Once Upon the River Love by Andrei Makine

28 May

Makine’s work here is hypnotic—or, rather, extra hypnotic. In this little book (barely 200 small pages), Makine slowly infuses the allure of the West, its freedom, its lifestyle, its beauty (found even in the design of its automobiles), via a cinematic excursion repeated dozens of times by three close friends in a Siberian small town.

The young men are mesmerized by most everything in the French film, which stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a spy. So much so, that they make the day-long travel (on foot) from their village to the small town, which shows the film in its tiny cinema house, several dozen times during the harsh, Siberian winter, before the film is pulled. Several other sequels starring Belmondo follow in the subsequent years, and the three young men make the long trip dozens of more times.  In the films, Belmondo’s character embodies all of the virtues of the West at that time (early 60s), permeating each of the young men’s psyches, ideas, and lives.

The story follows the men’s destinies from high school in their small village, all the way to New York City in the mid 70s.

I’m not sure too many westerners will understand the almost ethereal ways in which Makine explores themes in this novel; this is not a dig against the potential reader, it’s simply hard to connect with what Makine is outlining here so elegantly and brilliantly if one hasn’t lived in an oppressive regime for a time; particularly in the Soviet Union or its communist satellites.

Simple in plot, but extremely elegant and profound in the delivery of its themes (freedom, beauty, individualism, progressive ideas), this little novel will leave a deep impression long after it’s read. Once again, Makine shows why he is, in my opinion, one of the most profound, most important working authors.


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