Lyrical, ironic and heartbreaking

  • Book: The Life of an Unknown Man
  • Location: Paris, St Petersburg (Leningrad)
  • Author: Andrei Makine, Geoffrey Strachan (Translator)

Review Author: SusanMarina



“The Life of An Unknown Man” begins with the story of Shutov, a 50-something Russian émigré writer living in Paris, who is painfully aware that he is:

“… no more than a marginal figure. And even his past as a dissident, which in the old days had given Shutov a certain aura, was becoming a flaw, or at least a sign of how prehistoric he was: just think, a dissident from the eighties of the previous century, an opposition figure exiled from a country that had since been erased from all the maps!”

Shutov is despondent over the end of his affair with a much younger woman, but it seems that he is not so much mourning his real-life relationship, but a romanticised ideal of love borrowed from Chekhov.

On an impulse, Shutov flies to St Petersburg to rekindle a relationship with his girlfriend of 20 years earlier. But he encounters an older man who has experienced a far deeper and more enduring love…

The narrative then switches to the life of Volsky, who has lived through the Siege of Leningrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the post-war Stalinist purges. His story is by turns harrowing, grotesque, surreal and unbearably sad, as the reader comes to realise that the titular “unknown man” is not Shutov or even Volsky, but the millions of men and women who were sacrificed to the Communist Revolution.

“The Life of An Unknown Man” delicately interweaves the old and new Russias, and the lives of the individual and the collective. It is very Russian — lyrical, ironic and heartbreaking.

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A story in which the location plays as important a role as the rest of your words.

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