While there are no right answers to the question: what are stories for? There are some answers that are more correct than others. In Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man (smoothly translated by Geoffrey Strachan), exiled dissident, author Shutov has an existential crisis about what stories and literatures should be. Are they supposed to be beautiful? Are they supposed to ironically point out the foibles of society? Should they cater to the tastes of the reading public? Are they supposed to document the human condition? What should an author write in the middle of all of these competing questions?
At the beginning of The Life of an Unknown Man, Shutov has very firm ideas about what stories and literature should be. His girlfriend, Léa, who has just dumped him (rightly, I think) for being a pretentious ass about his opinions and loathing of everything modern, has very different ideas about what makes for good literature. Shutov, raised on the Russian classics (especially Anton Chekhov), wants to write beautiful, moving scenes that can wring tears from his readers. Unfortunately, he was born about 150 years too late and now lives in an age of irony, of cleverness, and of pervasive capitalism that just wants to sell, sell, sell. After Léa leaves Shutov and he wallows a bit in his feelings, he impulsively returns to St. Petersburg. He lived there when it was still Leningrad and he had to flee.
The Russia Shutov finds is very different from the Soviet Union he left. The city is celebrating its 300th anniversary, with a dizzying array of historical/carnivalesque events that reminded me of Russian Ark on overdrive. His old friend, Yana, has no time for him as she is working on building a hotel empire and her son is condescending. Shutov is left to his own devices until the son asks him to keep an eye on an old man who, due to bureaucracy, is living in Yana’s apartment while awaiting transfer to a nursing home. Shutov isn’t given a chance to say no, but the chore turns out to be anything but. The old man, who Shutov was told was mute, possesses a story that encompasses some of the most harrowing years of Soviet history: the Siege of Leningrad and the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Volsky’s story is not just a story of survival; it is also a love story of two people who history seems to want to keep apart but who still manage find each other.
By the end of the old man’s story—and the end of The Life of an Unknown Man—both the reader and Shutov come to a realization. Shutov finds a new mission for his writing. He wants to write the stories of people whose names have been lost to time, to restore them to life, for the sake of their stories. Everyone has a story, he realizes. For my part, I decided that the ultimate purpose of a story, of literature, is to say something true. It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or tragic or ugly or funny or arch or popular. What matters is whether or not a story can tell us something true.
The first third of The Life of an Unknown Man was a little hard for me to get through. Shutov is an almost stereotypical mansplainer who is so convinced of the rightness of his opinions that he takes his anger out on anyone who expresses their own ideas. It’s no wonder that Léa glazes over when he starts to pontificate. But once Shutov returned to Russia and started listening to other people for a change, the entire tenor of the novel changed for me. Even if Volsky’s stories hadn’t been about a period of history I am macabrely fascinated with, I would have been hooked by the their honesty and sharp observations. At the end, I had hope that Shutov would uncover true stories to share.