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Emmanuel Carrère: Un roman russe ( My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir)

As the English title tells us, this book is not a novel. However, it is written as a novel, marketed as a novel, the author calls it a novel and the (French) title calls it a novel, so, despite the English title, it is a novel. However, despite being about essentially three other things, it is all about Emmanuel Carrère and bits of life (hence the English title) and is very much in the It’s All About Me! genre.

The three other things the novel is about are 1) András Toma, a Hungarian who, it has been claimed was the last prisoner of World War II to be repatriated or, more particularly, it is about Carrère’s journalistic investigation (along with others) of Toma and what happened to him; 2) Carrère’s family (his grandfather was Georgian (the Central Asian one) and his mother was descended from Russian aristocracy and 3) his tempestuous and complicated relationship with Sophie (who is not Russian).

András Toma was a Hungarian who was drafted by the Wehrmacht in 1944 to fight for the German army (Hungary and Germany were allies in World World War II). He was captured by the Soviet army, possibly in Poland, and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp near Leningrad. When this camp filled up with newly arrived prisoners, he was moved East. When the war ended, and the camp was closed, he was sent to a mental hospital in Kotelnich, as he seemed to have mental problems. These problems, which were manifested by anti-social behaviour and aggression continued for ten years, when he seemed to become calm and docile. As he was transferred to the hospital, his name was no longer on the PoW lists so the Hungarian authorities did not know about him. In 1954, about the time he ceased to be aggressive, the Hungarian authorities declared all those Hungarians, who had not returned from the war, dead, including Toma. He had never been able to learn Russian and no-one there spoke Hungarian. In 2000, he was discovered by a Slovak journalist visiting the hospital and the Hungarian Embassy was notified. He was repatriated and spent the remaining four years of his life with his younger brother and sister, who were still alive.

Carrère took on this assignment because he had spent seven years on his previous work, L’Adversaire (The Adversary: A True Story Of Monstrous Deception), and wanted something different. He was tired of writing about his family (though this book has a lot about them) and hoped to exorcise his demons by taking on this assignment and starting a new love affair.

Though this assignment is about Toma, Carrère and his colleagues set off for Kotelnich and we learn a lot more about them (and, of course, Carrère in particular) than we do about Toma. Kotelnich is not a fun place. The hotel is an example, où non seulement rien ne marche, ni le chauffage, ni le téléphone, ni l’ascenseur, mais où on devine que rien n’a jamais marché, même le jour de son inauguration [where not only does nothing work, neither the heating nor the telephone, nor the lift, but where you guess that nothing has ever worked even on its opening day]. (Note that the translation is mine from the original French and may not be the same as the official translation.)

They meet the chief doctor, who is initially cooperative but then suddenly hostile. We learn about their huge budget cuts, so that many patients have been sent back to the community while, others, like Toma, were essentially ignored if they did not exhibit any obvious worrying symptoms. They even manage to get hold of Toma’s medical file. They also meet Sasha, the local FSB rep, and his wife, Ania, who speaks French and does help them. After Kotelnich, they head off for Hungary, but do not spend much time there.

Carrère will return to Kotelnich to make another film, allegedly about his first visit. This time, they are given a flat to stay in but find it difficult to have a focus for the film, partially because many of the locals do not want to be filmed and some are very hostile. Some people also think that they are there to film the nearby Morodikovo chemical factory, which used to manufacture chemical weapons. One of the reasons for going is to practise his Russian. He had learned some Russian as a child from his mother then tried, at various stages, to relearn it, with only limited success. Indeed, he even goes on a course in Russia. This issue dogs him throughout the book. Sometimes, he seems to be able to cope well while, at other times, he stumbles.

Mixed in with his travels are the two other themes. His grandparents had met in Paris but it had not been a particularly happy marriage. The grandfather, Georges, had a degree in philosophy from a German university and was well read but never fitted it anywhere, and was well aware of this. He tried various jobs but failed at all of them. For example, he was a taxi driver. When he had no fare, he would read a book of philosophy. If a fare turned up, he would reject it, telling the potential passenger that he had not finished his chapter and to wait till he had. Georges was also very traditionalist and right-wing in his views. When the Germans took over, he was offered a job translating for them, which he eagerly took, not least because it was the first job he had had where he could use his various skills. At the end of the war, some Resistance members turned up at the house and took him away. He was never seen again.

Carrère was divorced with two sons at the beginning of the book. He has also started an affair with Sophie. It does not go well. He claims, very snobbishly, that all his friends are intellectuals while she merely works for a text book publisher and therefore does not fit in with his friends, for example at dinner parties. He generally seems to treat her fairly badly, even though she does move in with him and he claims to love her. While he does admit that he treats her badly, he does little about it.

There is one key, contentious issue. He writes a story for Le Monde. It is essentially a pornographic story, in which he instructs Sophie to perform pornographic acts on a specific train. He mentions which train it is in the story so that those on the train know that this is happening on their train and try to guess which of the passengers Sophie is. He has not told her in advance but merely booked a ticket for her on the train, told her to buy Le Monde and read the story on the train. Not surprisingly, it all goes horribly wrong. He is also upset because Philippe Sollers says the story is simply pornography. (I am with Sollers on this.) You can read original story in French.

These three themes all merge with one another and we jump from one to the other. Carrère himself does not come out well. He comes across as arrogant and self-centred. However, this partially confessional novel (partially, in that while he does admit to some of his faults, he seems to make no attempt to correct them) works very well, simply because Carrère writes very well. He integrates the three themes and describes in some detail – often, it must be admitted, interesting detail – what is going in the various aspects of his life. Despite his earlier comments that writing his previous book about his family has drained him, here he is again writing more about them, not least, it appears, because he is both fascinated by them and somewhat proud of his antecedents. For example, he mildly mocks his Russian aristocrat forebears but, at the same time, appears to be glad to have descended from them.

I have to admit that I enjoyed the book, even while finding his behaviour less than praiseworthy. He keeps up the tempo. One minute, we are in Russia while he tries to find out what is going on in the mind of Sasha, the FSB man and the next he is having another row with Sophie and then he is off thinking about his Georgian grandfather. The Guardian called him the most important French writer you’ve never heard of. Well, I have certainly heard of him and presumably you have, as you are on this page. Nine of his books have appeared in English, which is quite a lot for an unknown French writer. Doubtless, we will be hearing more of him in the future.

First published by P.O.L. in 2007
First English translation by Serpent’s Tail in 2010