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This is a powerful and very beautiful story. It is narrated by an unnamed man and it merges two stories: this history of his maternal grandmother’s life and of the narrator’s own life, coming to grips with the question of who he really is, a Russian boy with a French past, or a French boy with a life lived for many formative years in Russia.
Charlotte, the narrator’s maternal grandmother around whom most of the action centers, seems to have been born about 1903. She was French, but spoke fluent Russian as well as her native French. During World War I she moved to Russia to serve as a nurse in a hospital unit and there she meet the man who became her husband, Fyodor, who was some 26 years her senior. She loved him very much and was a devoted wife and mother.
The beautiful and developing relationship with the narrator begins when he stumbles upon a photo album and a large batch of old news stories and his grandmother begin telling him stories of the various pages, almost all of which are from her time in Paris.
She, of course, is a native speaker of French, but lives in Russia and speaks it fluently as well. However, culturally she is French to the core. Several in their larger family also speak French and so does the narrator, and quite fluently at that. Until the end of high school he lives in Paris and Charlotte lives in Saranza on the edge of the Steepe. It is a very tiny village, and it here that her grandson, the unnamed narrator, comes each summer to be with her.
He discovers her scrapbook. It is from her life in Paris and has many stories of what was going on in France at the time. The boy is completely taken over by Charlotte’s “Paris” and he discovers in both the stories he reads and then her own elaboration of them, and then many of her own stories, a treasure trove of life experience.
He comes to love these stories and “her” Paris more than he loves anything about his own world and he just can’t get enough of Charlotte’s tales, always looking forward to his summer.
Slowly, he begins to realize that there is an enormous cultural gap between the view and nature of life in the developing Soviet Union and the Paris of Charlotte’s stories and news clippings.
Eventually he moves to Russia for his own schooling. He is popular with his peers because of the beautiful and incredible (to these Russian students) stories he has at the forefront of him memory. However, soon he begins to become more Russian himself as the years go by. He is intelligent and thoughtful and realizes he is coming to a crisis in his life. Is he French or is he Russian? The two cultures are miles apart in nature and value, and he struggles with this dilemma.
When he’s just a young teen he comes to his last summer with Grandmother Charlotte, resolved that he is going to reject her world, her stories, her Frenchness and he is going to become a Russian for real. He’s angry, feeling sort of as though she has conned him into an anti-Russian world view.
But that last summer becomes decisive. He realizes he can’t do what he said he would do, what he thought, at least, what he wanted. Charlotte’s world is his own and he is, indeed, French. He returns to France, and only one or two other times in his life does he return. He even loses contact with his aging grandmother.
He becomes a respected journalist in Germany, but writing for a Russian public. Just when the Soviet Union is collapsing, he leaves Germany and returns to Paris. He is desperately poor, but knows he must become a writer. He must tell the story of this conflict between French culture and world views and Russian culture and world views. He wonders, would it even be possible that Charlotte is still alive, well into her 80s. He doesn’t know how to contact her, but applies for a visa to go to Russia and tries to get a friend who will be in Russia to get a note to his grandmother that he is coming for her and will bring her home to Paris.
He struggles to make a living, becomes the writer he knows he must be, and gets just enough money to get a decent apartment so that he can, indeed, bring his grandmother “home” for her last days.
The ending is deeply touching and sad. However, the direction of the narrator’s life is fixed. He is establishing himself as a writer, even though he has to pretend that his novels have been translated from the original Russia by this non-existent translator. He is on his way to success.
The story is very touching, beautiful, and the crisis between his Russianness and his Frenchness is powerful. While the story cannot possibly be autobiographical in essence (the author wasn’t born until 1957, the whole of the story assumes a narrator who was born in the early 1930s), many of the details in the latter section are actually true of the author himself. He wrote his literary work in French, after having only been there as an immigrant for a couple of years. Publishers didn’t believe he could possibly know French well enough to write these books. So, he created a fictional translator and presented the novels as this “translator’s translations. The books were published and DREAMS OF MY RUSSIAN SUMMERS was a major factor in his becoming a respected and accepted French author.
The book is powerful, gripping and an amazing achievement. It is a believable and exciting look at the balancing of two very different cultures and how one carries on and what might well have been going on inside one’s head in that clash, not only of cultures, but of languages, for a young boy growing up in both languages and both cultures.
The ending is beautiful and very touching. I’m not sure what I really expected, there were so many options that could have come about. However, author Andrei Makine brings his deeply touching and challenging novel to an end that will touch most readers veryBob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com