Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer is a novel that bridges the political and the personal, culture and memory; it offers, in the words of Rilke, "the bridge barely curved that connects the terrible with the tender." The narrator Alyosha, hearing news of his boyhood friend Arkady, begins a sudden journey into the past, giving us glimpses of Soviet-era Russia during World War II and the Cold War. Andreï Makine composes this world in less than 150 pages; his economy is a powerful device in the evocation of memory. Paying homage to Proust, Makine uses sound, smell, and taste to trigger the memories of his characters: he shows us the power of returning to a once familiar place or receiving an unexpected phone call. Makine reminds us that our days are crowded with such encounters and that any moment of recollection fills the mind's eye with a picture or series of pictures. Such images embody a broad range of associated experience-a story (if there is one), mood, and emotions. The imagery that Makine puts on the page, unearthed from his childhood and voiced through Alyosha, works in this concentrated way.
The piling up of these images makes for a richly associative narrative, one that gives the reader the feeling of an experience-its essential truth-while the core of the experience often remains ineffable. Arkady's father, Yasha, is "a living corpse" who stayed alive in Poland beneath "a mountain of frozen bodies" (p. 6). Lifted from the pile when the concentration camp was liberated, but leaving his living face behind, Yasha gives the best part of his remaining body, his legs, to Alyosha's disabled father, Pyotr. Together the two men, both horribly diminished by war, make one body, a whole person, so that "[f]rom a distance you would have said it was a single man moving . . . with nimble steps. . . ." (p. 7). These images aspire to the intensity and richness of poetry.
Makine is often compared to Pasternak, and in the coming of age of Alyosha and Arkady is a common theme: the clash of ideology and the individual. Why are individual rights abrogated for the good of the community? Why must the individual sacrifice mind and body for the collective? These questions haunt Alyosha even as he remembers the security and beauty of the courtyard, the triangle within three red-brick structures that formed his childhood universe. In the courtyard Alyosha sees something of the Marxist ideal-communal living based on empathy and compassion. But this world, he slowly learns, is strangely at odds with his training as a Young Pioneer. The aftermath of war, the core of Alyosha's formative experience, plagues the minds and bodies of the men of the courtyard like an incurable disease. Arkady's father, Yasha, insulated from the cold by "the deaths of others" (p. 84), will not speak of his own suffering or life in the camps. This pain erupts in the next generation when the boys, uncovering an unknown Nazi graveyard, ravage and curse the remains of dead soldiers in an "orgy of destruction" (p. 66). It is the ghostly quiet of Yasha's voice that makes them stop. But the dark irony of Alyosha's father is the most poignant rendering of war's endless assault on the body: Pyotr, having lost his legs under fire from his own forces, finds success as a cobbler, spending the balance of his life seated at a workbench repairing shoes for those who can still walk.
Just as insidious as the aftermath of war is the indoctrination of the Young Pioneers. The boys march incessantly in extravagant shows of nationalistic pride with their eyes set always on the "radiant horizon," a kind of utopia made possible by fighting for and defending the "workers' cause"-not the tired old workers in the courtyard, but "a kind of superior tribe, untouched by the imperfections of communal life" (p. 14). In singling out the young for service and dressing them in smart uniforms, the authorities separate Alyosha and Arkady from the courtyard, the very community that in some ideal form they are sworn to defend. But in their experience of the "new pioneers' camp," as they witness a hypocritical authority exploiting the body of a comrade, they begin to understand, now in sexual and psychological terms, the parasitic effect of a totalitarian government on the body of its citizenry. For Alyosha, the pride of being a Young Pioneer-of wearing the uniform, once a kind of shield against the humiliations of communal living-turns into a bitter recognition of useless suffering, of hope destroyed in pursuit of a "beautiful dream" they "swallowed with trusting naïveté" (p. 96).
Must any political ideology, even one initially based on restructuring privilege and redistributing wealth, advance by the destruction of the individual? This is the question raised by the penultimate episode of the novel. It is Arkady's mother who tells Alyosha the taboo story, the dark memory that she would not reveal to her own son because as a child "he was too sensitive. The smallest things upset him" (p. 110). But Alyosha must listen as Faya tells him of the death of her grandmother and how, quite by accident, Svetlana, a prostitute living in the same building, takes the young Faya into her apartment, hoping to protect the little girl from the Nazi siege and the ravages of winter. Often paid with food for her services, Svetlana draws sustenance from the men who visit, and they, in turn, take what they need from her body. When she grows ill and can no longer offer her body in exchange for a meal, she resorts to desperate measures. What Faya discovers about Svetlana's search for food is unexpected and horrific, demonstrating in this case that survival depends on the destruction of another.
While there may be a moral imperative in believing that the needs of a collective outweigh the needs of a few or one, the harsh reality that Makine shows is that individuals will be violated or destroyed to support the collective. Do dictators use the human body as an expendable resource? How do we live with memories, with past experiences, that threaten to undermine any belief in human decency? These are just some of the disturbing questions that Makine forces us to consider.
Andreï Makine was born in Siberia in 1958 and grew up in Novgorod. He received his doctorate from Moscow University and has since worked as an editor for Litterature moderne a l'étranger, a French magazine of foreign literature, and as a professor of literature at the Novgorod Institute.
Makine was granted asylum by the French government while studying in Paris in 1987. He wrote his first works of fiction in French, only to experience several rejections from Parisian publishing houses. Because of the popularity of Russian fiction in Paris, when Makine resubmitted his novel Dreams of My Russian Summers as "translated from the Russian, " it was accepted for publication readily.
In 1995, Makine won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, two of the most prestigious French awards in literature, for Dreams of My Russian Summers, which was also a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of Requiem for a Lost Empire, Once Upon the River Love, and The Crime of Olga Arbyrlina. In reviews and essays about his work, critics have placed Makine's name alongside those of Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, and Boris Pasternak.