Monday, 6 February 2012

Andrei Makine - The Crime of Olga Arbyelina

Andrei Makine  - The Crime of Olga Arbyelina
The summer of '47. In the sleepy town of Villiers-la-Forêt, roughly an hour from Paris, the peaceful radiance of the day is interrupted by the discovery that, along a nearby riverbank, the body of a man has washed up, a gaping wound in his skull. Beside him rests a beautiful, nearly bare-breasted woman, her dress soaked and in tatters. An accident or foul play? A crime of passion? Soon there are almost as many speculations and theories as there are townspeople. The woman, it turns out, is a Russian princess, Olga Arbyelina, a refugee from the Bolshevik revolution who in the 1930s had settled in town along with many of her compatriots. Rumor was that Olga's husband, a dashing prince given to gambling and revels, had deserted her some years after the couple's arrival in France, leaving her alone to care for their young son. About the victim, also a Russian refugee, little is known: many years Olga's elder, he was a taciturn, rather coarse, slightly ridiculous man name Sergei Golets, thought dismissively to be a former horse butcher. What on earth could have brought these two unlikely souls together? Moving back to early in the century, the author meticulously recreates Olga's past-her enchanted childhood; her pampered youth and fevered, transitory embrace of the revolution; her arduous flight toward freedom; her encounter with the dashing White Army officer who saved her life; her marriage and arrival in France; the birth of her adored son. Olga also faced a special problem: her son was afflicted with hemophilia (from which the townspeople who knew concluded that she must be related to the czar). Medicines and medical care were of little help. Yet if love could prevail, she would make him survive. . . . Love has its limits, its limitations and boundaries. But in a woman of great passion, what do such limits mean when you know that each day may be the last for your son?

Andrei Makine resembles his heroine in that he is a kind of runaway; born in 1958, he fled the Soviet Union for France. There he wrote about his homeland in his adopted tongue. The well-received novels Once Upon the River Love and Dreams of My Russian Summers first appeared in French and have since been translated widely. Perhaps it is all these layers of language and memory that make his prose so thick and difficult; clearly there is a great clumsiness in this particular translation, which is rife with sentences like "She was breathing jerkily," and "A thought struck her with the painfulness and beauty of its truth." Ultimately, such writing sabotages The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, fogging up the book's exotic landscape. Translations can work two ways: they can transport you into a world of strange new music, or they can feel like schoolwork. This book is definitely the latter: you know it's supposed to be a learning experience, but the difficult, self-serious prose makes you want to resist, stare at the clock, play hooky. Review from Amazon

Born in the Soviet Union in 1957, Makine grew up in Penza, an isolated town about 200 miles from Moscow. Acquiring familiarity with France and its language from his French-born grandmother, he wrote poems in both French and his native Russian as a boy.

In 1987, he was granted political asylum and moved to France, determined to make a living as a writer-in French. However, Makine had to present his first manuscripts as translations from the Russian to overcome publishers' skepticism that a newly arrived exile could write so fluently in a second language. After disappointing reactions to his first two novels, it took eight months to find a publisher for his third, Le testament français. Finally published in 1995 in France, the novel became the first in history to win both of France's most prestigious book awards, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. Published in the United States in 1997 as Dreams of My Russian Summers, the novel garnered enthusiastic book reviews and a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Once Upon the River Love, which was originally published a year before Dreams of My Russian Summers, has met with similar acclaim, including as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 1998. Makine's latest novel, The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, will be published in the fall of 1999

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