The Archipelago of Another Life Andreï Makine
Translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Heading up the adulatory reviews of Andreï Makine’s previous novels is the late Irish critic, Eileen Battersby, who writes of how his ‘vision, grasp of history and lyric grace’ create the ‘epic grandeur’ of his work. Sadly she is not able to read The Archipelago of Another Life.
Makine, born in Siberia, writes in French and is here translated by Geoffrey Strachan. In the ‘Translator’s Note’ Strachan explains that he will emulate Makine in leaving certain original Russian and Siberian words in the text. Many of these relate to the taiga, (the swampy coniferous forest that lies between the tundra and the steppes) in which the novel is set. It is, thanks to its river, the Amgun and her glittering, sinuous tributaries, an archipelagic landscape.
In 1952 a group of five Russian reservists and Almaz the dog set out into the taiga on a manhunt. The fugitive is an escaped prisoner from a prison camp, and the hunters consist of an uneasy combination of Butov, an old-school army officer, Luskas, ‘a representative of military counter-espionage and guarantor of ideological purity’, Vassin, a dog-handler, Ratinsky, a bully and, Gartsez, his victim. Out in the wild the power structures vacillate as the group faces a variety of difficulties.
Progress is slow as the men slog through the stanik (thickets of low horizontal cedar trees) and stumble across unfordable waterways. There is beneath their feet, but beyond their comprehension, the topography of the earth’s prehistory. Part of the super continent, Rodinia, surrounded by its hypothesised ocean, Mirovia, still lie undisturbed by more recent geological ructions. And the hooded prey who runs before them seems in harmony with both ancient and present land formations.
The main narrative is provided by Pavel Gartsev, but his story, like that of Marlow in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, is retold in a frame narrative, by a young surveyor sent to the remote Shantur Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, a northern part of the Pacific Ocean. Thus Makine separates his readers from the action by choosing faraway, alien places as well distancing them from the characters by interspersing an extra storyteller. In addition the group of five men are not friends and hardly even comrades. Jealousy, envy, resentment, distrust and fear are the ruling emotions among the chasing pack.
But Makine uses motifs to hold his tale together. One is the symbol of a rag doll which represents cowardice or the need to be obedient to the rule of the apparatchik. Internalised, the ‘rag doll’ seems to exclude ‘everything that made us truly alive’ and Gartsev must embed it as ‘a kind of guardian angel that would counsel caution, compromise, resignation’. On the other hand there is an image of being ‘truly alive’, that of a ‘beautiful woman’s thigh’. This represents male sexual desire termed, by the frame narrator, the ‘crude machinery of existence’. In one tiny section two minor characters named Little Guy and Big Guy, are depicted fighting for the favours of a ‘peroxide blond’ like sea lions, crashing their torsos against each other, whilst the object of their lust slips away into the shadows.
The Archipelago of Another Life presents otherness. It is like an extreme adventure holiday – starkly different from our cosy home life – but ultimately too bleak.
Conrad, J. Heart of Darkness. Blackwood’s Magazine. 1902.
Makine, A. The Archipelago of Another Life. Trans. Geoffrey Strachan. MacLehose Press. 2019.
A version of this review was first published on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 12th October 2019. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.