Brief Loves That Live Forever

brief loves that live forever

Andrei Makine, a Russian émigré who famously had to pretend his first novel had been translated into French from the Russian in order for it to be published, has been producing beautifully crafted novel after novel at the rate of almost one a year since. Now, after a slightly longer gap that has seen him change publisher (from Sceptre to MacLehose) but not translator (Geoffrey Strachan), comes his twelfth: Brief Loves That Live Forever. Makine emphasises the brevity of the loves by creating the novel from a series of stand-alone stories tracing the loves of its narrator, and also the history of the Soviet Union from Brezhnev to the fall of the Berlin Wall (but with references further back to the Civil War and Lenin).

Makine’s central thesis is that love provides a counter to politics. As he explained in a recent interview:

“Love is a state of mind. As for my characters I wouldn’t say that they use it as an escape but rather as a way to go beyond the material issues and the political influences. Love shows up as a shock, it’s an intimate truth, so in a way we could define it as anti-ideological.”

This is immediately evident from the second chapter (which is chronologically the first as the novel is bookended by the story of an acquaintance of the narrator). In it the narrator becomes trapped within the dismantled scaffolding of the giant stands that are used for the Soviet parades. His revelation is encouraged by this glimpse of (literally) behind the scenes of Soviet power and the feeling of being unable to escape the system (which, as an orphan, he is very much part of) but it comes with the sight of a beautiful young woman:

“I sensed that the truth was to be found neither among them nor in the opposing camp, with the dissidents…The humble beauty of the woman’s face with the lowered eyelids showed up those platforms and their occupants and the pretentiousness of men prophesying in History’s name as ridiculous.”

Makine is adept at using small moments to give us insight into the soviet regime. A class trip to meet a woman who knew Lenin ends with the narrator falling for her granddaughter who later reveals to him why her grandmother is reluctant to talk about her past:

“A town was resisting the authority of the Soviets. Lenin said he should kill 100 – 1,000 people as an example. The number was indicated just like that, with a dash….Alexandra was furious – a pencil stroke wiping out hundreds of living beings.”

We also learn of a vast orchard – “a triumph of collectivist agriculture” – where no bees can reach the centre and so the trees bear no fruit: a wonderful metaphor for the Soviet state.

Yet the narrator does not reject Communism and embrace the new Russia:

“So tomorrow communism’s rotten shanty will be raised to the ground. That’s clear. But what, in fact, do you and your friends propose to replace it? What kind of society? What way of life?”

The loves of the novel are as brief as the title suggests – Makine is not interested in long term relationships. The emphasis is on how we are affected by these sudden deep emotional attachments. Even the story revealed in the first and final chapters of “a friend of a friend of a friend”, Dmitri Ress, whose love does last forever, is not the story of a relationship, but similarly of how love, even from fleeting contact, can influence your life. While ultimately there’s something a little sexist in all of this, that doesn’t prevent it being true to experience. If you’ve not read Makine before, this is the perfect place to start; I forecast a delving into his back catalogue will follow

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