“We were flying through the taiga,” writes the hero of Andrei Makine's funny, passionate, magic-carpet ride of a novel, “stretched out along the trunks of cedar trees on the trailer of a powerful tractor, like those that carried rockets in the army. The rough bark under our backs, the sky sparkling above our eyes, the silvery shadows of the forest on either side of the road. The sunny air inflated our sheepskin coats like sails and shot us through with the smell of resin.”
The place is Siberia, the time the early 1970s, the season what our hero, Dmitri, calls “the eternity known as 'winter.'” He is recalling scenes of his adolescence from the distant vantage of the early 1990s, when headlines, ignored by his wealthy hosts in a warmer climate, “carry news of the ending of our distant empire . . . ” Makine, who grew up in Siberia and wrote Once Upon the River Love in his adopted French, has built into the title a play on words that gets lost in English. The river Amour – “love” in French – neatly puns Amur, the Russian word for Cupid and the name of the real-life river along which our young hero and his two teenage buddies explore love's realities.
Not much else is lost, in translation or otherwise. In one passage after another, Makine lets loose such an energetic torrent of incantatory prose that you can feel a whole life, indeed a world of lives, flashing before your eyes – not to mention the sharp air of Siberia penetrating your ribs:
The cold was bitter, even for winter in our country. From time to time you could hear a long echoing sound like that of a gunshot. But this was tree trunks exploding, split open by frozen sap and resin. In weather like this, women in our village taking wash down from the clothesline would break it like glass. Truckdrivers would rage around tanks filled with white powder: frozen gasoline. And children would amuse themselves by spitting on the rock-hard road and hearing the tinkling of their spit as it turned into icicles.
Makine's prose has a ripe, genius-filled bravado, a Proustian comfort with the workings of memory. His novel is sublimely plotless, a braided flow that, like the Amur when its icy surface breaks up in springtime, appears to carry whole villages along in its buoyant course. In lieu of conventional narrative, we navigate a growing boy's thawing consciousness. Childhood is not generally regarded as a frozen state, but this is the kind of metaphorical given that would naturally occur to a native Siberian, and Makine makes it universal through sensuous, often startling physical detail. The “procession” of “vast acres of ice” during the spring thaw, for instance: the “glittering layers of water,” “the raw smell of the ice.” In warm climates one doesn't think of ice as having a smell, and one would have to spend a long childhood staring at a lake or river to know and delight with Makine that water can appear to have “layers,” but he combines familiar and exotic particulars with a magician's confidence. More than this, though, he dramatizes a vital idea about the nature of memory: that all remembrance is, in its undercurrent, a search for love; because of the infinite multitude of impressions that crowd our minds, love marks us the deepest.
She was Nivkh, a native of the forest of the Far East where we had once seen a tiger, blazing in the snow . . . Her face was framed with long, glossy black hair; she had slanting eyes, the enigmatic smile of a Buddha. Her body had skin that seemed to be covered with a gold varnish and the reflexes of a liana. When she sensed that I would not let her go, her body twined around me, molded me, absorbed me through all its trembling vessels. She permeated me with her scent, her breath, her blood. . . . And I could no longer make out where . . . her dazzled eyes ended and the somber depths glistening with stars began.
Young Dmitri has been blessed with superb good looks – one night, feigning sleep, he overhears his aunt complaining, “As if I didn't have enough on my plate. The girls are soon going to start clinging to him like burrs to a dog's tail.” “Oh yes, they'll soon spoil him for you,” a friend chimes in. Overhearing these words, remembering them across decades, Dmitri cracks, “Spoil me! I was desperate for a set of instructions for this appalling activity, which I sensed must be intensely voluptuous.”
The appalling activity is love, which for Dmitri at 14 (long before he attracts the likes of the forest-girl Nivkh) looms interchangeably with sex as a titanic abstraction. His two closest allies in cracking this riddle are Samurai, who is 16 and, after surviving a near-rape, obsessed with becoming heroically strong; and Utkin, who at 14 has in effect already died, having been crushed and badly crippled at age 10 under the icy breakup of the Amur.
The three hike to and fro, aimlessly. Makine is wonderful at catching the hormonal rootlessness of footloose young males. One night, when Dmitri is in a state of near-suicidal anguish owing to an encounter with the village prostitute – an episode so violent, hilarious and disturbing that he can't confide it, even to his two chums – the threesome happens to see a Jean-Paul Belmondo movie at the local cinema. “Belmondo!” Dmitri chants, at the mere memory. The film itself – a mid-'70s spy spoof easily recognizable to connoisseurs as Le Magnifique – is never named, and the star is deified by the exclusive use of his last name.
“Belmondo,” like “Amur,” has evocative roots (belle monde being “the world of beauty”). Obsessed, the boys see the movie 17 times. Its gravity-defying logic and relish of the absurd has an addicting, even medicinal power. “With his flattened nose,” Dmitri says of Belmondo, “he looked like many of us. Our life – taiga, vodka, camps – sculpted faces of this type. Faces with a barbaric beauty that shone through the roughness of their tortured features.” But a deeper pull lies in the more philosophic properties Belmondo embodies: his immense white sports cars (the quintessence of the unknown West); his daydreamy ease with women (made extra plausible and even touching in that Le Magnifique is openly a Walter Mitty fantasy, with a shy, bookish Belmondo at its heart); but above all by the absurd, brazenly pointless nature of his fantasy heroics, which stand as a perfect cure for the Soviet sense of mission these boys have imbibed with their mother's milk. “Oh, those divine legs!” sighs Dmitri of Belmondo's women. “Tanned thighs that seemed not to have the least idea of the presence, somewhere in the world, of winter . . . of our Siberia . . . Magnificently apolitical thighs. Serenely amoral. Thighs outside History.”
The vision of life's possibility this admittedly silly movie offers is so hypnotic that Siberians from miles around – policemen, fugitives, lonesome apparatchiks of both sexes – are drawn to see it again and again. Makine slyly, wryly hints in such passages that Belmondo did more to bring down the Soviet Empire than Gorbachev, and superbly dramatizes the cultural, possibly societal earthquake a hit movie can touch off when the freedoms it represents make common cause with its viewers' daydreams.
More powerfully still, he evokes the myriad ways in which our daydreams help us mature. Standing outside the prostitute's house as he screws up his courage for a second visit, Dmitri is arrested by the sound of her singing to herself:
It was a song that seemed to come from very far away, as if it had had to cross infinite spaces . . . The voice was almost frail, but it had about it that remarkable freedom, pure and true, of songs sung in solitude, for oneself, for the wind, for the silence of the evening.
Whether wandering in the taiga or huddling in a movie theater, Dmitri addresses himself, so to speak, in the dark, to the point where his daydreams, and ours, tread on the divine: “The whole nighttime universe was like a living crystal, suspended on the fluttering eyelashes of an invisible being. I felt I was being watched by this person's immense eyes.”