A Life’s Music by Andrei Makine

Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

Last week I wrote here about Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, a thriller set in Stalin’s USSR, with train tracks on the cover. Well I followed it up with another book set in Stalin’s USSR some years earlier during the war, which also has a railway line on the cover, but that’s where the similarity ends.

A Life’s Music by Andrei Makine is a very different novel. While waiting for a train back to Moscow, the narrator meets an older man playing the piano in a back room and they strike up a friendship and the older man takes over the narration to tell his life’s story.

A promising young pianist, it was the night of his first concert in Moscow, when he was given the message ‘Don’t go home’. He never gets to perform, finding his parents arrested, and has to run away to a relative in the country where he has to remain hidden. Then when war reaches the farm, he assumes the identity of a dead Russian soldier. He ends up as the driver for a Russian General whose life he saves and whose piano-playing daughter he worships.

But he has to find out about his parents, and this raises questions about who he really is … As for the young pianist, he seems to take the loss of his career with a shrug, for he still has his music in his head. With his assumed identity as an unmusical peasant, he sometimes has to struggle not to let his real personality burst out. His life’s music has to play to a different drum for now.

This novella is beautifully melancholic and elegaic and the translation is superb (the author is Russian, but writes in French). At the start of the novel, the first narrator is musing about a term he has heard to describe the Russian spirit – ‘Homo Sovieticus’, and you certainly feel a sense of it here. The author doesn’t dwell on WWII or the Stalinist regime, just the life in question, telling an entire life story in just 106 pages, which left me yearning for more. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. A Life’s Music, Andrei Makine, Sceptre paperback, 112 pages.

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