I discovered this novel when it was left in a vacation apartment that I was renting. When I started reading it, I was immediately struck by the similarities with Solzhenitsyn, one of the greatest exponents of quality fiction of the 20th century.
We learn about the experiences of Ivan Demidov’s WWII (his almost miraculous rescue from death on the battlefield provides a surprising openness to the novel) and his post-war life. He is declared “Hero of the Soviet Union” for his bravery, which allows him to have priority and extra rations in insufficient grocery stores. For a time he was celebrated in propaganda television programs and invited to give patriotic speeches in primary schools, but Russia gradually lost interest in its war heroes.
The other main character is Olya, Ivan’s beautiful and intelligent daughter, who studies languages and is employed as an “interpreter” by the KGB. But its real role is to “entertain” and spy on foreign businessmen visiting Moscow. Her life as a glorified prostitute brings sufficient material comfort but little personal contentment.
The tale skillfully blends the present and the past and explores the – mostly difficult and daunting – experiences of different generations of Russians. Andreï Makine applied for and obtained political asylum in France during a teacher exchange program in 1987. In this first published book, he gives a first glimpse of one of his recurring themes: how the Soviet system a prostitute (sometimes literally) is the brightest and the best.
The father and daughter are perhaps less developed characters than they could have been (in particular, more on the relationship between the two would have been welcome). This is a flaw that could be attributed to the fact that this is a first novel, but the wickedness, misery and corruption of a society that has gone astray are made vivid, memorable and moving. . Ivan and Olya desperately yearn to express themselves, verbally, emotionally and in all other ways, but the world they find themselves in inhibits and blocks them.
It is not all gloomy. The abrupt but appropriate end gives hope, albeit limited, for better times.