The importance of music in healing the soul: “A Life’s Music” by Andreï Makine4 min read
Andreï Makine’s seventh publication A Life’s Music — originally written in French — continues his previous themes of exploring the Soviet condition. It is a study in the economy of language, while still retaining all the hallmarks of Makine’s distinctive style.
Andreï Makine was born in the Soviet Union to two philologists, inculcating a love of foreign languages from an early age, assisted by his French grandmother. In adulthood, he taught French at the Novgorod Pedagogical Institute. In 1987, he went to France as part of a teacher’s exchange program and decided to request political asylum. He would spend the next decade scrounging around Paris for a living while attempting to get his writing published, and would only return to Russia once, in 2001, while accompanying French President Jacques Chirac. Makine’s writing is deeply rooted in his personal family history and experiences living in the Soviet Union, a theme that is evident in this novella.
The story begins at an isolated train station in Siberia, where the unnamed narrator has been marooned due to a train delay. As the narrator looks for a place to wait out his stay, he examines the Soviet masses around him, taking much inspiration from and directly referencing Alexander Zinoviev’s genus of “Homo Sovieticus.” The only thing to break his pejorative musings is the sound of a piano being played, the classical music breaking the monotony of the scene. It is upon seeking the pianist in question that the narrator meets Alexeï Berg, the main protagonist of the novella. When both end up in the same train compartment on the long journey to Moscow, Berg takes over as narrator, recounting his childhood experiences in the 1930s up to shortly after the end of WWII.
Through Berg, Makine explores what it meant to be a Soviet citizen of German heritage during the war. Much of the Soviet Union’s dark history is referenced, from the political repressions and deportations of the 1930s to the devastation of Ukraine as one of the principal battlegrounds on the Eastern Front. From enjoying his youth as part of the artistic intelligentsia in Moscow and preparing for his debut as a concert pianist, Berg finds himself fleeing to Ukraine as his parents are arrested and presumably sent to the Gulag. Berg eventually takes over the identity of a deceased Russian soldier in order to hide his heritage and escape his family’s circumstances. Makine explores the desperation that leads to such action, as Berg reflects on the lesson learned that “in war truth and falsehood, magnanimity and callousness, intelligence and naivety could not be so clearly told apart as in the life before.”
As Berg fully embraces life in the army, he becomes an automaton, losing much of his sense of humanity. At the war’s conclusion, he is taken in by a prominent general, working as his chauffeur. The general’s daughter Stella takes an interest in Berg, and, unaware of his true past as a pianist, attempts to teach him easy tunes to perform. As the novella comes to a climax, Berg’s false identity is revealed and Stella announces her engagement, asking Berg to play the tunes she taught him as entertainment during her engagement party. Berg does as requested, performing robotically, until his musical soul reawakens, transforming his trauma: “The night through which he was advancing expressed this pain, this fear, and the irremediable shattering of the past, but this had all become music and now only existed through its beauty.”
Characteristic of Makine’s work, A Life’s Music is full of beautiful language, deftly translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan. Even in the brevity of it all — the novella consists of 106 pages — Makine and Strachan manage to create a melodious piece of work, full of powerful imagery. The novella’s conciseness, however, is also its biggest weakness.
Following the climax, the novella races to catch up to the present, succinctly recapping Bergman’s ten years spent in a Siberian Gulag, the death of his parents, and Stella’s death in the 1960s. The final pages are rushed, leading to a disappointing finale to what could have been a deep and moving novel if fully fleshed-out.
Overall, the novella has its merits. As a study in succinctness, Makine succeeds, taking a scant 70 pages or so to passionately reveal the inner workings of a man lost to the threads of war and authoritarianism. However, even with Makine’s elegant writing, A Life’s Music cannot help but disappoint, the rushed ending leaving the reader unsatisfied, with a wish for more. Perhaps a dive into Makine’s other, more developed works can ease the transition.
Book details: Makine, Andreï, A Life’s Music, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, 2002, Sceptre Books. Buy it here.