Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Woman Who Waited

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

I'm a little late coming to the The Slaves of Golconda's discussion of Andrei Makine's The Woman Who Waited. I'm not entirely sure I can add anything new to the posts already found on the group blog, but I'll go ahead and add my thoughts anyway. I might give away a few spoilers, so if you plan on reading this novel, please beware.

The Woman Who Waited almost seems to be less about Vera, the woman who indeed has been waiting, than about the unnamed narrator who looks back on his experiences as a young man when he encountered this lovely woman. The narrator tells us his story from the space of many years later and at least as much distance, since he was able to flee to the West from Russia. As a young man of 26, however, he left Leningrad to travel north in order to record folk music and traditions of smaller villages. He was a young, hip intellectual, and my first impression wasn't particularly positive.

The village of Mirnoe where he takes up residence is populated with elderly women. They are women who lost their husbands and sons in the Second World War, and all that is left for them now is to wait for death. Amongst these women he encounters a much younger, and beautiful woman who is also waiting. When Vera was 16 in 1945 her lover went off to war never to return. She vowed to wait for him, and wait she did--30 years later she is still waiting. What initially irritated me about the narrator were his many assumptions about Vera. I don't know how much of any author's writing is autobiographical, but I had this feeling all through the book that in some way the narrator mirrored in some small way Makine's own life experiences. The narrator would write his ideas about Vera down in a notebook. He had seen her quite literally in all her nakedness, but we come to know later that he may have seen her body, but he didn't see inside her soul. As the story unfolded we see just how few of his assumptions about Vera were true. As a matter of fact, the more he learns about her, the more three dimensional she becomes.

It seems the greatest wish the narrator has is to quite literally possess Vera. She is this lovely woman, made to love and be loved, yet here she is with these old women, in her cavalry greatcoat, closed off to the world. The narrator begins his story:

"She is a woman so intensely destined for happiness (if only purely physical happiness, mere bodily well-being), and yet she has chosen, almost casually, it seems, solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to

Always be careful of what you wish for. When Vera finally accedes to his desires, a series of events causes the narrator to fear that he's now going to be strapped with her. The first flush of conquest fades quickly as he realizes the repercussions of his actions and all he can think of is leaving. His return to Leningrad, which he had put off for so long, is now foremost in his mind. In the end it is Vera herself who sees him off, and to his surprise she is not the clinging, weeping woman he expected her to be, but "...she is utterly brimming with a fresh, vibrant youthfulness that is in the process of being born...".

Makine's prose is gorgeous. This is just the sort of book, slender though it may be, that I feel like the first read is for content solely. I can give you a description of what occurred in the novel (and sorry, as that actually feels patchy at best), but I feel like I need to read it again to unravel all its secrets and truly enjoy the imagery, and this novel is chock full of beautiful imagery. Makine was born in the Soviet Union, but he defected to France in 1987. He writes in French. I'll be digging out his previous novels from my bookshelves, which have sat unread for far too long. Many thanks to Litlove for selecting this book!


Litlove said...

'He may have seen her body but he didn't see inside her soul' - what a fabulous line, Danielle! I loved what you have to say about this book, and I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. It was the Slaves who picked it really - I'm glad they did, too.

Dorothy W. said...

I agree that the most interesting thing about the book is the narrator's attempts to make sense of Vera -- I'm uncertain what I think of the narrator; perhaps I'll raise the question over at Metaxu Cafe.

stefanie said...

I was frustrated by the narrator's repeated and rather inept attempts at figuring Vera out too. Not once did he just come out and ask her about herself, he always assumed.

SFP said...

It's interesting that he was there basically in the guise of a journalist, but he couldn't bring himself to ask questions. He was already a nascent novelist, trying to create a character out of his observations and imagination, not the actual facts.

danielle said...

Litlove--Thanks for suggesting this one. I had actually checked it out of the library ages ago and it went back unread--I'm happy to have read it finally!
Dorothy--I had some issues with the narrator as well, but then I suppose in a way it had to be the way it did or it would have been boring. He certainly got in under my skin!
Stefanie--I suppose at that age he just thought he was sophisticated and already knew the answers--why ask when he could read her character so well. In a way he didn't seem to want to know the truth--certainly at the end he was regretting his actions.
Susan--I guess it is one thing to be a writer and observe someone with the intention of writing about them, and another thing entirely when you cross the line and invade someone else's life like he did.