FICTION makes it seem easy to explore another life, as the young film-maker Oleg Erdmann attempts to do in Andrei Makine’s latest and characteristically challenging novel.
Translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan
Maclehose Press €21.10
For Erdman it’s all in the telling, as the other life he is determined to explore in film is that of a real person who, although in many ways her existence is as distorted as a myth, was actual, significant and renowned.
Catherine the Great, in other words, is no easy cadaver to dissect, not least because this empress of Russia wasn’t Russian at all and because her remains have been extensively excavated already.
A further hindrance is that Erdman is working initially in a Russia that seems now to have disappeared with perestroika.
Until Gorbachev, and possibly since, this is a country in which creativity is always politically and socially suspect with pompous committees dispensing or refusing approval of artistic proposals.
Given such an atmosphere, Erdmann’s efforts to explore the inner life of the woman he constantly imagines as ‘the little German princess’ are doomed.
But doom is surprisingly relative, and Makine’s genius is to make this process of hope and despair into something so entertaining as to qualify, almost, as a comedy.
Most of the fun results from Erdmann’s reimagining Catherine’s notorious sexual appetite and the fate of the men with whom she is supposed to have satisfied it.
This is worked out as a potential screenplay, a script which has to be discussed, proposed, submitted and amended until it hardly exists in the original at all.
Meanwhile, the unfortunate writer supports himself and his dream by working in a slaughterhouse and waiting for the cultural wind to change.
As it does, if only for a time. In that time however, Erdmann comes to re-evaluate his own ideas about love as well as his theories about Catherine, the little princess who leaves one snow-bound and misty country to find another colder and more restricted one.
He turns to thinking of who she was rather than what she did, how she felt about her arranged and utterly hopeless marriage, why so many of her apparently liberal impulses (she founded the Smolney Institute to promote the higher education of women of the Russian elite) were transformed by smothering or downright tyrannical legislation.
Did she collude in the death of her husband which allowed her to succeed him as monarch?
Above all, where in the real, physical woman was hidden the person whose life became a legend.
A Woman Loved is a quest, and for two people: with Catherine, his search for the scandalous empress results in the discovery of those who might be lost to history now but once were her solace, her guides, her enemies and her accomplices. Emerging from this mist of time and rumour also comes Erdmann.
Born in Siberia, Makine sought asylum in France and has lived there ever since, and Erdmann in turn has a complicated ancestry.
Haunted by the way in which the past affects the present, by the phantoms of his German parentage, the resonance of childhood, war and the deaths of innocents, the writing carries a weight of internal awareness.
This is one of Makine’s great strengths, and the development of the novel is a response to events in Russia itself and to its cinematic biography.
Balancing this weight is Makine’s other wonderful gift: that light touch showing a landscape of the heart as well as of the countryside, a landscape drifting in its own weather, its loveliness seen in a glance in prose which surprises by its swift and poignant imagery, its beauty evoking beauty.
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