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Emmanuel Carrere's "My Life as a Russian Novel," reviewed by Marie Arana

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By Marie Arana
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

MY LIFE AS A RUSSIAN NOVEL

A Memoir

This Story

By Emmanuel Carrère

Metropolitan. 276 pp. $25

I have a friend who likes to say that life is like a French movie: bleak, with sharp punctuations of great beauty; baffling, yet illuminated by a few jarring truths; boring, until you get to the sexy parts; and then, in the end, you wonder what in the world you've just seen. His words came to mind as I finished "My Life as a Russian Novel," a memoir by the celebrated French author and screenwriter Emmanuel Carrère, not because those words describe his book, but because, in it, Carrère achieves the opposite. His chronicle of a trip to a remote, ruined village in Russia is quirky, verging on incomprehensible -- what's more, sex is its most boring part -- and yet, in the end, Carrère brings the whole pastiche to sharp focus with a few jarring truths and a moment of great beauty. You leave its last pages with a deep appreciation for life.

Carrère is best known for his book "The Adversary," an enthralling, true-crime chronicle of a man who murdered his extended family to prevent them from discovering the monumental lie his life had become. Compared by The Post's Michael Dirda to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," the book was a harrowing tale of burgeoning insanity, a cinematically vivid journey to the dark corners of the human mind. Carrère's other works -- novellas, screenplays, a biography of science fiction author Philip K. Dick -- are all riffs on the same theme: How close is any of us, really, to madness?

The book begins with the memory of an erotic dream that Carrère experiences on a train in the wee hours of a Russian morning. He is somewhere between Moscow and Kotelnich, the village where he intends to film a documentary on the last prisoner of World War II, a Hungarian who spent more than 50 years of his life in a psychiatric hospital there. The dream is careening wildly -- as most of this memoir will -- between Kotelnich and Sophie, the lover Carrère has left behind in Paris. Yet, in a swift aberration meant to give us a hint of the unruly story on which we have just embarked, the erotic action suddenly admits a third person: the pert Japanese wife of a former Latin American president.

The sex in this book is largely like that: abrupt, nonsensical, beside the point. In time, we become numb to it -- an effect, in itself, oddly disconcerting. As we swing back and forth from Carrère's libidinous dream life to the harsh reality he comes to record in that Russian backwater, we begin to see, however dimly, the real story that has drawn him there.

It is the story of his mother. Or, rather, the narrative his mother would rather he didn't tell. She is Russian, grew up speaking Russian, although today she is a permanent secretary for the Académie Française. Her father, as it turns out, was a Georgian who loved literature, immigrated to Paris, drove a taxi, worked for the Nazis during the Occupation and then disappeared in the maw of postwar reprisals -- dragged off, never to be seen again. Here, then, despite the numbing sexual asides, is a pulsing horror story. First, the shame of being an immigrant: "The most gifted, the most brilliant . . . has gotten nowhere. In French society, he is no one. No one. . . . He belongs to that mass you see in the Métro: poor, gray, dead-eyed, with shoulders bowed beneath a life they never chose, insignificant . . . A father who cannot stand tall for his children." And, more acute, is the shame of being a collaborator: "a broken man who knew he was condemned and for whom the condemnation was the logical conclusion." There, there, all right now, as Carrère says. "Once said, it's not so terrible." It's the mantra of the memoirist, enough to make you cry. "It isn't your story, it's mine," he tells Mama, and off it goes, into the archives of human history.

When Carrère's grandfather vanished, in other words -- just as that last Hungarian prisoner of war vanished into the distant hinterland of Russia -- he set off dominoes that would clack through the generations to produce the work of Emmanuel Carrère: the secrets that the murderer in "The Adversary" didn't want told; the boy who went missing in "Class Trip"; the destructive mind game of "The Moustache"; the lurking madness of Philip K. Dick. And now, this true story of work, love and obsession -- all of it messy and forgivable.

As I say, it doesn't clack into place until the final page. In the process, you'll endure an embarrassingly silly, priapic story that Carrère published, against all literary prudence, in Le Monde, in order to impress a woman he lusted after, yet never really loved. The Hungarian prisoner of war gets dropped unceremoniously. The focus of Carrère's documentary gets altered, all hope for the project abandoned, until tragedy and failure return to Kotelnich to save the day. Never mind. This maddening and uncomfortable book will be worth it.

Unlike my friend with the French movie, you'll know exactly what you've seen.

Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Post. Her most recent novel, now in paperback, is "Lima Nights."


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