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From Russia with Love

By Margaret Black

The Woman Who Waited

By Andrei Makine, translated by Geoffrey Strachan

Arcade Publishing, 182 pages. $24

It’s certainly easy to suspect that Andrei Makine is simply channeling the great 19th-century writer Ivan Turgenev. In his most recent novella, The Woman Who Waited, Makine delineates a time (the 1970s) and a place (a nearly abandoned village in northern Russia near the White Sea) with the cool-eyed but lyric precision that Turgenev exhibits in his Sportsman’s Sketches. Even more to the point, however, is Makine’s quietly resonate romanticism; a pure, clean tone that sounds throughout this story of a jaded young man from Leningrad who, despite his corrosive cynicism, falls in love with an unusual woman old enough to be his mother.

The narrator comes to Mirnoe, a tiny collection of mostly deserted huts, ostensibly to collect certain folktales and ceremonies before they disappear entirely. In actuality he’s fleeing yet another failed affair and a pathetic existence as part of a small coterie of dissident writers. Secretly he’s hoping to find material for a political satire on village life. As the narrator is thudding over the deeply rutted mud track to Mirnoe, Otar, driver of the battered truck, tells the narrator about Vera, a woman living in Mirnoe. She’s remained faithful to her fiancé since the age of 16, when she said goodbye to him as he left (in 1945) to fight with the Russian army. He’s long since been presumed dead, but still she waits for him. Although Otar has an utterly swinish attitude toward women—the last woman he loved landed him in the gulag for a decade—he has a kind of stunned admiration of Vera.

The narrator, convinced of his own penetrating insight, instantly constructs a complete character study of Vera before he has even laid eyes on her. Then, for the remainder of Makine’s tale, the narrator finds himself forced, over and over again, to revise his assessment. In fact, of course, he is actually re-imagining Vera, who she is and why she is living the way she does. But doing this is complicated for him by the fact that while he eventually knows that he wants to sleep with Vera, he does not recognize that he has fallen in love with her, because to do so would undermine his own carefully crafted personality. Moreover, he hasn’t simply fallen in love with whomever he thinks Vera is, but also with the sheer beauty of the place where she lives—so unlike anything in the grungy environs of Leningrad—and with her utterly matter-of-fact care of the elderly widows left stranded in the village to die by the receding tide of Soviet interest.

What makes Makine’s storytelling strategy work particularly well is that while the reader is never so callow or self-important as the narrator (of course not!), we begin by having even less romanticism than the narrator does. What a waste of a life, we think along with the narrator, especially when we discover just where Vera has been and what she could have done. It is a tribute to the author’s skill that, by the story’s end, while we (and the narrator) still do not “understand” who Vera is or what she thinks, we believe absolutely that her chosen life is worthwhile and that it is made possible by the faith she is keeping. Moreover, we cannot help but feel that the decency she projects is completely consonant with and emerges from her intimate engagement with her extraordinary physical surroundings.

And what a job the author does with those surroundings. An alder tree stands on the shore near where Vera keeps a boat she uses to row across a lake to an ancient church. The tree has kept “its immense helmet of bronze foliage intact” late into the fall. Finally, one day, the narrator and Vera find the tree completely stripped, “and then, as we walked down to the shore, saw, reproduced in the copper-colored glory of the leaves on the water, the inlaid pattern that had tumbled out of the sky. The dark, smooth water, this red-and-gold incrustation. An even broader mosaic, one slowly spreading beneath the breeze, becoming an up turned canopy, ready to cover the whole lake.”

If much of this short book is introspective and lyrical, awash in sentence fragments, the author has other modes as well, including humor. Otar’s rants must have been tremendously cathartic to compose, and Makine has a great fun early in the story satirizing a drunken poetry reading at the Wigwam, one of Leningrad’s secret dissent groups, where the celebrated guest is an American journalist (later found to have fallen asleep during the declamation of an anti-Soviet poem called “Planét—Nyét”). Silly as the people are, however, Makine in a phrase turns their fates somber, even tragic. Later, when he’s in the boonies, the narrator becomes the prize guest at an equally drunken meeting of a little provincial dissident group.

After several long novels, including his extraordinary first one, Dreams of My Russian Summers, Makine seems to have settled into the shorter form of novella, with excellent results, as is apparent in Requiem for a Lost Empire, Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer, and The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme. Like them, The Woman Who Waited is an intense distillation of time, place and feeling.

 


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