Book - The Earth And Sky Of Jacques Dorme

Andre Makine - 2006
ISBN: 034083126
The Earth And Sky Of Jacques Dorme
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The earth and sky of Jacques Dorme

. . . Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power to chasten and subdue." The graceful, elegant, yet ineffably somber prose of Andrei Makine calls to mind this passage by Wordsworth. The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme, Andrei Makine's latest work is neither harsh nor grating. Makine's prose plays like the dark-toned music of the lives of the narrators and its principal characters.

The story of Andrei Makine is a compelling one. Makine, for those not familiar with his work, was born in the Soviet Union in 1958. He emigrated to France as a young man and immediately assumed the role of a struggling writer. Written in French (Makine learned French as a student in the USSR) his manuscripts were rejected by every publisher in Paris. He spent many nights sleeping in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Finally, out of desperation, he told one publisher that the manuscript of his first book was a translation from the Russian. It was immediately accepted for publication.

Earth and Sky represents the third-volume of a loosely-structured trilogy. The first volume, Dreams of My Russian Summers won two of France's most esteemed literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. The second volume, Requiem for a Lost Empire was also well received. All of these books have been remarkably well translated by Geoffrey Strachan. Although Earth and Sky can be enjoyed in its own right, reading Dreams of My Russian Summers (not necessarily Requiem for a Lost Empire) first would enhance the reader's enjoyment of this work.

Earth and Sky consists of three separate but connected story lines over three generations. It begins with a love story. Jacques Dorme, a French pilot was a German prisoner of war. He escaped, fled east and manages to become a pilot in the Soviet Air Force. He meets Charlotte during a brief furlough in a town outside of Stalingrad. Charlotte, a nurse, is also French but has lived in the Soviet Union since the 1920s. They meet, fall in love but fate consigns them to a life together that must be spent in days, not years. Makine's opening sentence says it all: "The span of their life together is to be so short that everything will happen to them for both the first and the last time." As the story unfolds, Jacques is transferred to Siberia where, because of his superior flying skills he is tasked with ferrying new airplanes produced in the U.S. across the vast Siberian wilderness west towards the front. Charlotte and Jacques never meet again.

We then meet the narrator, decades later, in Siberia determined to make a pilgrimage to the spot Dorme died, on a frozen mountainside. The narrator had come from France, where he had lived for years after fleeing the old Soviet Union. It is not at all clear why the narrator `needs' to make this pilgrimage. It is simply clear that he knows it has to be made.

The story flashes back to the 1950s, the beginning of Khrushchev's thaw. We find the narrator, an orphan, leading a generally miserable and lonely existence in an orphanage in the town where Jacques and Charlotte spent their brief lifetime together. Charlotte's ramshackle living quarters provide the narrator with the only glimpse of daylight in his existence when he is allowed to visit her on weekends. She is kind and grandmotherly. She also has a treasure trove of French books stashed throughout the house. Over time the narrator learns French, with Charlottes help and discovers a world unknown to him. As the novel concludes, the narrator is back in Paris attempting to explain the hidden life of Jacques Dorme to a surviving brother.

A brief recitation of the outline of Jacques Dorme cannot do it justice. As Makine has said in interviews, he could describe his stories in a few words, "the style is more important. It is not the what, it's the how." Makine's style is graceful but controlled. The emotional substance of the book is implicit and not set out in excruciating detail. Makine's description of the climactic scene in which he manages to spot the wreckage of Dorme's aircraft as the sun sets over a Siberian mountain, for example, is noteworthy not just for the beauty in which he sets the scene but also for his refusal to be explicit as to the emotional meaning of the event for the narrator. Makine sets the stage but it is up to the reader to glean the subtext.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the "earth belongs to the living, not to the dead." For our narrator however, the earth and the sky must be shared with the dead. The earth and the sky of Jacques Dorme seemed to me to represent (paraphrasing Wordsworth) the anchor of the narrator's thoughts, the guide and guardian of his moral being.

Andrei Makine has produced a compelling piece of work. The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme is well worth reading.