Andreï Makine’s The Woman Who Waited is a lovely, melancholy poem of a novel. Raised in Russia, Makine now lives in France, and his melancholy seems partly to do with exile. Dreams of My Russian Summers, his best-known book, chronicles summers spent in a village in the steppe with his French grandmother, Charlotte, who turned the place into a wondrous version of her homeland through her stories. Like Charlotte, Makine is a storyteller whose native territory is the unrecoverable past. What I find most compelling about his writing is the way he works in a nostalgic mode while dissecting the limits of that nostalgia—resulting in books that are lyrical, analytical, and tremendously sad, all at the same time.
Set in the 1970s, The Woman Who Waited is narrated by an unnamed Leningrad intellectual who leaves his coterie of dissidents behind to record the local customs in Mirnoe, a remote village. His attitude toward this place, “from which all history had been eradicated,” is ambiguous. He considers himself superior to the common people while also admiring their stubborn survival.
In Mirnoe, he meets Vera. His first sight of her, as she hauls in fishing nets, is almost parodically graphic: “I glimpsed the intense white gleam of a thigh, the curve of a torso straining with effort, I heard breathless panting.” In his ignorance, he sees her as sexuality incarnate. But when he learns her life story, he changes his mind: at sixteen, Vera had watched the love of her life depart for the Second World War, and promised to wait for him.Thirty years later, she lives alone in the village, tending to the old women there—widows of previous wars and tragedies—as they die off.
Vera is a blank slate onto which the villagers, and soon the narrator, project ideas about love, fidelity, and history. A “walking monument to the dead,” a martyr whose patience both inspires and confounds, Vera personifies the sacrifice made by a generation. Some idolize her; others whisper behind her back of secret escapades, lovers, crimes. Every time the narrator thinks he’s uncovered the real Vera, she escapes him. For example, he discovers that she spent time in the city, pursuing a doctorate in linguistics—no deprived, ignorant country peasant, she. He decides he’s in love with her long before he realizes that he doesn’t understand her. In the end, he’s forced to confront both how little his opinion matters and “the ridiculous transience of our time spent in cities, in other people’s lives, in the void.”
Dreamy, imagistic language gives this story the timelessness of a love song. Each scene, painted with watercolor delicacy, captures ephemeral, and illusory, moments of emotional clarity. To love someone, Makine seems to say, is always to decide in error who you think they are.
Yet all this is rooted in a specific time and place, the Soviet 1970s. Beneath the wistful surface of this novel is a hard-edged view of the relationship between politics and art, since the narrator’s inability to grapple with Vera seems emblematic of his status in the village. Just as he’s not the man she waited for, the dissident intellectual culture he represents could not change the lives of the people of Mirnoe. But the metaphor doesn’t overwhelm the artful narration. The Woman Who Waited refuses to separate its poem self from its novel self—just like life, as Makine describes it, “the real thing, that perpetual mixture of genres.”