There is not much of a plot to this book, character is the thing here. But there has to be some kind of plot for character development and it is this: near the end of World War II, nineteen-year-old Boris Koptek of the small Russian village of Mirnoe is sent off to a war that is winding down. He promises sixteen-year-old Vera that he will marry her when he returns. He doesn't return. He is reported killed in action but Vera does not believe it. She believes that Koptek is still alive and will return for her like he promised. The novel begins thirty years after their parting. Vera is living in Mirnoe, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse several miles away. She has also taken it upon herself to care for the old women of Mirnoe and the surrounding hamlets and villages as they and their way of life die out.
Onto the scene arrives a twenty-six-year-old cynical researcher from Leningrad who has come to record the old stories and rituals before there is no one left to tell them or perform them. But Vera captures his imagination. The novel is told from the point of view of the narrator and as time passes he puts forth various theories as to who Vera is and why she is waiting.
Because Vera does not talk about why she is waiting, everyone is free to make up their own reasons and the reasons they come up with say more about themselves than they do about Vera. The narrator tries to explain Vera by determining that waiting was not her choice, she was simply caught in an era. He blames the villagers. He blames Vera, assumes she is uneducated but eventually finds out that Vera went to university and is all but dissertation on a Ph.D in linguistics. She chose not to finish because life in Leningrad felt artificial in spite of how exciting it all was. This it seems to me is the crux of the situation.
Vera could leave. And Vera did leave for a number of years but chose to return. Her life in Mirnoe is straightforward, simple. Her life is real, without pretensions, no one to impress, she is simply and always herself which gives a depth and meaning to her life that she did not find in Leningrad. Throughout the novel we are able to contrast Vera's life with that of the narrator's. His life in Leningrad is filled with casual and meaningless sex. He attends dissident meetings at the Wigwam where they elevate themselves as intellectuals and write political poetry of questionable merit. When a perceived intellectual from the West visits, they all try to impress him and jockey for recognition.
The narrator's arrival in Mirnoe is, he admits, an escape:
I had come to escape from people who found our times too slow. But what I was really fleeing was myself, since I differed very little from them.As he tries to figure out Vera, he digs through the artificiality of himself to what is real. At one point he even tries to use literature as a means to understand Vera's life,
But this unbelievable wait of thirty years (I was a mere twenty-six myself) struck me as too monstrous, too unarguable, to give rise to any moral debate. And, above all, much too improbable to feature in a book. A period of waiting far too long, too grievously real, for any work of fiction.And eventually the narrator realizes the smug cynicism and irony from which he operates only serves to protect him from the real and cut him off from a life of meaning:
Such had been the sarcastic tone prevalent in our dissident circle. A humor that provided real mental comfort, for it placed us above the fray. Now, observing these two women who had just shed a few tears as they reached their decision, I sensed that our irony was in collision with something that went beyond it. "Rustic sentimentality," would have been our sneering comment at the Wigwam. "Les misérables, Soviet style..." Such mockery would have been wide of the mark, I now knew. What was essential was these women's hands loading the totality of a human being's material existence onto the little cart.But in spite of all the narrator learns, after he ever so briefly becomes real, he shrinks back, afraid. He decides to depart, to leave Vera with whom he has fallen in love to return to his safe and artificial life in Leningrad. Leaving is not as easy as he thought:
One could stop, melt into this time where there are no hours. I look back: a faint hint of smoke hovers above the chimney of the house I have just left. Poignant gratitude, fear of not being able to tear oneself away from this beauty.He is afraid too of seeing Vera, of the scene she might make over his leaving. Of course he runs smack into her and is once again startled by her matter-of-fact and unruffled calm.
It is a sad story but it isn't Vera and her waiting that makes it sad, it is the narrator. We only know slightly more about Vera at the end than we do when we start the book. The narrator makes a journey both physically and emotionally. I found myself wishing he would stay in Mirnoe and when he doesn't, when he decides to give up a life of meaning and depth to return to the protection of irony, I was sad. I hope that he will be a different person because of his experience. The novel is written from an unidentified present about the past and the narrator's present is as ambiguous to the reader as Vera's life was to him in the past. And I am still wondering, did he learn something?
I loved the book. Makine has a gorgeous prose style and the tone is soft and understated. Though it appears I have said a lot about the book, there is much I have left out so in case you haven't read it, nothing is ruined for you. And I would recommend that you read it. I had never heard of Makine before now. This will definitely not be the last of his books I read.
Cross-posted at So Many Books