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Love bytes and pillow fights

Makine, Andrei: Human Love. London, Sceptre, 2008. ISBN 978 0 340 97769 9

Human Love, by Andrei Makine, coverHuman Love calls to mind Matthew Arnold's poem 'Dover Beach', where he describes the loss of religious faith. Towards the close of the poem, Arnold writes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

The poem is moving because you feel that in such a sweeping loss of faith, the move to find strength in a personal relationship will not really work. Faced with the demand that she supply the depth of meaning that has been lost, any woman to whom a poet joined himself in this exhortation would surely pause before what was being asked of her.

This would not be the end of argument. Pillow talk and pillow fight, a series of more recriminatory exchanges, would surely follow until more realistic expectations of the relationship were negotiated.

Andrei Makine's short novel, Human Love, enters Arnold's territory. Makine, who was born in Russia, writes in French. In his novels he explores the ways in which cultures and ideologies intersect. Human Love is particularly complex because it is set in Africa.

The novel asks whether, in the face of the brutal ways in which human beings treat one another, it is possible to believe in humanity and in human beings. Elias, the moral centre of the novel, finds reason to believe in small experiences of love and beauty.

Elias is Angolan. As a child he sees the brutality, lust, racism and greed that mark the end of the colonial regime. His mother is degraded and killed. But he also has a poet's eye for the beauty of simple things and of human relationships.

His belief in human freedom takes him on a long journey. He finds himself with Che Guevara in an African campaign, studies the making of mayhem in Cuba and Russia, and works with insurgent movements in Angola, the Congo and Somalia.

In his journey he discovers that ideological commitments mask much simpler human desires for riches, revenge, control, status and sexual gratification. The same patterns of manipulation, torture, loveless couplings, and contempt are evident in rape and pillage by colonial armies, in patronage and betrayal by Western revolutionary idealists, and in racism and manipulation by Russians who intervene in African struggles.

All speak of freedom; all express contempt for ordinary people and simple things.

In this dark world Elias is sustained by the simple human reality of love shown in everyday ritual — by the boy watching the sun rising over the river, by his mother's affection as she returns from the prostitution by which she supports him.

His instinct for simple humanity is focused in his platonic relationship with a young Siberian student whom he meets in Moscow. Anna represents for him all that is true and beautiful. A long train journey that takes them back to her home village, the site of a former gulag, remains for him a compass that sustains him in the midst of the moral darkness surrounding him.

Makine's challenge is to persuade his readers that the love between a man and a woman, and an artistic eye, can transcend the self-interest, brutality, greed and lust into which human political movements inevitably transmute themselves. Like Arnold he must represent the extent of the darkness and the lasting power of the small candle that stands within it.

The strength of the novel lies in its poetic evocation of detail: the incidents of casual brutality that evoke disgust at the human condition, and the small details that evoke love — the sight of snow on a fur hat, for example. Makine's spare description of scenes of beauty and brutality alike is telling and persuasive.

But Makine is ultimately less successful in convincing the reader that human love can trump such large disgust. As is the case with Arnold's poem the reader senses that the writer's will directs his imagination more strongly than does his observation.

The subordinate characters of the novel act the roles they are given, and rarely surprise with their individuality. Elias' judgements assess precisely their moral significance. Ordinary Russians are xenophobic, Europeans committed to revolutionary causes are wilfully and unfaithfully romantic, wealthy Africans are corrupt. Even Anna is sketched lightly as the redeeming object of Elias' love and not as the subject who loves Elias.

The novel, however, stands and falls with Elias. He captures the imagination. He remains an attractive and enigmatic character whose experience and eye for love enable him to remain committed to relieving human suffering in Africa even after he has become aware of the falsity of the ideologies under which people fight. But even Elias is burdened by having to carry the weight of the author's judgements of the world.

As with 'Dover Beach', the high art of the novel and the depth of the issues it explores are sufficient to make the reader momentarily suspend belief. But at the end many readers may reflect back on Elias' transcendence of disillusionment and disgust through love and ask whether the author's will is sufficient to make it so.

Andrena Jamieson is a Melbourne writer.


Topic tags: Andrena Jamieson, Andrei Makine, Human Love, ISBN 978 0 340 97769 9



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Existing comments

How right you are, Andrena Jamieson! So often, even in works of literature, women are treated as psychological crutches for men. Mills and Boon with meaning. Why should these Neanderthals of the mind be so cosseted? Eureka Street, do publish more women who write as perceptively as Andrena Jamieson.

Celestina Mariposa | 26 September 2008  

The novel Love Bytes and Pillow Fights is very near to true life. Love is weapon to forget every pain. With Love, one can reach the heights of Success.

pruepraizy | 09 December 2008  

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