The wistful photograph of AndreI Makine on the dust jacket of The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme, the latest of his increasingly enigmatic and haunting novels, was something of a bum steer. So, too, were the various second-hand myths of him leading a hermetic existence, writing in longhand through the night, subsisting on bread and tea. Waiting for him in a Paris cafe, anticipating the timorous entrance of a modern-day Proust, I was unaware that the sleek and energetic gentleman talking on his mobile phone at the next table was my appointed guest. Though many critics have commented on Proustian influences in Makine's writing - its poetic delicacy, intricate beauty, the meticulously detailed images - this man would look out of place weeping and wheezing in a cork-lined room.
Jacques Dorme is the final instalment of a trilogy that began with Le testament francais, the novel that catapulted Makine to success in 1995 after scooping both of France's major literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. Born in Siberia, he defected from the Soviet Union in 1987 and was granted political asylum in France. Early attempts at publication met with little success, even blatant hostility; French publishers were unwilling to credit a foreigner writing so well in their beloved language. In desperation, Makine sent out his work as "translations from the Russian" and the tide began to turn.
He speaks with a direct, effortless eloquence: "Writing in French is like being handed the pen already used by Racine, Corneille, Balzac - but, writing in any language, the ideas you are trying to express are essentially the same. Imagine a tree: the trunk is the absolute truth, what one needs to express. The roots are all the languages, dialects of one universal tongue."
French became a fascination for Makine in early childhood: "a tiny hole in the Iron Curtain through which to peer at other worlds". He absorbed his interest from a grandmother, a Frenchwoman living in Siberia - a figure who was to be hugely inspirational in his life and work. Though she is clearly the model for characters in both Le testament and Jacques Dorme, Makine keenly asserts that his works are not autobiographical but rather "hallucinations of the past, a series of things remembered and things imagined". His stories often concern an individual's painstaking investigation of their memories, characteristically presented with sombre dignity and a touching, affectionate and at times brutal honesty.
Jacques Dorme recounts the journey made by a Russian emigre in France back into the defunct Soviet Union to search for the crash site of a fighter pilot from the Second World War, a pilgrimage that provokes powerful recollections of the narrator's adolescence in a Siberian orphanage. Makine sees the trilogy to which Jacques Dorme belongs as "the centre of the universe of all my books, which orbit it like other planets". The three novels form a response to the Soviet epoch from different perspectives. "The trilogy is about history, memory and eternity. Testament recounts the experience of a child, inside the Union, looking out. The second [Requiem for the East]: that child in adulthood, working as a Soviet agent in Africa, looking back at the Union from the other side. Jacques Dorme: the man some years later, after the demise of the Union, returning to a country which no longer exists."
Although Makine's novels often have momentous
political and social events as backdrops, his focus is unstintingly on the personal. From the outset of Jacques Dorme, we are in extreme close-up - a string of amber beads snaps and clatters to the floor during lovemaking, the sound blending with the rain and the distant rumble of besieged Stalingrad. Much of the book's power lies in the vividness of these snapshots - everyday events in remarkable times, ordinary people in extraordinary places. "After all, it is simple people who create history," he says. "Stalin or Churchill did not win any battles, but the soldiers themselves - Mr Smith, Dupont or Ivanov . . . These men had brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, wives, children, lovers. Our memories can make them immortal."
Makine's images of war, conflict and cruelty do not make for
easy reading. He believes they were inspired by his experiences
as a soldier in Afghanistan, and by pensioners' stories he heard as a child. "They love to talk about their lives, especially with a child who is so open, not judging them." As he says this, the gravitas in his voice disappears, and something troubling burns behind his eyes. Momentarily, he seems altogether elsewhere. This unexpected transformation reminds me of passages in his prose where unsentimental precision suddenly yields to heartfelt tenderness. It is as if an unannounced memory has stolen up on my companion and dragged him back to some painful, parallel world. I suggest it must be tough being a writer, going through the world, eyes wide open to the bombardment of images on every street. He blinks. The memory visibly fades. Sipping his orange presse, firmly back in the present, he smiles and brushes away my concern:
"Oh no.You just learn to be a sniper, picking off what's useful."
The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme is published by Sceptre