Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dreams of my Russian Summers - Andrei Makine

"it was not just a radio station that was disappearing but our era itself. All that we had said, written, thought, fought against, defended, all that we had loved, detested, feared - all those things belonged to that era."

Images from your visits to your grand parents and their stories remain with you forever. Some of them will remain as clear as viewing a movie, however insignificant it is. Andrei Makine, one of my relatively late discovery takes us through another fantastic journey of reminiscence of his childhood. This book, received tremendous acclaim and was a huge success, winning two prestigious awards in French upon its publication.
The narrator, recounts his summer holidays, in the house of his grand mother, in the distant town of Sarenza, in the vast Siberian steppe, along with his sister. His grand mother, Charlotte, a French descendant, lived through the eventful history of Russia, takes the children through her stories and the French classics. Supported with the 'old paper cuts' and greying photos from her ' Siberian suitcase', the young boy and his sister pester her to narrate the stories over and over again.

Charlotte is born in 1903 and have witnessed two great wars, the revolution, the rise and fall of Stalin. She was trapped in Russia, during one of her visit to their earlier residence in Siberia and was living in Russia ever since physically, managing to retain her french-ness. We get the story of her life as a young nurse post the revolution, and her marriage to a soldier ( who according to the authorities was killed in the war -twice the letter reached her announcing his death - only to return after the war. The day she was assaulted and raped by a group of turban heads in the deserts, the way she and the kids escaped the frontiers while the Germans advanced, and their miraculous escape, her job as a nurse during the WW2 tending the physically and mentally battered soldiers coming in large numbers by bogies. The images of St.Petersburg where the 'samovars', survived soldiers post the war who have lost their limbs, now begging in the streets... continue to fill in the minds of growing up young kids..

The book is of contrasts, French and Russian ( the boy starts identifying himself as Russian as he grows, against the dreamland France), Old and the new Russia ( his exile to Paris, naturally and his effort to reconcile with his past ), the young and old , the monstrous city and the vast silent steppes.

Images of Tsar and the queen on the Paris Streets, the death of French President in the arms of his mistress, Marcel Proust and other literary figures , the chief if secret police Beria, a serial rapist.. there are many images that remain in the mind of the boy and the reader. For him, escaping the rigid apartment complexes of the Russian life to the 'mysterious french experience' , to the stories of his family on either side of parents, those tales of survival ( against wars, against revolution and new regime, the unbearable Siberian winter, the famine) and hope and some sort of rebellion and reconciliation.

As I have seen in his other books, the imagery, the lyrical language, the eye catching descriptions of ever lasting memories are in abundance. The writing vivid without being flamboyant. This is not a typical coming of age story. The initial awe for every thing French to the later solid thought of Russian-ness and the much later realisation of what the elders have gone through , gives us a growing up of a matured , intelligent man.

Another fantastic book, an autobiographical coming of age tale of a young boy, living in revere of those great summers spent in the company of his grand mother and those memorable stories.

Dreams of My Russian Summers ( 1995)

Andrei Makine ( translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan )

Arcade Publishing

242 Pages

Other reviews : January Magazine, Wiki

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