Music of a Life

Written by Andrei Makine Geoffrey Strachan (trans.)
Review by Andrea Connell

In a crowded, dreary, and frigid train station somewhere in Siberia, the narrator whiles away the time musing over the nature of the “Soviet man.” A sound interrupts his philosophizing, an odd sound that seems out of place in a Soviet train station in the dead of night… music! He creeps toward that luminous sound and witnesses a man playing on a sadly neglected grand piano, then suddenly breaking down and weeping. He becomes immensely curious about this enigmatic musician. As luck would have it, the two end up travelling to Moscow together in the same car. The narrator gains the man’s confidence and learns the sad, touching story of his life.

Alexei Berg’s story begins on the evening of his first public recital in 1941. Alexei is returning to his family’s apartment to find his parents being arrested by Stalin’s police. He flees for his life, beginning his journey with a harrowing escape to the Ukraine to take refuge with relatives. When the Germans invade, he appropriates the identity of a dead soldier whom he remains for the remainder of the war. Alexei, under a constant fear of giving himself away, struggles with his separate personas, that of the sensitive musician and the fearless, heroic soldier.

Surprisingly for such a thin volume, the story is quite atmospheric and does indeed recount an entire life story, albeit sparsely and with economy. Although this book was originally written in French, the text has been excellently translated.