Dreams of My Russian Summers, the first novel from Russian migr Makine to be translated into English from his adopted French, astonished readers on both sides of the Atlantic by applying the methods of Proust to exotic contemporary material: the love of French language and culture that a young Russian inherits, with terrible family secrets, from his grandmother. Published in France one year before Dreams, this sensuous, sentimental novel reveals more of the strengths and limitations of Makine's ardent traditionalism. The tale's central event is the arrival of a series of Jean-Paul Belmondo comedies at the local cinema in a small town in Siberia. The movies herald the end of the Soviet era for three local boys by giving them a taste of the West--for tough, valiant ""Samurai,"" the heroic gesture as an end in itself; for crippled Utkin, the writer's life as an escape from banality and sexual rejection; for Mitya, the beautiful narrator (nicknamed ""Don Juan""), endless erotic adventures. The movie viewings coincide with Alyosha's first, doomed affair with a local prostitute and the initiation of the three youths into French literature (at the hands of Samurai's aristocratic aunt), but the films haunt them even after they grow up to leave the Soviet Union. Richly allegorical, Once Upon the River Love (the title is a pun on the Russian and French names of the Siberian river Amur) is self-consciously retrograde as literature, happy to borrow its concerns and techniques from old French masters. Beneath the artistic conservatism that Makine shares with his great contemporaries Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky lies that nostalgia for a dream-West that illuminates his deliberately mythologized Siberian landscape, where blizzards regularly snow in villages up to the chimneys and every step East or West takes one toward Asia or Europe: his Swann's and Guermantes' Ways. Makine has given American readers another unforgettable novel, which wears its exoticism on its sleeve, commands respect and defies imitation. (Aug.) FYI: Makine was the first writer to win France's highest two literary honors, the Prix Medicis and Prix Goncourt, for the same novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers.
Reviewed on: 08/03/1998 Release date: 08/01/1998 Genre: Fiction
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