REVIEW: Novel of an 'Unknown Man' expansive, detailed, emotional
Tourists visiting St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2003 - the year of the city’s tricentennial - would have faced an abundance of beauty: the pastel-colored baroque buildings of Rastrelli, plazas and canals, lovely vistas of the Neva River, palaces and churches and museum, narrow streets once walked by Gogol and Dostoevsky, the Summer Garden where young lovers stroll, and the Bronze Horseman statue of city founder Peter the Great, immortalized in verse by Pushkin.
They could be forgiven for not being able to tell - or never knowing - that only 60 years earlier, the city, then called Leningrad, was besieged by the Nazis during World War II. The residents refused to surrender, and during the 900-day siege more than 600,000 people died, most starving to death as the city’s food stores dwindled and the frigid winter set in.
The contrast between these two cities - geographically the same, but worlds apart - is at the heart of Andrei Makine's lovely, bittersweet novel “The Life of an Unknown Man” (translated by Geoffrey Strachan, Graywolf Press, 194 pages, $15 paper).
The story begins not in Russia but in Paris, where Ivan Shutov, a Russian emigre and literary writer (as is Makine himself), has just been dumped by his girlfriend. Shutov feels sorry for himself for a bit, but - inspired by a Chekhov story - he tracks down a girl in St. Petersburg that he was once close to in three decades before.
As it happens, he and Yana barely have time to talk, and Shutov wanders St. Petersburg alone. It’s not the city he left: there are luxury hotels, Western goods and a culture he can no longer call his own. Earlier Shutov had remarked, “I’m not Russian ... I’m Soviet.” And there is a difference, a difference he feels pointedly.
Back in Yana’s under-construction apartment, which is being created from several smaller apartments (the tenants bought out or forced out), one last tenant awaits the people who are coming to take him away to a rest home. Shutov has been told that Volsky is deaf and mute, but as they sit in front of a TV, the old man begins talking.
Adrift in what was but no longer is his native land, Shutov listens to Volsky’s story of the siege of Leningrad, the war, the aftermath, the gulag, the remainder of a life.
Despite the horrors of the siege -- horrors that are vividly described but not dwelled upon by the author -- there were stories of bravery, determination and humanity. A young singer when the siege starts, Volsky's life, like everyone else’s, is upended. Amid the death, he and his girlfriend Mila join a theater troupe that performs opera by candlelight in a freezing theater. “Applause was no longer heard. Too weak, their hands frozen in mittens, people would bow to thank the actors. This silent gratitude was more touching than any number of ovations.”
Volsky and Mila part when he heads off to combat, but reunite after the war to begin to build a life and family together, taking war orphans into their home. This, too, is upended by the madness of Stalinism, but instead of emerging from the camp ruined and bitter, Volsky rebuilds his life a second time.
Shutov’s own worries seem petty in comparison, and hearing the unknown story of this unknown man - “A heroic life, a life sacrificed” - transforms him.
So much is packed into this short novel, but it feels expansive, never cramped or rushed. In spare prose, Makine uses well-chosen details and searing emotions to create an enveloping story. This unknown man is worth knowing, His life is both heartbreaking and inspiring.