June Issue 2010

By | Books | Arts & Culture | Published 8 years ago

Revolutions make for good stories. The often potent combination of passion, politics, violence and tragedy give revolutions all the natural elements for good fiction. The drama is only heightened by the fact that most such stories have their roots in real events. Books set during, say, the Cuban, Russian or Chinese revolutions should, by right, belong to the category of historical fiction. And yet the worlds they try and capture often appear too closely connected to our own. We may have entered what the eminent historian of Europe Tony Judt describes as an “age of forgetting,” but the scars of revolution are still visible the world over.

Andreï Makine’s latest novel to be translated into English – Human Love – is a potent reminder of these scars. It offers us a vast canvas of revolutionary ‘activity,’ spread across continents and decades. Makine gives us a panorama of the violent 20th century, from Angola to Cuba. At the same time, he gives us reason to hope that despite the previous century’s legacy of grotesque violence and broken ideals, there is reason for optimism: love can grow and flourish even in the most unpromising contexts.

Makine tells his revolutionary tale through the eyes of Elias Almeida, born to a family of modest means in late colonial Angola. As a child, he observes both the violence and injustice of late colonialism and the rapidly declining significance of the Portuguese in West Africa. Largely as a result of the benevolent patronage of a local priest – who is later killed – Elias becomes exposed to a growing range of western political thought.

His encounter with Marxism-Leninism offers Elias a powerful, all-encompassing explanation for the rampant racial and socio-economic equality he sees around him. On the one hand, its message of equality and global revolution promises a seductive vision of a better world, while on the other, it delivers a potent call to arms. In his late teens, Elias decides he needs to be part of the revolution and escapes Angola in search of the nearest revolutionary agitation.

Over the next few decades, he takes part in revolutionary and liberation struggles in the Congo, Cuba, the Soviet Union Somalia and elsewhere. He becomes fluent in a number of languages and, though he never sheds the stigma attached to the colour of his dark skin, he goes from guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Central Africa to backdoor power-broker in Africa’s shadowy world of oil and diamond trading.

But Elias is an uncomfortable member of this supposedly revolutionary transnational elite. His first experiences of revolutionary struggle are deeply ambiguous; it seems that revolution and violence are always closely intertwined. He watches hideous atrocities committed in the name of revolution; he sees political ideals tossed aside in the name of short-term economic gain and he discovers how definitions of friends and enemies can be overturned in a moment.

One imagines that this would leave Elias profoundly disillusioned. But Makine refuses to accept this fate for his central character. There is very little redemption for Elias but there is also very little bitterness. He remains persuaded of his commitments until his death. Despite some uncertainties, his belief in his cause never dies, even if it loses its name (Marxism, communism, the Revolution…) and its ideological lynchpin (the Soviet Union).

It is a strange mix of pragmatism and idealism that drives Elias forward. His quiet and unbending devotion to the cause for which he has fought all his life is not fundamentally affected by the carnage and betrayal he sees around him. Instead, it leads to melancholy – a melancholy that can only be redeemed through his love for a woman he met in the Soviet Union. It is only with her that he can find peace, and that too, only when they travel together to deepest Siberia. For Elias, truly human love can only be found as far from normal human habitation as possible.

Makine’s metaphor is striking: in the same way that Elias’s political ideals are doomed to failure, so too is his romance. Even so, both ideals and love remain intact, like tender shoots growing from the soil of a devastated battlefield. Occasionally, one is left with the impression that Elias’s faith has an unreal quality about it; it is sometimes hard to understand exactly how and why he chooses to live, not with his contradictions, but with his commitments.

Is this perhaps Makine’s way of paying homage to the power of 20th century progressive political ideals? Is it a plea to remember the good intentions and deep truths that emerged from contexts of unpalatable violence? It is hard to know. Makine’s novels have always been exceptionally adept at capturing the combined effect of violence, isolation, loneliness and historical memory. Frequently borrowing from Russian history, they have often painted a very bleak picture while simultaneously offering some kind of salvation through individual and interpersonal relationships. But this is the clearest indication yet of what some critics have called Makine’s “romanticism,” which seems to be expressed in Human Love as a quest for inner truth in the absence of external validation.

This view would have much to commend it were it not for the fact that external validation – in the form of a second narrator – is central to the novel. This outside figure, another former revolutionary who meets Elias in a detention camp on the border between Angola and the Congo is actually the narrator of Elias’s story. He is the one to piece together the narrative from Elias’s own words and his various encounters with Elias after their first meeting.

This means that we hear everything in stereo. There is Elias’s internal narrative; and there is the outside narrator’s commentary on Elias’s life. Where the former brings out the melancholy of the professional revolutionary, the latter emphasises the futility of memory. The narrator – who has become a well-respected author on the international scene – reminds us that even if Elias’s story were told, it would first have to be fitted into an endless number of exotic narratives about ‘Africa.’ The memory of his story would be twisted to fit the exigencies of present-day academic and intellectual politics much as his revolutionary cause was twisted to fit with circumstance. The implication is clear: history, like politics, is a fickle and ever-changing game.

Yet the story is being told, and it is the narrator who gives it a voice. Elias posthumously receives some of the external validation he sought in life. Somewhere, his world – and, by extension, the cause for which he fought – have stood the test of time.

By allowing Elias to speak to us across time, Makine wants to assure us that a kernel of hope lives on amongst the ruins of the 21st century. With great clarity and the sure hand of the master storyteller, he has given us a way of remembering ideals and memories that are rapidly fading. Elias’s love may ultimately appear more superhuman than human. But his story is a reminder that there are many more struggles ahead of us.