from the living.

No one would want to be Volsky or Mila or the millions like them who somehow survived the War under such horrible conditions, and yet most of us, the well-fed and extravagantly entertained among us, want and envy and utterly fail to emulate their happiness. The relativity of it all, and more important, our inability to recognize this relativity, is everything that matters:

“If three tiny fragments of tea leaf chanced to fall into a prisoner’s battered cup, he relished them. In Leningrad during the intermission at the Opera House (he remembered Rigoletto) a woman sipped champagne with the same pleasure. Their sufferings were also comparable. Both the prisoner and the woman had painful shoes. Hers were narrow evening shoes that she took off during the performance. The prisoner suffered from what they wore in the camp, sections of tires into which you thrust your foot wrapped in rags and fastened with string. The woman at the opera knew that somewhere in the world there were millions of beings transformed into gaunt animals, their faces blackened by the polar winds. But this did not keep her from drinking her glass of wine amid the glittering of the great mirrors. The prisoner knew that a warm and brilliant life was lived elsewhere in tranquility but this did not spoil his pleasure as he chewed those fragments of tea leaf…”

By story’s end, the reader recognizes the colossal trick Makine has played on us: to have us feel distaste for Shutov’s self-obsessed trivialities which is for many of us our own disgust at our own insatiable acquisitiveness and concomitant unhappiness, and then to have him, and us, belatedly realize what we, so fortunate in our contingent prosperity and peace, are losing out on.

For the paradox is this: it’s so very easy and glib to superficially proclaim “joy” and “love” – the “same old circus parade”, as Volsky puts it – from the safe precincts of our cities and suburbs even during this relatively painful time of an economic downturn, but so difficult to actually feel these emotions and more difficult still to cup them in our hands and bring them quivering and whole to others; and yet, from the depths of true human misery, where these words are utterly foreign and absurd, happiness is within reach for anyone who is still lucky enough to be breathing and capable of looking up to the sky.

At one point, Volsky thinks, at the moment when Mila emerges from the log cabin to kiss him: “Why couldn’t we be as happy as this before the war? From the moment we first met? When we were young and carefree?”

Many of us implicitly recognize that our quotidian existence is in many respects trivial, and that’s a price we willingly pay for, well, nothing much in return. Thus, the questions raised here ring in the empty room for a long time after this amazing and – can I say it? – life-changing book is finished.

RATING 10 / 10