Once Upon the River Love Review

Once Upon the River Love
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Once Upon the River Love ReviewRussian-born novelist Andrei Makine's romantic and Proustian autobiographical first novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers, was quite appropriately written in French because its subject was largely the centuries-old love affair that Russians have had with French culture in all its forms. Set mostly in a grim, Stalinist Siberia, it charted a boy's intoxication with his grandmother's lustrous memories of turn-of-the-century Paris. That inheritance of lost treasures eventually caused him deep conflict, but Makine resolved it by becoming a writer.
And what a writer, even in translation. His prose in that book was a lavish, slow torrent, lush and haunting. Not surprisingly, Makine is the first novelist to have received France's prestigious Prix Medicis and Prix Goncourt for the same book.
His new novel, set in the 1960s, is equally as focused on dreams of glamor and glory contrasting with a dismal Siberian reality as crushingly onerous as the Soviet system that has planted prison camps there. And once again, it's aspects of French culture that come to symbolize everything fresh, exciting, and free that is missing in the narrator's life.
Reading this novel you enter a fascinating and quite alien world of snow, silence and history-as-nightmare, where blizzards cover towns with a weight that equals the burden of collectivization and the calamities of Russia's decades of devastation through Revolution, civil war, and war. In this setting, the brutal regularity of the winters is as heedlessly cruel as the inane Communist Party slogans and official optimism that ceaselessly forecast a glorious future proving the truth of Marxism- Leninism. But what about the barren here-and-now?
The handsome narrator Dimitri (nicknamed Don Juan) and his two eenaged friends struggle with all the familiar burdens of adolescence. Not surprisingly, Dimitri's first sexual encounter, with a prostitute whose life also affects his two friends, doesn't reveal the glories of love, but grotesque chagrin l'amour instead. It's Makine's rich prose that makes something original out of all the cliched inchoate longings for life, experience, certainty and identity. His prose--and the bitter, empty life in Dimitri's eastern Siberian town where people feel "condemned to this natural beauty, and to the suffering that it conceals."
Into that void shines an unexpected beam of light far grander than the Trans-Siberian Railway and its mysterious, magnetic passengers glimpsed through windows. Quixotically, the local cinema starts showing an adventure film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and everyone for miles around starts lining up to see this movie not once, but dozens of times. In its chic, humor, and self-reflectiveness, the film offers unimaginable gifts to its Siberian audience. They see the unknown West there: excitement, sensuality, freedom, adventure, wit and sparkling fun. Belmondo's gorgeous smile on the movie poser undercuts years of fear and oppression under the Soviet system. And each of the trio of boys ironically finds deep lessons in the frivolous movie, identifying with different aspects of Belmondo's character: Lover, Warrior, and Poet.
Though the book is touchingly beautiful, it doesn't have quite the weight of Dreams of My Russian Summers, perhaps because there's no central figure who commands as much fascination as the grandmother there. You wonder if this book might not have made a better novella with some of the lushness trimmed away. At times the book's intoxication with language (which is its major strength), can even feel a bit exasperating. As H.G. Wells described Henry James's later style, you feel you're watching an elephant trying to pick up a pea.
But that's only an occasional problem. Most of the time you're happily, dreamily swept away, which is poetically appropriate. For the name of the Siberian river near Dimitri's town is Amur, also a Russian name for Cupid. And in French, the River Amur is spelled "Amour," which of course means love.Once Upon the River Love Overview

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