“So I saw things differently; was it an advantage? Or a handicap, a blemish?… I understood that this second view of things would have to be hidden for it could only provoke mockery from others.”- Andrei Makïne, Dreams of my Russian Summers
One of my interests in recent years has been in reading books about, and talking to people with cross-cultural upbringings, and it amazes me how much is similar between people who were, like me, brought up in this way. It’s even more interesting to encounter a person like this in a literary setting because I think there’s so much more we can get down on paper about our lives and inner struggles with identity than we can say in a conversation.
Makine introduces us to a French-Russian boy in this great coming of age story in which the young boy, our narrator, tries to come to grips with his cultural identity through stories, papers, and historical artifacts found in his grandmother’s trunk, his observations and experiences. He finds himself shifting identities constantly. Is he French? Is he Russian? Is he both? How much of each is he? Before I’d even properly read the synopsis, I sensed a Proustian quality in Makine’s words. Not surprisingly, Proust was mentioned more than a few times in this book. His French Proust-like grandmother is central to the confusion the boy feels about his identity; she represents a romantic, democratic France, which is in stark contrast to a colder, harsher Russia devoid of beautiful architecture because of the wars and Stalinist regime, a Russia still reeling from the atrocities of war.
Ultimately, for those of us with this sort of upbringing, we are on our own journey to find our way. Speaking to others, I’ve heard of the many ways they’ve reconciled their identity, for example through music, art, writing, and even sports. I related to our protagonists’ journey because of my love of history so I can understand the route the boy chose to learn about himself.
I find it interesting how the narrator not only mythologized France, but also how he finally understood who he was and why he was thus. Makine is a great writer and this is one of my top reads of the year for good reason.
“So that was it, the key to our Atlantis! Language, that mysterious substance, invisible and omnipresent, whose sonorous essence reached into every corner of the universe we were in the process of exploring. This language that shaped men, moulded objects, rippled in verse, bellowed in streets invaded by crowds, caused a young tsarina who had come from the other end of the world to smile…But above all throbbed within us, like a magical graft implanted in our hearts, already bringing forth leaves and flowers, bearing within it the fruit of a whole civilization. Yes, this implant, the French language.”