Retold Stories and the New Sincerity: Andrei Makine’s Novel “The Life of an Unknown Man” Reviewed

The Life of an Unknown Man
by Andreï Makine; translated by Gregory Strachan
Graywolf Press; 192 p.

Andreï Makine, winner of two of France’s most prestigious literary awards, in his newest effort, The Life of an Unknown Man, makes a foray into the world of New Sincerity. Like any school of literature, New Sincerity evades easy categorization, but in the recent literary world, it speaks to writing about genuine struggles with psychological, moral, ideological, and moral issues without cynicism. Moreover, it attempts to ask the question of how we write about genuine sentiment in the wake of the literary truths of Post-Modernism. Many credit David Foster Wallace — if not with creating this category in literature, then in perfecting it in his fiction and expounding upon it in almost all his essays. What separates New Sincerity from the New Realism of someone like Jonathan Franzen is that New Sincerity attempts to arrive at genuineness through the tools and struggles of Post-Modernity. In that sense, Makine’s book signifies a clunky but important philosophical novel for the New Sincerity movement, as the story makes explicit the essential tension of the movement.

Shutov, a forgotten author, struggles with the destructive and skeptical nature of Post-Modernism. Makine not only concretizes the generational tension between genuine emotion and the often more complex, aesthetically dense truths of cynicism, but actively pushes, both explicitly, and through example, for literature that once again braves the dangerous terrain of honest emotions and desires. The story, when summarized, sounds almost like a fairy tale. A man loses faith in the value of his or life in general. He fails not only in love but in work, as a writer to attain success. He returns to his hometown to rekindle a love lost from the past, only to realize, obviously that this will not provide the hope, happiness and meaning he seeks. Instead, he finds an old wise man, Volsky, who tells his heroic story which in turn revitalizes Shutov’s life.

Volsky, after fighting in the Siege of Leningrad and other battles, after the gulag camps of Communism, and after losing his beloved learns to live like a saint, or a zen master. He cherishes the moment, the thingness of things, the beauty of a leaf, and devotes his life to helping those on the outskirts – the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the orphans. In a more saint-like manner, he even feels for his current caretakers who mistreat him because he realizes that their embrace of materialism with not provide them with even a modicum of happiness:

‘Their life isn’t at all enviable. Imagine, they have to own all this!’

He makes a broad gesture and Shutov sees clearly that ‘all this’ is Yana’s new apartment but also the vast television screen and the documentary about the Russian elite settling in London…’When it comes down to it, we had such an easy life!’ says the old man. ‘We had no possessions and yet we knew we were happy. In the space between two bullets whistling past, as you might say…’ He smiles and adds in jesting tones: ‘No, but look at those poor people. They’re not happy.’

The extension of this more abstract struggle finds Shutov struggling with the nature of an acutely-felt and perceived generation gap between those who create and those who consume history. Or put another way, Shutov struggles with the moral and existential clarity that conflict and wars bestow upon a society and the swirl of ambiguity that peace time engenders. In war, in a siege of Leningrad, every minute act takes on cosmic significance. While starving for bread, a person rarely has the time or the capability to think about the meaning of life. Shutov senses the nihility of the society around him, one entranced by the allure of materialism, one obsessed with itself, its accomplishments. He sees through it, past it, but sees nothing on the other side. His life, spent living in the pursuit of women and success attains neither, but he regains his sense of purpose and trust in humanity in hearing the narrative of this heroic hesitant soldier. He learns to see and write again, but with the invigorated eyesight of Wisdom, of love for the smallest detail of this radiant world.

Something about this feels maudlin, overwrought, and staid, and yet this tension is made part of the story itself. Shutov, as an author, struggles with what we might term the struggles of New Sincerity: how to write with genuine sentiment about love, war, sex, fear without irony or cynicism. While I respect this somewhat ingenious tool to undercut cynical criticism of a cliched story, this mechanism doesn’t save the story from feeling very manufactured. At each moment, or transition one sees the hands of the writer, not in a purposive post-modern sense, but in the sense that the story lacks a natural flow. Everything sounds oddly convenient and coincidental. Despite this, I feel attached to the story for its effort to attempt, at least, to deal with one of the basic literary questions of our time: can we even ask what purposeful literature looks like? Can one book be more important than another, can we speak of more moral, or important, or even timely literature? We tend to avoid these questions because they sound hegemonic, and limiting of the creative potential to the extent that generally, American writers tend not to write political or moral novels, but more expressive novels. We don’t like to take stances in a novel. For Shutov though, as for Makine, we need to begin to take stances if we want to wrest the novel back from materialism, cynicism, and an obsession with sarcasm.

However, Shutov learns how to do this in an odd manner that speaks ill of the future of the novel. In essence, what Shutov appears to learn is that he can redeem his life through redeeming the past. At one point Shutov “becomes aware that he is now the only person in the world who knows Volsky’s story so well.” Shutov consequently finds meaning in retelling the saintly, hallowed, heroic, and simple life of an this unknown man from the past. Of a life fully lived, not a life spent with the dalliances of materialism.

Though this is an interesting book of ideas, Makine makes the fatal stylistic flaw of many philosophical novels: he sacrifices characters on the altar of ideas. They serve more as mouthpieces for the conflicting thoughts of the author that an as natural extensions of vivid personalities. If someone asks you what The Brothers Karamazov is about, few if any, would answer that Dostoevsky attempts to portray the philosophical battles of his time. Rather they would describe the complex sibling and parental relationships, the murderous anger, the crotchety old man, the divine saint, the innocent Alyosha, the lonely Ivan, and the pathetic Dmitri. The philosophical arguments work so well because they come in the context of a fraught and complex brotherly relationship. They are not ideas plucked out of the ether, but ideas live in the bones of these brothers. Less so in The Life of an Unknown Man.

With all of this in mind, in the end I couldn’t help thinking, “but where does that leave the rest of us?” In a sense, finding redemption in retelling the past does little to help or guide those who find nothing meaningful in the present. Maybe Makine makes a sad joke here about the possibilities of using the present as inspiration for living, but it rather feels more like a cop-out of life.

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